kaigou: you live and learn. at any rate, you live. - doug adams (2 live and learn)
[personal profile] kaigou
[belated realization: this is not a question I'd ask if I met you outside the South and we weren't at my home. This is a question asked by a host of a guest, and I honestly cannot recall ever seeing it the other way around (not counting the host's concurrence after a guest completes the response). As "home" counts as a kind of "Southern turf" regardless of geographic location, that might be why I can recall asking guest-Northerners visiting my home when I lived in RI... but even in the South, it's not a question I'd ask as a guest. It's certainly not something I'd ever ask, or have ever asked, just to make conversation. When I say it's part of the formalities, I'm using "formality" intentionally. Just FYI.]

This is riffing off the previous post re the US Deep South, in that it occurred to me to write something out thanks to [personal profile] taithe's comment -- but it's something I've bandied about mentally, many a time, over the past few years. (This is not to say this kind of question or its message isn't important in other geographic/sociocultural regions. I'm sure it is, although maybe asked/approached differently.) Your Southern mileage may vary, but upon meeting new people (especially in a social/casual situation), this is a question I've seen asked many times in my life, have been asked many times, and have found myself asking many times.

Where's your family from?

Now, I've also read plenty about how people -- whether recent or farther-back immigrants -- who do not look some generic form of "white" or "black" (which both tend to be classed as, "been here awhile") -- will get asked (usually by white USians), "where are you from? Pittsburgh? No, where are you really from?"

This is an annoying, and patronizing, question. Absolutely! So I figured maybe it's time I explained that when a Southerner asks you the question above -- where's your family from? -- that this is NOT the same question. In fact, if the purpose of "where are you from?" is to to prove (if unconsciously) that you are not a 'real' American, the purpose of the Southern version is quite different. It's for you to demonstrate that your family matters to you.



How NOT to answer the question.

1. I grew up in Cincinnati and went to college in Montana and now I live in Portland, Oregon.

Fail, because: the question is Not. About. You.

The question's object is your family. Answering like the above sounds like you're trying to avoid talking about your family. To the average Southerners I've known, nothing is more suspicious than someone who won't cop to having a family (of any sort).

2. My family's from Korea/Scotland/Kenya/I don't know.

If this is your first instinct for a reply, you've probably become immune and/or inured to the annoying form of the "where are you from" bit. This doesn't just miss the purpose of the question; it also gives the impression that you are now (in the US) thousands of miles away from the rest of your family. That makes you, effectively, adrift in a world where you have no roots... and this is bad, because family at that distance makes you an unknown or incomprehensible variable. Even if the Southerner asking doesn't put it in so many words, that's the subtle reaction/interpretation: you are miles from home, with no guiding star of nearby family.

3. I have two brothers. Our parents are deceased/out-of-touch/I don't know.

Deceased is still family. It's still part of your history. After a certain age, any listener will assume your grandparents probably aren't still alive, and your great-grandparents are long gone. Get past your thirties and listeners may even assume your parents may still not be alive. Which is to say: the alive-ness or not of any named family member is irrelevant. It's whether you know who your family is.

You might get a better sense of the term here if you think of it as "clan" or "tribe" -- the extended, historical, antecedents that led to you. Current lower branches -- cousins, siblings, and extended downward are the latest generation and onward; they're not antecedents.

Remember, the question is "where is your family from" (operative term being 'from', as in 'came from', as in 'history or origin'). The most common follow-up to it is, "where is your family now?" That's the signal to recite where your parents currently live, what siblings you have and what they do, cousins, really-really-close friends who are practically family (whether family-friends who became aunt/uncle or known-all-your-life-peers). If anyone is deceased, the follow-up question is usually where you divulge that; your answers to the first question were how you established the cast of characters.



Cultural side-note: the South was (and to some degree, still is) strongly agricultural, so land is the biggest issue -- especially since a lot of the Borderlands & Scots who came to the South were landless, so "owning land" was a massive step up, even if that land consisted of scrub that barely raised pigs and collards and pokeweed, let alone higher-class animals like sheep or cattle. Most Southerners don't farm, these days, but the patterns are still there... so to be someone who doesn't register the roots/base of a family (that is, place = land = roots), is someone who is probably going to be treated with some some (unconscious or not) suspicion. On top of that, many Scots who settled in/around the Inland South were fleeing the Proscriptions (and later, the Clearances); I guess when your new overlords tell you that you could be shot on sight for saying your surname/clan-name, getting to a new country -- where no one, supposedly/hopefully, will be shooting you or your children -- may make you especially clingy to the sense of extended family. Like, perhaps, that you have a lot to make up for, or to rebuild, in the wake of a failed rebellion and brutal suppression.

