“Where are you from? “ I freeze and cringe a little, each time I’m asked that question. I’m confident that it’s usually well intended but the solicitor probably has no idea the turmoil I’ve been sent into with that seemingly “normal” question.
Do I say I’m from Kochville Township in Saginaw, Michigan? Do I speak of the trailer park where most of my early childhood memories are from? Or do I say I’m from a town just 30 minutes north, Midland, Michigan, the home of Dow Chemical and Dow Corning? The town described by many as a bubble where bad things don’t happen, and prosperity is abundant; yet, I spent my teen years feeling like an outsider looking in on the affluence that surrounded me. Two cities, just thirty minutes apart that are likely to conjure up very different images.
Whichever town I say, if people know where they are, I fear they will make assumptions about me, about my upbringing, and my socioeconomic class that will oversimplify my experiences. These places and the people that live there are far more complex than the inaccurate stereotypes that are perpetuated about them and my lived experiences are worth more than I can reduce to a place on a map. I’m not from just one place or the other. I’m from both and from neither all at the same time.
The truth is that I’m from many places, many towns, many homes, and many families as a result of my experience in foster care. Between the two towns, I’ve lived in six different foster homes and attended eight different schools. In each foster care placement I experienced different nuances of socioeconomic class and brought with me my prior experiences with class issues. As I navigated this time in my life there were moments where I simultaneously felt like I was too much and not enough as I navigated different spaces shaped by socioeconomic class. I was torn between where I came from and where I found myself in the present, neither place feeling like home. Today, I’ve come to understand I’m from all those places and all those places influence who I am and how I experience socioeconomic class. So that’s the trouble with where I’m from, it can’t be summarized by a single place and I often feel like I don’t have the time or space to accurately answer the question “Where are you from?”
My proposition is this, when you ask someone where they’re from, do it with intention. Don’t ask because it seems like an easy place to start conversation or to fill the space with small talk. When we ask someone where they’re from, it is important to understand that for many people it is vulnerable to answer. It can be deeply personal, often complex, and rooted within how we experience socioeconomic class systems. Fortunately there’s tools like the Where I’m From poem template from George Ella Lyon that allows us to take the time to find the words to describe where we are from and to learn from one another. My advice, fasten your metaphorical seat belt and be ready for the ride if the person you’re asking is willing to share their journey with you.
I am From
By Angela Hoffman
I am from temporary homes.
I am from trailer parks and bottles wrapped in paper bags.
Yet somehow I’m also from landscaped suburbia and children at play.
I am from “it’s because of you” and “you did this to me.”
My mother would yell, “You’re a lesbo, you’re a slut, and you’re a son of a B.”
I am from physical illness and diseases of the mind.
Just hide your scars and pretend everything is fine.
I am from “make it look good” and say you love me.”
How I really feel is that “ I need to get out of here and I need to be free.”
I am from “tough times don’t last and tough people do.”
And count yourself lucky, ‘cause unlike some, you made it through.
I am from many families.
I am from Brandle, Wilson, Cooper, and Urbani.
The places I’ve found love, connection, and belonging are truly uncanny.
I am from bloodlines and names I’ll never take.
Friendships, loves, and mentors I’ll never forsake.
I am from a degree changes everything and you are what you achieve.
Fueling my B.S., cum laude, M.Ed. and one day I’ll be a doctor I believe.
I am from Keurig Coffee, iPhone, and iMac.
Just keep going, get through it all, there’s no time to look back.
I am from independence, achievement, and persistence.
Masking the impatience, distrust, and “you better keep your distance.”
I am from desire for competence and a sense of authenticity.
Which has me thinking what does it mean to be me and live life with vulnerability.
Angela Hoffman is learner, educator, and scholar-practitioner. Currently serving as the Assistant Director of Orientation Programs at Michigan Technological University, Angela experienced foster care as a youth and has committed her educational and personal pursuits to increasing postsecondary access and degree attainment for students who do not experience the support of a secure family network. She wrote her master’s integrative paper From Foster Care to College: The Role of Student Affairs Practitioners in Addressing the Challenges and previously served as a Fostering Success Campus Coach at the University of Michigan, providing holistic support to students with experience in foster care. Angela is pursuing a Ph.D. in Higher Education Leadership through Colorado State University and is involved with the NASPA Community on Homelessness and Foster Care.