When people ask me where I'm from, I often sigh in preparation for a long tale. It's never been an easy question to answer, as I call a lot of places home. My birth certificate will tell you it's Los Angeles, my memories will proclaim Cincinnati and currently I call it Oak Park, Illinois. But for conversational purposes, I tend to include all three, with disclaimers abound that prevent people from assuming that any one is completely representative of my composite whole. No, I am all of these places at once, a heterogenous mixture of foods, sounds, people, climates, and stories. And visceral recollections aside, I come from particular places that have yet to be graced with my presence.
In kindergarten, I distinctly remember being asked why I wasn't black. Logic would say, I don't know, my biological makeup doesn't include the right amount of skin melanin for this to be the case. But seeing as these inquisitive youngsters weren't visually impaired, horn-rimmed glasses aside, that's not the response they were seeking. These questions imbued with blank stares were prompted by my saying that my family was South African. The directional adjective is the keyword to most people's understanding at my current age. But when you're five or six and deciding between boxes of chocolate milk or orange juice in the cafeteria, it's only natural to be confused by my whiteness.
I can't truly pinpoint when it was that I learned that my family was a group of aliens, most of which not being of the extraterrestrial variety of course. Maybe, it was when I initially heard my mother speak and realized that she sounded like a member of British royalty both in terms of accent and eloquence. But then I wonder why I don't sound like that. My speech patterns and accent are indicative of any Midwestern American, as if my brain consciously blocked out any hopes of acquiring a cool, endearing way of speaking. Not to deride the Midwestern talk if there is such a thing, but every American fetishizes British accents for some reason. It's like Stockholm Syndrome if you perceive our colonial ancestors as kidnappers. Not a far stretch.
In any event, I have always clung to my family's history as something that defines me in a way I have yet to understand. I feel ignorant though when people ask when was the last time I visited, because I simply haven't... ever. Then I wonder if it's possible to possess nostalgia for something that hasn't happened yet, a romanticized conception that has lingered long before I've seen it.
It's tough to stand so firmly on the ground of ancestors, when I don't know them or much about their country. I am at best informed by first-person stories from family members who harken back to times when the country was different, and how watching it change has been a difficult task to undertake. So when I do get my chance to set foot in the country that made me, I can't say whether it will be the same one that created my family.
There's always a detached sense of longing that accompanies the telling of my heritage, as if I'm passing on a story that isn't even my own. So instead of constantly feeling apprehensive about giving people the laundry list of places that made me, I prefer to think about where I'm going. And besides, with fingers crossed South Africa, I can happily say that the answer to this may be just as mystifying.
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