I'm not sure that's the whole story of why the Deep South is so big on knowing/respecting family to the ninth and tenth degree. Regardless, I don't doubt it played some role, given how many other things (cuisine, phrases, and so on) are clearly influenced by, or derived from, Borderlands and Highlands culture.



A little more information about what it means to be from, and the expected answer-pattern.

A. You are not 'from' where you are currently living, unless you've lived in the same place your entire life.

When I lived in RI, my then-SO and I were visiting the same NY friends mentioned in a previous/related post. While in Manhattan with them, we ran into other friends of theirs. Introductions all around.

NY friends: And these are our friends ___ and ___, who are from Rhode Island.
Me & SO: Woah, no, no, we're not.
NY friends: But that's where you live.
Me: Right, but we're not from there. I'm from Georgia.
SO: I'm from Mississippi.
NY friends: But we thought you moved to Rhode Island from Virginia?
Me & SO: Well, yeah. But that doesn't mean we're from Virginia.

That was a quintet of some Very Baffled Northerners. To them, you are 'from' wherever you live. To a Southerner, you live where you live, but you are 'from' wherever the majority of your family resides. Normally this is the same as where you grew up, but in this day of multi-moves through childhood, it's a bit more fluid.

Technically, I could say I'm 'from' eastern Tennessee, central Alabama, Georgia, or coastal Mississippi, since I have family throughout. I could also say I'm 'from' either Virginia or Georgia; I lived in Georgia from ages 1-3 and from ages 5-8, and in Virginia from ages 3-5 and again from ages 10-25. Thing is, I don't have any family in Virginia prior to my parent's generation, while I do have lots of family all over Georgia. (My father was raised in south Georgia, in the same town where my mother went to college.) Most importantly for me, I consider my early grade school years to have been my most formative, so I ignore Virginia as being too early to recall, and then too late to be childhood: thus, I prefer to say I'm from Georgia.

B. Name names, give details.

How I answer the question (but with surnames dropped off since this is internet-posting):

My mother is a [surname] from Mississippi, and my father is a [surname] from southern Georgia. My mother's mother was a [surname], but not the Atlanta [surname]s, the Montgomery [surname]s. My mother's father's family raised horses in Jonesboro, Tennessee. My father's father was originally from Indiana, but he came down to southern Georgia as a carpenter during the Great Depression and married my grandmother, who was a nurse. She was a [surname] from the northwestern corner of Georgia.

If I'm really on a roll (or being tested), I can go back another three or four generations on some of the branching. It's common to drop off the surnames for the paternal backwards branching, since it was only recently that women started keeping their own names upon marriage. Otherwise, it's safe to assume that my mother's maiden name is the same as her father's family, so unless the surnames change between father and daughter, you only need to reference female maiden names.

Notice that I threw in little details about my grandparents. Where I get foggy or want to trim the recitation, I include that kind of information as compensation for not carrying out to the nth degrees. I do the same when details are vague due to house fires, disease, war, emigration, or family scattered by remarriage. You usually get a free pass for those, all of which were pretty common in the past. Other than a few remarkably snobbish bad apples -- who I wouldn't care to have in my family, anyway -- I've never met anyone who holds a dead-end against a person. What matters more is an expression (explicit or implicit) that if you could know more about that side of the family, you'd like to, and isn't it a pity that something cut off that branch of the family tree.

If you don't know surnames or specifics (or the family didn't have formal surnames at that time), replace with the town/area: "a small coastal village in France a stone's throw from Calais," or "a suburb in north-west Shanghai". Or go with generalities but bolster it with what that family-branch did for a living: "a cooper from some little town in the Western Ukraine" or "journalist and school-teacher from Saigon who immigrated in the 1920s".

(You can also regain the points these days, if you have a genealogist in the family who's using the internet. Just say something about how s/he has made progress, and "the family hopes we'll be able to re-connect with those long-lost cousins". Southerners are all about reconnecting with long-lost cousins.)

C. Blood is not nearly as important as you might think it is.

To say, "so-and-so is like a sister to me" is, for many modern Southerners, amounts to family; what matters is the connection. If you were adopted, you can recite birth-parents if you know them, or you can just recite adoptive-parents and take it back however many generations. (Whether you note the adoption -- yours or any previous generations -- is entirely up to you.) If you've got a set of "second parents" who were there for you as a child, count them, too. If you know their family, you might go back a generation or so, if you like. Remember, the more you know, the more you're demonstrating the value of family to you, so if you know someone else's family (ie, the aunt/uncle-type who are old family friends), that's a sign that they really matter to you, that they're an important part of your life.

