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.
Janet (Army): I say “everywhere,” but usually not before having a deer in the headlight moment.
Amelia (Marine Corps): When someone asks where I’m from, I feel almost obligated to tell them my life story: Where I was born, how many times I moved, where I moved from to my current location, etc. I make the point that my dad was in the Marine Corps so I’m not really “from” anywhere. That confuses people and it makes me laugh at them.
Nathan (Army): I think that those people tend not to think about what they are asking before they ask.
Ashley (Army): I say I’m from Stuttgart [Germany] and they give me that face because you know they are dying to say it: “Is that in Canada?” Yeah, sure man.
Daniel (Marine Corps): I guess they don’t mean anything by it, but it still feels weird when someone asks me and then looks at me kind of like I’m lying when I say I’m an American who never lived in the United States. I was born in Okinawa, moved to Germany and live here again. Then they ask more questions and then I have to explain why I don’t “look Japanese.”
Hannah (Air Force): The reactions you can get from people when you tell them you are an American citizen that was born in England and have never lived in America are priceless.
Joshua (Army): [I say] Ohio or Texas. Then when you go on to explain where you’re actually from (Germany), you get the reply, “Oh you have excellent English!” Then I just smile and end the conversation because it’s awkward.
Rachael (Army): I generally find people who ask me where I’m from highly annoying, mainly because I don’t want to answer the question.
Faith (Navy): I hate that question. I never know if they want me to tell them where I am living currently, where I consider home right now, where I have lived the longest, or where I was born. And that’s a problem because they are all different answers.
Location, Location, Location
For most civilians, the definition of “from” is pretty strict. It is synonymous with, “Where were you born and raised?” For the military child, this is two questions; and their experience doesn’t lend itself to just one answer. The word “from” has no relevance. As they get older, any meaning they give the word isn’t as rigid as the one found in the dictionary. “From” becomes flexible and relative.
Paige (Air Force): I usually answer with the last place I lived. I’m from Alaska. When I get back to Alaska in June, I’ll be from Colorado.
Stephanie (Army): Omg, I don’t know where I’m from, especially since I’m Hispanic. I tell them I’m Chilean who is American who has lived in many states who is currently living in Germany. It’s difficult to answer with just once answer.
Shawn (Army): I rarely think that I am “from” anywhere, but rather that I went to grade school in such and such and high school there and graduated from this other place. An interesting point [my sister] Kim and I have observed is that we reference our lives geographically. We don’t think about Mom’s cancer as happening when we were in whatever school grade or how old we were, but that we were in Texas. I went to a particular concert when I lived in Virginia. I know [my friend] Laura from Hawaii, not from high school, though both are true. Once I have the geographic reference, then I backtrack into the temporal setting. “Okay, we were in Texas, so that would have been about ’74-’77.”
Charles (Marine Corps): If I want to be snarky I will hit the list, otherwise I say my dad was in the military and if they want to know more I can list ’em.
Nathan (Army): I have a standard answer and generally I say “Ohio,” then stop myself and say, “Well, be more specific.”
Terri (Air Force): I go with the classic AFN (Armed Forces Network) commercial response: “Do you mean where was I born, or where do my parents live, or where I just moved from or where I live now, or do you mean where is the best place I’ve ever lived?” Or there’s the Bill Clinton-esque, “That depends on what you mean by ‘from’.”
Sam (Air Force): I usually hesitate a lot and then just tell them where I’ve lived last, which is not where my parents live anymore, and it’s not where I’m going to school. So right now I say I’m from Texas, but when I go back to [Washington] D.C. for the summer to see my parents I’ll probably tell people I’m from Ohio, and then after that I’ll say I’m from D.C. But mostly I just stick to where I lived last. (Though on Facebook I’m from my favorite place to have lived: Okinawa, Japan.)
Robert (Army): Home for me since I’ve moved around so much in my life always go back to what my grandpa said all the time, “Home is where you hang ur [sic] jacket up before you go to sleep that night.” So right now I’m from Frankfurt [Germany].”
Kimberly (Army): Yeah, I usually either say “from all over,” or hit the list: Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Texas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Virginia and [back to] Kansas.
Rae (Marine Corps): My answer is always, “Well, I was born on a Marine base in North Carolina and raised in a small town in West Virginia and I’ve been in Canada 10 years.” I kinda enjoy confusing them!
Hannah (Air Force): At first I used to tell people I was a military brat but because of the amount of times that I’ve moved I don’t consider myself a military brat. I’ve been able to live in only three places and get to know the people there as if I’ve known them my whole lives.
Rachael (Army): My standard response is cringing and then saying “everywhere.” Then I have to explain that I grew up in Ohio (my legal residence), but I spent my high school years in Germany, and then that my parents currently live in St. Louis, so I go there for breaks. After that, they generally stop asking me where I’m from. All they remember is I’m the girl from Germany.
Ashley (Army): Standard answer: I’m from Germany, my parents are military and that is where I spent the better part of my life. Where I was born or where my residency is stateside is irrelevant. That is not where I grew up.
Knowledge is Power
Those who want to get to know a military child better without making it an awkward encounter could try these recommendations from the children themselves:
- Don’t ask a military child of any age, “Where are you from?” It’s better to ask, “Where do you live?” If they want to tell you something more about themselves, they’ll volunteer it.
- If you do ask, “Where are you from?” accept the answer. If the answer is “everywhere” or “I’m a military brat,” that really is the answer. It really isn’t where they were born or where they lived five years ago or where their parents were born (for a lot of military kids, this also has more than one answer). Dismissing what they’ve said and pressing them for “a real answer” is insulting.
- Once the military child has answered the question of “from,” refrain from asking more questions. “Oh, I see” is fine. Let them decide whether they want to keep the conversation going or not.
- Be conscious of your facial expression. Military children are painfully familiar with what they call “that face.” It’s a combination of confusion and distaste some people get when they hear something they weren’t expecting and/or don’t understand. To see “that face” for yourself, walk up to a stranger and ask them for walking directions to your house without telling them where you live.
Sam, whose parent is in the Air Force, summarized the military child’s feelings about the “from” question with a little reflection: “Do you remember that AFN (Armed Forces Network) commercial where the guy tries to pick up the girl at the bar and he asks her where she’s from and she asks if he means where she was born, grew up, lived the longest, etc? When I was younger it seemed silly, but now, I realize it’s the story of our lives.”
All images ©2011 Diana M. Hartman. All pictured are military children.