“Where are you coming from today?” she demanded.
After so much anticipation on my return visit to America, the ICE officer’s tone was the opposite of what I expected from my first conversation. Going into secondary inspection immediately after arriving in America felt anticlimactic. After nearly two years of staying in the same country, I was so excited to visit America that I hadn’t considered any letdowns.
I explained myself to the lady: I have lived there (Japan) for four years. Ok. What do you do there? I am professor. What do you teach? Law. Japan is pretty safe, isn’t it? Yes, it is. Why is your bag so heavy? What is this? Pointing at my stacks of books. Do you have more than $10,000 USD cash in your bag? No. I wish. How much in yen do you have? About a $100 worth…. And then she looked through my carry-on purse too. She thanked me afterwards, as if I had any choice.
As I exited the terminal in Honolulu, I passed through the remaining lines without clear procedure and around clumps of confused people. I see already that I have become accustomed to Japan with her clear, demanding arrows to process human chaos.
“Where are you from?” is a loaded question. Do you mean “where was my body immediately before this?” “Where do I live now?” The origin of my ancestors? I often want to ask as a counter question, “What is it to you?”
Though I consider myself an open book, I have a special sensitivity to that question. I would love to think about this question, and could answer a sincere questioner with deep thoughts. However, most people who ask this question, “Where are you from?” are NOT actually interested in my origin story, my theory of self, or my immediate life situation. Some people are actually asking, in their own way, “What are YOU doing here?”
Thankfully, I stayed in the homes of friends and family during this pandemic. Familiar faces and a base of understanding! A few warm people can still show kindness despite valid fears about the pandemic. Inside these homes, I saw loved ones coming to terms with adjustments in their internal life. Realities have changed and attitudes with them.
And everywhere outside, everyone has new neighbors. In each place I stayed, from Hawaii, to along the western and eastern parts of Canada and the USA, residential home construction has accelerated. I found myself cautiously saving another great view in my mind’s eye in case it soon changes into a construction site. In due course then, I will get the chance to inquire, “Where are you from?” Except that, I want to hear all types of answers.