Yes, I have been known to add in my aunts/uncles who were in the military with my father, or attended school with my mother. These usually get counted in with sibling and cousin information. You could consider adoptive (formally or informally) family to be part of the 'current' or existing generation, unless they raised you, I suppose.

Frex, I have/had two great-great-aunts who aren't just non-relation, they're relations several times removed. One was a younger sister to my mother's mother's youngest aunt's closest girlfriend, and the other was the eldest child of the governess who raised my great-uncle's wife. Yes, really. One of them also became my sister's godmother, but she was already Great-Aunt Kitty -- to my mother! It never occurred to me growing up that there was anything unusual about a Mississippi-Presbyterian family with a Great-Great-Aunt who was a Russian Jew who'd immigrated to the States when she was six, nor I did think anything of having cousins from one of the oldest Jewish families in New Orleans. We called them all "Cousin". How or why we were related wasn't important when we were all playing in the creek.

This is about connections, not what's on your birth certificate.

D. Be proud.

That's right. In answering, you are expected to show pride in where (the family) you came from -- and in this case, it's quite alright to do a little boasting. I've met people who've muttered and mumbled their way through an explanation, and I'm self-aware enough to know that I had an instantaneous dislike of them for it. What, were they ashamed of their family? If they were, how would they then treat my family, should we become connected? I'm proud of my extended family ties, after all. I don't like the idea of someone joining who's so disrespectful.

So, yeah, on both sides of my family, it's only a generation or two and we're scraping dirt-poor in the heart of Appalachia. So freaking what! I still say the family-name with pride. Imagine it as with capital letters, and it don't matter that the northern Mississippi [surname]s were poor as dirt or the Montgomery [surname]s split decisively when a first-born son (who was also a Methodist minister) murdered his mistress, or murdered someone, I can't recall now, or that the [surname]s from Montgomery weren't all that compared to the Atlanta [surname]s.

Say it with capital letters, and most of the time, no one will ever call you on it. You've already satisifed the question, after all, that you're proud of your family. It still holds if you're talking about non-USian family prior to immigration. You might say, "my mother's paternal grandfather was a ZDANCEWICZ from Wolkowysk, Poland, who married the youngest daughter of the ZIELINSKI family," or maybe you're saying, "my father's paternal grandmother was from the TRINH family, up in Thanh Hóa who were third-generation doctors, but my father's paternal grandfather was a HUYNH from Southern Vietnam, and we're not sure how they met but it must've been a story!" Whatever it is, wherever you're from, you say it clearly and distinctly.

The point is: it's your family. If you're not going to be proud of them, who will?



ETA: had to check my own privilege here, because I should've added this from the start: slavery. Like disease and immigration and remarriage and house fires and war, slavery also cuts off branches from the family tree. Like the others, it's also a painful and dark part of family history -- and is understood to be that -- as any other kind of cut on the family tree.



Why the hell does this matter?

Because asking is to honor; because not asking is to offend.

The question's intent is positive. It means someone around the table likes you, and wants to make (or assure) a connection, and the Southern subculture style seems to most commonly do this by establishing family. The person is subconsciously asking: "are our values the same? am I right to value your friendship, as someone who will also value this intangible of family that's so important to me? can we get a greater connection via establishing our family-credentials?"

If it's a parent or older relative asking you, then this is because they can tell one of your peers likes you -- and because it's the right of the eldest at the table, as family spokesperson, to request you start rattling off your family ties. (If a younger person or your peer does it, it's because they're not willing to wait for the eldest to quit his/her personal issues or just distractions, so pre-empts the right and asks.)

While I say "credentials", this doesn't mean pedigree (though some more traditional or stickler Southerners do mean it that way, but they're not as common as you'd think). It's more like "credentials of being a good family-member," in that you can recite family history at the drop of a hat. If you haven't cottoned on yet, I really am talking about a kind of filial piety -- one in which you demonstrate your filial-ness by a) being proud enough of your family to give background freely, and b) that you've been a dutiful child by learning/accepting the extended ties of your family.

