Not too long ago, I was the one asking about about heritage and culture and identity to my peers. I was blessed to grow up with parents and grandparents who encourages reading and learning of far off places around the world. I had the good fortune of going to a high school with students from all over the world. It was fun to be apart of international celebrations, try new foods, and learn new words in languages I had only heard on tv or in movies. I enjoyed sharing my own culture with them as well, often having one or two stay with my family over the holidays.
The US is a country of immigrants. The American dream has pulled people from every nation into its borders, some from dire situations where as others simply to have a new experience. Last year when I was back in my mountainous village in Northern California, I searched our family tree for anything interesting to see where I came from. Basically I found out that half of my ancestors immigrated around 1900 and the other half have been here since around 1600. Those who came over first kept pushing the frontier, moving farther west until they stopped in California (no one has moved to Hawaii yet though there is a cousin in Thailand).
Now the question “Where are you from?” can be quite insensitive. It can question ones legality or reasons why one is in said country. In traveling, it’s a common question that has gotten more and more difficult for myself to answer the longer I’ve been out of the US. Wong Fu productions did an excellent skit illustrating that called “Accidental Racism” which makes anyone stop and think about the questions you ask.
I get asked often the question and usually when I say “California” people nod and ask which movie stars live near me. But more recently, it’s been harder to convince people of that. Here in Chad, I get mistaken for French or British. I don’t know how they get french because I still feel that I’m slaughtering the language every time I open my mouth. Last week, it took several minutes to convince someone I wasn’t Spanish. I don’t even speak Spanish. Whatever……
When I was in grad school in SoCal, I took a day trip with friend to Santa Monica. Some cashier asked me, “So where are you from?” And it went like this: Cashier, “Oh hey, so where are you from?”
Me: “I live in the Inland Empire.”
Cashier: “Oh, but where are you from?”
Me: “Uh…NorCal? Like by Lake Tahoe.”
Cashier: “Really? But where were you born?”
Me: “Uh…San Bernardino. But we only lived there for like 8 months.” Cashier: “No but where are you from from? You sound different.” Me: “Weeeelll…..I went to school in Tennessee for a year…so maybe” Cashier: “No that’s not it…”
Me: “Ok then…idk what to tell you.”
It was odd and I didn’t know how else to respond. I told this to a Cuban American friend and she instantly asked, “Doesn’t that just rob you of your childhood?! Like…you grew up in America with Nickelodeon and gusher snacks and stretch Armstrong! What else is there? You are and I am American!” The conversation continued as we had a couple other “2nd and 3rd culture kids” with us.
Then just lately I was at the pool and an American started speaking to me in French and I responded in English and she was shocked. She said she totally didn’t think I was American.
To celebrate Mexico’s Independence Day, I went to a Lebanese restaurant with my Mexican roommate here in N’Djamena and the owner asked if we were Turkish.
When the US embassy came down to visit the hospital in Bere, one of the Chadians mistook me for a half Chadian.
While walking across the hospital with a Sahalian hat on, I had coworkers thinking I was from Libya.
Last year I was helping some of our guys obtain their American visas at the embassy for a conference and the acting consular thought I was Arab Chadian due to my nicely bronzed tone and short hair. (Story time: my dad’s coworker told him to take me back when I was born because she was sure I was switched with a baby of Hispanic decent)
When I was in Egypt earlier this year, it was always a novel to explain that I’m an American living in Chad visiting Cairo. And even harder to explain when I was in Beirut because apparently they don’t have too many Americans tourists.
So where am I from from? My last name is Irish, my first name apparently is an Arabic name, I was born in SoCal, grew up in NorCal, did high school in the PNW and I live in Chad while speaking French and curse in Arabic. And as of late, I’ve been bouncing all over the country enough to wonder where to call home.
So I guess home is wherever my phone charger is….
But no matter what’s going on in America, I’m still American dammit. 🇺🇸
Zachary Gately, MPH
Adventist Health International-Tchad
L’Hopital Adventiste de Béré
ATTN: Zachary Gately
52 Boîte Postal