“Where are you from?” the ubiquitous question posed to me since I learned to formulate my first English sentence, has overtime accrued the weight of a multitude of implied questions, and exclamations. Now by 22 years old the weight of that question is so heavy with implications, and assumptive self-erasing experiences I hear it and laugh. The kind of laugh that your mother makes when you lie to her and she knows your lying; she knows where you’ve been last night. Just like I know where the mind of the third man in this bar who has insisted on repeating “no, you know what I mean- where are you REALLY from.”
I generally see things spatially. I see my world spatially. As a double major in graphic design & architecture and a dyslexic synesthete I’ve found that I had a better understanding of the world around me if I could explain and express that world visually. Possibly the only I way I can really formulate and fully understand a sentence, or any verbally expressed idea is to remember that those ideas exist in space.
When I say words exist in space I don’t mean just literal space. I mean conceptual space, bear with me, the physical space of a sentence translates into the pixels this word occupies on my computer screen. Words in a conceptual space refers to the dependence the expression of ideas and language has upon our understanding of physical space. How so? Well look at our language. The use of most prepositions are rooted in our developmental understandings of space and time: before, in, by, since, through, over, etc. Without an understanding of space there is no conception of language, and thought. If we do not conceive of what beginning, middle and end means spatially or temporally we can not begin to express the beginning middle and end to a story or a theory. The understanding of physical space and of time is the reference point for language.
So lets look again at that ubiquitous question again. In it there are two key prepositions in play: “where are you from?” The first word, where, is a preposition; ‘where’ when posed in this form refers “in or to what place or position.” and the second preposition ‘from;’ from referring to the preposition of place that is “used to indicate the place that something comes out of, a starting point.” By asking where am I from with no prior context other than seeing some phenotypical form of me whether it be in real life or online and asking it as an entrance into some flirtation or some form of extra credit cat call, is problematic. It is alienating and a microagression on my sense of identity and bar on a sense of belonging. Asking me where, you create for me a vestibule of physical otherness, a question, an assumption of mystery. ‘Where’ is an uninvited existential question into the fact that I am different from you, unlike things you have seen before, unlike yourself, unlike others around me. Where. This casual flirtatious introduction is wrought with a need to know is my position my place in order for you to make sense of something he has not seen: based on the shape of my eyes, the texture of my hair, the color of my skin. I haven’t spoken a word to him but across either a keyboard, or across a loud room he’s invited himself to ask me about my identity in order to not learn about me but to place me in a position and place he is comfortable with understanding me from. “I am from American, I am American.” 9/10 this answer is disappointing. “Where are you really from?” follows that answer. It’s not because he thinks I am lying, my accent is an American accent and so is my passport. American is not what he was looking for, but we can’t both be American. We cannot conceptually originate from the same space, because when we originate from the same space I loose my interest as a question. I loose that position as an ‘other’ as something different, something almost inhuman. I loose the possibility of representing the unknown, of being the uncharted territory marked only by a question mark. I say nothing. He looks annoyed; “I’m just asking because you look so exotic.”
This was written as a short blog version of spatial experience within language through the lens of one sentence; this of course is able to be expanded in many ways and applied to life in the city as a woman of color.