Where Are You From?

at 12:35 AM

"So where are you from?" a guy in a coffee shop asked me the other day.

For a few years nobody asked me this question, but lately it's made a comeback.

"Iran," I answer.

I once made the mistake of calling America my home. I was 12, and my mother had just handed me my first immigration form. I'd been here since I was five, and in the space of a few years I'd started sounding like a "real American," as my parents put it.  Both of them were over 40 when we came here. They'd never be comfortable with English. So that year they put me in charge of the immigration forms. Under the line designated "home country" I wrote "America."

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The INS officer frowned and marked my answer with a check mark.

Immigrants are supposed to come here for vacation, work, political refuge. But we're not supposed to declare home as our destination. I know because with that one word -- home -- I sent my family out of the country. Two years passed before we could get another visa to America, and nobody trusted me with immigration forms after that.

"Hey, you're famous now," says the guy in the coffee shop and points at one of the day's newspaper headlines. "Axis of Evil," he offers.

I study him: blue eyes, blond hair, but was that an accent I just heard?

"Where are you from?" I ask. He seems surprised by the question.

"Kansas, actually," he replies.

I'm thinking of blue states and red states, of that moment when the axis might have shifted, and the ground beneath my feet settled into something more like home.

"You're pretty famous yourself," I say. I'm bracing myself for an argument, maybe even an ugly one. But what he says finally is this: "There's no place like home."

And it strikes me that this is exactly what an immigrant learns and never forgets. No matter what your passport says about you, home is always a fiction or else a fighting word. But after 20 years in this country you learn to have a sense of humor, at least occasionally. So I laugh, and then we go back to reading our newspapers.

With a Perspective, this is Jasmin Darznik.

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Jasmin Darznik is a novelist and professor of English and creative writing at Washington and Lee University. Her Perspective originally aired in 2006, and was the basis of a “New York Times Sunday Review” article published May 26, 2012.

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