It is also possible that the person asking may ask through gritted teeth. It means they know someone at the table is serious about you, and the questioner/eldest isn't willing to snub you outright. (Not the least of which is because, even if we don't always think consciously about these things, I'm not the only one who notices if the question doesn't get asked, because it is such an expected element in the social discourse.) If you get the sense that you're being asked because the person wants to demonstrate you're not "good enough" -- a real risk if you're romantically attached to the first-born in the family -- then feel free to keep going on your family history as far back as you can, and give surnames whenever possible, and say it with PRIDE. Asking you through gritted teeth is a reluctant opening, and a reply with pride is throwing the gauntlet back in that person's face.

Except this is a gauntlet that won't result in bloodshed. Formality rules in this case, and I've never seen this broken in a lifetime of seeing this exchange: when you establish that you know your family and are proud of it, you've rendered the other person unable to criticize. Being on the "wrong side" of the tracks ("not good enough") is often defined or typified as "not knowing your family". If you can do the recitation, and you don't mumble your way through, you've satisfied the requirements. No one can prove you're not good enough -- not by this standard, at least.

[Note: I have no qualms in saying that if you're facing the table-eldest and you get the sense of animosity and you really like the person you're dating... and you don't have any info about a family-branch within the past two generations (parents, grandparents)... LIE LIKE A FREAKING RUG. In my opinion, in a potentially antagonistic situation, it hurts no one. You might want to warn your partner, so they know to nod along, but make up something that seems reasonable. This is really only necessary if you're dealing with majorly stickler Southerners with non-Southerner or racist issues, but that kind of antagonism may also surface if you're dating the first-born. Something about first-born children, don't ask me what. Oddly, second-born and last-born don't get such a strong reaction, but my theory on that is that parents are just so relieved anyone will have anything to do with their latter children that they're not going to pick over the details. Bwah.]

If you are not asked, it's one of two messages. Neither are positive. Either you're not being asked because the person is willing to snub you by having no interest in your family (read: no interest in ever having you become part of the person's extended family or to have any lasting connection at all, really). Or you are assumed right off the bat to have no family at all, or that what you have is of no worth. Translate the latter to be equivalent to taking one look at you and concluding, "your mother got knocked-up by some guy when she was only sixteen and your family's nothing but trash," then you get just how much of an insult it is not to be asked.

If at any point, anyone around the table has mentioned extended family, then it's a sign family ties probably do mean something. (There are other clues, but that's a big one.) If, then, you are not asked in turn about your extended family, that's a clear message. I hope it's obvious by now just how deep this impression cuts, and is meant to cut, if you're aware of this important part of the social formalities.



The problem, of course, is that when I meet someone, one of my first impulses is to ask, "where's your family from?" [ETA: this may be somewhat misleading, and read like it's a first-meeting question. May make more sense, if you're new the question/notion, by rephrasing that sentence as, "when I meet someone and have learned enough about them to know I want to keep the person as a good friend".] I dislike the notion that I can only ask this of third-generation Americans, or people visiting here (for whom the 'where are you really from' is a simpler question). There's too often, for me, a sense that if a new-met friend is recently-acculturated American/immigrant, that this question is off-limits because of the potential misunderstanding.

But it's important, and not just for the affirmation, but also because of the connection.

I've seen this in plenty of other Southerners, though we're not the only ones who do it -- discovering that someone has no family locally can be a fast-track to being adopted. Living somewhere with no family nearby is like, I don't know, lacking something significant. You can't possibly be expected to handle even everyday life, if you don't have family nearby! It's not quite enough to regard you with pity, though perhaps sometimes with a bit of the hairy eyeball, because family is such a pervasive element that not having it is almost... well, like you're borderline outcast. Since we can't have that, you are hereby adopted, and encouraged to join for holidays and treated as an honorary extra child, or new sibling, or visiting cousin.

It's not just words, either; it means support, and visiting, and extending all the rights and privileges of an additional daughter in the family. (For adult quasi-adopted children, this really amounts to a relaxation of formalities, and for the children of those same adopted adult-children, it amounts to an extra grandparent. Heh.) This is why I say that I have two adopted brothers and one adopted sister, and my sister has three of each, and my parents ask after those quasi-siblings. Eventually, I expect those quasi-siblings will be extended parts of our families into the future, such that someday (to her horror, I imagine), [personal profile] kraehe will be Great-Aunt Kraehe to my descendants.

It was in making friends with recently-arrived non-USians that I suddenly realized just how important all this is to me. At first, I was thinking: my friend is not from the US, and isn't the point of the question to know what family you have around here? Why does it matter to me where her family's from, if I've never heard of that family name or couldn't find that town on a map if I had a pickax and night goggles? Plus, in arriving, she's probably already getting the usual suspicion-of-immigrants crap. In asking about family here or back home, would I be subtly reinforcing that she's not "true" USian, as though my question is grounds for arguing that a non-USian family negates one's potential/new citizenship?

