Last year, a magician from the United States performed for the local military community at the American High School on the U.S. Army Post Patch Barracks in Stuttgart-Vaihingen, Germany. He brought a seven-year-old military child up on stage to assist with an illusion and asked him, “Where are you from?” The child looked out at his parents as if he’d been asked a question in another language. The audience broke out into murmurs. The magician was confused. He thought the child’s lack of basic personal knowledge was funny, but he was the only one laughing. Silly magician; the trick was on him.
Smoke and Mirrors
Confusion is just one of the themes that emerged when I asked a bunch of military children what they think when asked the question, “Where are you from?” Younger military children are indeed confused by the word “from.” The seven-year-old child on the magician’s stage had already lived in two states and two countries.
Once military children reach high school, they begin to shed their confusion and adopt concern or even distaste for the questioner—and the question. This is especially true when the child is well into his teens with a bounty of addresses under his belt. He doesn’t want to confuse the person asking, but finds it difficult to answer in a way that doesn’t confuse: Will she understand my answer? Will he accept my answer without asking more questions? Will they get that look on their face?
Drawing from the answers of U.S. military BRATs aged 16-60, the most common response to “Where are you from?” can be summed up with, “I’m not from anywhere. I’m from everywhere.” But this is as meaningless an answer for the person asking as the word “from” is for the military child. As she gets older, she learns to—or rather she concedes to—give questioners what they want: One answer (even though it isn’t the correct answer.)
Paige (Air Force): If I feel like explaining, I’ll give ‘em the whole military shpeal [sic]. I don’t like explaining, though, because people don’t get it. So pretty much, “Hi, I’m Paige. I’m from Alaska.”
Justin (Marine Corps): Usually I just say North Carolina. Trying to explain more usually confuses the average person.
Shawn (Army): My answer to “where I’m from” changes as circumstances warrant. If we’re talking about wintertime childhood experiences I will say, “Well I’m from Connecticut and let me tell you about the blizzards we had when I was a kid.” Occasionally people call me on it if they’ve heard me say that I’m “from” two or three or eight different places.
Faith (Navy): So I usually just say that I’m military and if they don’t get what that means or if I don’t feel like asking exactly what they mean by where I’m from, then I tell them I’m from Earth.
Benefit of the Doubt
A lot of military kids recognize that most civilian children and adults don’t share their experiences.
Sam (Air Force): I think they’re just curious and interested in getting to know you (at least, at college that seems to be the norm since we’re coming from all over).
Melody (Air Force): It bothers me a little bit when people ask me that ‘cos I don’t really have one place, but it’s not like they do it to be mean or anything. They just wanna learn more about me I guess.
Brendon (Army): When they ask I reply with, “I am an army brat and I’ve lived all over.” They just wanna know, so they’re not bad.
Second Verse, Same as the First
As they get older, however, many military children get tired of being asked, “Where are you from?” because so often there are more questions (and more confused looks) right behind it. Some have developed answers that best work for them while others still aren’t sure what to say.
Abram (Marine Corps): When someone asks me where I’m from, I think to myself, “I’m about to find out if you’ve lived in the same town your whole life.” I’ve synthesized the whole thing: “My dad’s a Marine, so I’m from everywhere.” If they ask, I’ll tell them what’s up. If they don’t, or say something like, “That must’ve been tough growing up moving so much/having a Marine as a father,” then I know they’re probably not worth explaining it to.