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Where I'm From Is Not Actually Where I'm From

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CHICAGO RIVER
Carl Larson Photography via Getty Images

"Where are you from?" It seems like a pretty basic question, right? Not exactly for a 20-something city transplant.

Recently, I spent a weekend out of town, and when a local asked me that particular question, I froze. I felt as if I was in a job interview and wasn't quite prepared for what was asked of me. I thought, this really can't be that tough. I grew up in only one town all of my childhood. I've only moved a couple of times since. Still, the question really made me think. Then, my friend blurted out, "Illinois!"

Illinois? Really? I almost felt that we had just lied to this stranger but, in fact, my friend was right. I moved to Chicago from southeastern Michigan nearly four years ago and, when I'm traveling, I typically do tell people I'm in from Chicago. Chicago -- not Illinois. It's not that I don't want to associate with Illinois, but I don't identify myself as being from the state. Rather, I identify simply with the city of Chicago -- a place I connect with through its lifestyle, energy and people.

I realize that comment may sound quite confusing, but as I dug deeper into the question of where I'm from, the answer had less to do with the physical location and more to do with the mental state of mind. Originally from a small town in Michigan that serves as a bedroom community to Toledo, Ohio, it's always been a task trying to explain where I'm really from. Do I say Toledo? Michigan? Detroit (where I was born)?

For starters, in my childhood town, you were either from Michigan or Ohio. Depending on how far you were from "home," you'd tell people "Toledo" or "Detroit" to make things easier. Therefore, now that I'm living in Chicago, I tell people I'm from Detroit when asked by a person in Chicago.

For that, I've been called out many times as being a "poser." (Yes, I for one will pose as being from Detroit -- not something most people these days would be proud to broadcast.) I've heard: "You're not really from Detroit but just a really small town near Toledo!" (After they see a map, of course.) I tell them that I identify with Detroit. I grew up on Lions football (regrettably) and Coney dogs. It most defines me when someone asks where I'm from because of my family's values and my allegiance to Detroit sports.

But, for the transient millennial, here's where there's confusion. I identify my adolescence years with Detroit and my adult years with Chicago. So, will my response change based on where I'm asked the question? Right now, it certainly does. When I'm in Chicago, I say "Detroit." When I'm out of town, I say "Chicago." It's a simple question, but for a generation of 20-somethings constantly trying to find themselves and where they belong, it's so much more than that.

Saying where you're from immediately generates some sort of reaction from the individual who asked the question. Each city or area has its own stereotypes -- good or bad. When you tell someone where you're from, a certain number of those stereotypes can be imposed on you, shaping your identity in the eyes of the interested party.

When I tell people I'm from Detroit, it's typically greeted by some comment regarding the city's recent economic decline. On the contrary, when I'm on vacation and tell people I'm in from Chicago, I'm greeted with an entirely different response. People typically react by saying how much they love the city or by reminiscing about a fond memory of visiting. While these two answers elicit different perceptions of me, I'm proud to show my ties to each the same.

With the frequency that people move from place to place these days, it's important to understand your roots and what parts of them you identify with. Whether "where I'm from" is my hometown, where I was born or where I start my own family, the answer to that not-so-simple question is likely one that provokes a feeling of connectedness.

Where I'm from can be many different places.