Where Are You From?

For my first post, I decided to explore the idea of where a person is from. Having lived between the cultural and linguistic spaces of Senegal and the US, the answer to this question has become less obvious or clear for me. Is where one is from defined by geography, nationality, culture, place of birth, place of residence, language, and other denominations that make one identify with a place as home?

I get asked where I am from at least every time I meet a new person. Frankly, I get annoyed by it once in a while, depending on how the question is asked and when it is asked during a conversation. If it comes up as soon as I speak, I get put off. For me, the listener is trying to define me by my accent.  I tend to believe that from that moment, everything that I say is judged by this accent and what the person assumes about Senegal or Africa in general. I do however understand that this question is valid, and its answer is not always easy. Most times, I reply that I am from Senegal. But is it really true?

I was born in Senegal and spent the larger part of my life there. But for fifteen years of my adult life, I have been living and working in the US. I go back to Senegal at the most once a year. Many meaningful events in my life such as post-graduate studies, wedding, the births of my children, and my first real job, happened in the US. Although the majority of my extended family remains in Senegal, most of my friends now reside in the US. On a daily basis, I speak English more than I speak Wolof and French. As a member of the community that I live in, I pay taxes and benefit from institutions like every American. But despite this obvious fact that my life as it is, happens in the US, I do not consider myself as being from America.  Neither do I believe that Americans I interact with would define me as “American.”

When I go to Senegal, I sometimes feel that I am not from there either. The country as I knew it has changed. Dakar where I spend most of my time during my visits (Yes, those trips are visits because they are temporary and their purpose is to see my family.) has changed. Many times, I have gotten lost in this city that I knew so well. My family sometimes treats me like a foreigner and care is taken to make me comfortable, explain things to me, and see to it that I have a great visit. My nieces and nephews have grown during my absence and I often meet some of them for the first time. The connections I had with my siblings, although still there, have a different nature. I need to catch up on so many things and no matter how many nights we stay up talking, we will never recover those missed moments. I need help and guidance to reconnect with the community. I forget the names of neighbors and family friends. I spend a lot of time catching up about those who moved away, got married, those who died and which families I needed to visit in order to present condolences. People refer to me as sunu gan gi [our guest] or Americaine bi [the American lady]. I am asked about food allergies and whether my children would eat certain things. A family member once remarked that I speak Wolof with an American accent! This frustrated me and made me conscious of my displacement. Don’t get me wrong, I do not think it is an insult to tell me that I speak Wolof with an American accent, although I don’t believe I do. I think the family member was projecting an assumption that after having spent so much time in the US, I should speak in such a manner. Even if I spoke Wolof with an American accent, there is nothing shameful or wrong about it. My frustration was the effect of how often in America I get asked “Where are you from?” This question implies that I must not be from America. To be told in Senegal that I speak my native language like an American would, also suggests that I am not from Senegal―leaving me without a country.

So in essence, I am a doxadeem, someone who is considered a stranger and whose residency status is temporary. But where is this temporality? Am I a temporary resident of the US or Senegal? Who gets to define this status? I believe I should be the one. Therefore, I choose to live in that very hyphen between the two countries, Senegal (—) America. Living in this space allows me to claim both and get the best of what each country and culture has to offer. I can eat thiebou jen for lunch and pot roast for dinner. I can wear my sër ak taille basse in the morning and change into a suit in the afternoon. The way I cook food or wear clothes might even be hyphenated.

Where are you from readers?

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6 thoughts on “Where Are You From?”

  1. I am from Senegal, no doubt about that, although I have been living in the USA for 20 years now. I think of myself as a Senegalese who is “basee aux USA”; the French expression allows me to signal that my home is not necessarily in the USA. Having said this I do get the inevitable question (where are you from?) in the USA and in Senegal. I m not at all bothered by this question in the USA. People always try to place you in the USA (and everywhere in the world for that matter) and are often curious when they encounter an unfamiliar accent. When an American ask me “where are you from”, implicitly s/he is asking “where in Africa are you from?” I always appreciate such an awareness that Africa is a continent and not a country :). Now in Senegal, I a confronted on daily basis with the assumption that I from elsewhere. Whenever I venture outside of my home and neighborhood in Dakar, people address me in French or English. They really treat me like a foreigner, until they hear me speak Wolof. I have come to understand that being away for so long, we have acquired new body languages. The way we now walk and carry ourselves, our dress codes and styles give us away. For instance, my hair is unprocessed and I sometimes rock a fro or a Kente headwrap in Dakar; I love artsy handbags and chunky African necklaces. Let’s face it these are not contemporary Senegalese ways of adorning the body. Then there is the way I walk: having lived in the USA all of these years, I am very quick-paced. When I am in Senegal, I am often bumping into other pedestrians because of my fast way of walking. It takes me a couple of weeks to get reacquainted with the art of the “daagu” (slow and rhythmic way of walking).
    Anyway, these are just some thoughts. Thank you Marame for creating this space. I look forward to reading all the contributions to this topic.