The longer I went without asking, the more I felt -- on some indefinable, inexpressible level -- that I was insulting my friends. I wasn't paying them the compliment of letting them know that they -- and by extension, their family -- mattered to me. That not-asking meant I was saying that their family ties didn't matter or didn't count or weren't worth knowing/hearing/treasuring. And even if my friends were ignorant of the conflict inside me, I was getting more and more anxious about it. I felt like as the time passed in our friendship, and I didn't ask, I was signaling that they weren't truly friends of mine... because if they were, then I would've already asked, and established, our common bond in the importance of family to each of us.

It's even more fraught with that tension, when I'm with people who are first- or second-generation American. There's a definite (and understandable) sensitivity to the "where are you really from" ignorance, because they're not newly-arrived, they've been here since childhood or were born here. They get enough of the "you're not from around here, I can tell" crap. I do get that, and it's why I hold back from this question that's as close to second-nature, in social situations, as anything I can imagine. But even as I hold back, I'm aware of holding back, and I'm aware of this ingrained perspective in me, that says not asking is saying: you have no family, and what family you have, doesn't matter.

Worse, I don't know if the person is aware of these Southern courtesies, and the entire topic can end up so tied up in tensions and linked to past racist discussions/comments that it can put a new friendship at real risk, to try and explain. Does the person know that this is a question of importance to someone from my socio-cultural background? Are they offended that I haven't asked, as I would for someone in some other racial/ethnic category? I continue to struggle with how to present/approach the question such that it doesn't trigger the bad reaction, but also satisfies this peculiar socialized need in myself to recognize and honor a friend's extended family ties... and I can't tell when someone is aware of the question, waiting for it -- knows what it means and how to answer it -- and is thus taking my silence as intentional snub.

The problem is that sometimes, I think, this uneasiness on my part comes through, even when interacting with friends whom I'm pretty certain haven't been exposed to this part of Southern courtesies. I've had a few really perceptive friends give me an odd look at times, like they know there's something bothering me. It may be possible that they're thinking I'm uneasy about having a friend who isn't Anglo-saxon descent who's been here forevah, like my hesitation at points is because I really, really want to blurt out something incredibly, I don't know, racist or xenophobic or just plain ignorant. (I won't give examples; I'm sure you can fill in those blanks on your own.)

But what's really going on is that I'm waffling over my life-long training that says, "the next question you ask is whether family is important to this person," and my awareness that the question itself is awfully close to a different question that is very much intended to offend. Most of the time, I end up keeping my trap shut, rather than risk offense in one direction. On the inside, though, I'm feeling as though my silence is holding my friend in contempt.

I can't fix that in one swoop, and even if I ruled the world, I expect there'd still be ignorant fools who'd try to prove someone's not-really-an-American (or whatever culture/country) using the "no, where are you really from" interrogation. But at least I can explain to all of you reading, here, so you understand what's really being asked, if you ever meet a Southerner who tries to connect via this kind of formality.

Hell, even if the person is aiming for a "no, where are you really from", the overall, possibly overwhelming fount of information in the usual Southern-styled response just might shut them up anyway. Sort of like snowing them, in a way. But if they're asking about your family, not you, then it's probably something they learned as a Southerner, or from years of having Southern friends. Take it as a compliment, rattle off your family as far as you can go in any direction, and be proud. Family matters to Southerners; let us know that you feel the same about yours.



To reiterate:

Family is not only about blood. People you've made your family, on your own, are also family. It's all about your ties to other people.

If you are feeling knee-jerky right now and maybe even thinking about biting my head off for even raising this topic, please take a step back. I don't deserve that. I'm just explaining where my socio-cultural background is coming from when it asks this question and similar. You are not obligated to reciprocate, but neither am I obligated to apologize for a cultural value that's an integral part of me.

If you feel the need to lecture me about how it's a horrible, offensive question, just don't. To make it as clear as I possibly can: if a Southerner meant to insult you, you wouldn't even be asked this question in the first place. There is no greater insult than to be completely dismissed out-of-hand as someone with no ties at all.

If you have ever been asked the question, or a variant of it, please remember this: it's a question only asked when fellowship/friendship is being extended. The gesture was, outside the rare and usually obvious exception, most likely meant in good faith and affirmation. Please try to keep that mind. Thanks.



So.

Where's your family from?
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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