    1. Wow, Marame how insightful those ideas and comments! Bravo! You asked a set of amazing questions and surprisingly enough provided quite an interesting set of answers in your conclusion that I mostly like. You said it all, I have very little to add to your nice inquiry. I’ve been there and really understand what you’re talking about. Taken on a personal experience, I would say, I am from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I just am! Being the sum of my present and past experiences, the ‘dash’ between three lands (Senegal, France and the US) and more… the rich yet imperfect ‘citizen-of-the-world’ creature that tries to touch every life that crosses her path, and make a difference. I look forward to more comments on this relevant and wonderful issue. Thx!

      1. Adji, thank you so much for reading and for your kind comments. I love what you said here a understand very much this kind of liminality for most of us. I thought living in two cultures was challenging. You are so right about how culturally rich you are and how someone can really tap into such experience. I look forward to your comments on future posts.

    2. “I am from Senegal” is how I respond to your first question that comes quite often I agree with you. After fifteen years in the land of Hillary, Laura and Michelle, my answer has not changed and I have grown to receive it as a compliment. I truly believe that when someone detects an accent and asks where I am from, they are somewhat asking me to confirm that I speak a language other than English. For a country like the US, it is a rarity which, in our case is at least two other languages. We tend to take it for granted but it is quite impressive to walk this world with several images and even etiquettes of one thing in our head, it is a privilege to have the opportunity to compare experiences from different cultures. As the saying goes, “ku dul tukki do xam fa deuk neexé”.
      I concur with you that our feelings of belongings and everyone else’s, whether in senegal or the US, can be very different, but quite frankly, who cares what “they” think? As far as I am concerned, the experiences are mine to live and mine to make choices from as to where I truly identify myself from and what I choose to embrace from each place. My son gives me a truly great insight of this in his very innocent but deliberate choices; when asked to draw his flag in his group at camp recently, he proudly drew the Senegalese flag and was a little embarrased that he did not do a good job while drawing the green star in the yellow stripe. It is priceless to me! This kid was born in Elmwood Park, NJ but saw himself “fit” better where “everyone looked like him” even though saluting the US flag has become second nature to him (he got up and saluted the Us flag when we sat at the rodeo in Santa Fe a few weeks ago).
      Please bear in mind that I do not undermine the uneasy feeling in Senegal when people make comments about my kids or me about how different our [new] ways are. It is funny when people ask me about my kids’ food restrictions. As a matter of fact, they assume that they do not eat food from Senegal. My family still gets taken aback when they hear the boys ask for “niankatang and tiir” or “cere and peanut butter sauce” or simply “ciakry”. I love seeing the disbelief on their faces, who would have thought? I always cringe when I am introduced in Senegal as “Ki Amerique la nekk”, for fear of special treatment or unnecessary scrutiny about the way I speak or act, but it is a fact, we have changed with our new surroundings and realities and people at home notice it. Is that a bad thing? I love being able to navigate two cultures in my own terms. I am as comfortable being in Louisiana (New Orleans) (right now), New York, New Mexico or New Jersey as I am being in Thiès, Bambey or Dakar. I have to add, however, that on a cultural standpoint, Bambey, Thiès or Dakar are much easier in essence because people get me without needing the “why” for every action.
      Yes, I am somewhat ambiguous as a result of my choice to take a leap of faith and discover the world through Education outside of my childhood “turf” and I am quite unapologetic about it.
      Superb job, Maram, for opening the door for this conversation with such beautiful and pertinent insight. Thank you and looking forward to more.

      1. Codou,

        Thank you so much for that insighful comment. The story about your son gave me goose bumps as I know too well how much courage it must have taken him to make that choice. I think it is very interesting that people in Senegal readily assume that because we live in the US, we would not impart the Senegalese culture to our children. I think you raise an excellent point about where people “get you the most.” I find it sometimes uneasy to have to explain myself to some Americans. For example, I used to reply to the question “Where are you from?” with “I am from Senegal, West Africa.” This need to accommodate the American person seems a little unfair sometimes. But I guess it is a part of being an immigrant. One is always in this hybrid position.
        Thanks again for your comment and please keep reading.

  2. ayo, thank you for that comment, it made me chuckle. You are right! We carry our displacement on our bodies! Do you think that you “daagu” in the same way you did before you experienced the US or is your “daagu” an americanized version, like some kind of swagger? I find that even when we try to remember, we tend to do it differently.

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