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First day of class: after a writing exercise that helps break the ice – 10 minutes of “put someone you don’t know very well in a situation of physical duress, and write the scene in first person” (a few students share out loud, while we listen and then comment)—I ask the students to go around the room and say their name, major, and “where they’re from.” I use air quotes, and they all laugh, knowingly. We all understand that the question is fraught, and complex. In this room of twelve (including me), a college classroom in New York City, only two offer a simple answer to the question: I am from Dallas, Texas. I am from Atlanta, Georgia. Third and fourth generation, respectively. Two out of twelve.
One student explains that he was born and raised in Guatemala but is uncomfortable saying so, because in response he is sometimes asked, “Why are you white?” Another student says she grew up in California but has been living and working in Shanghai and feels more “from” there than anywhere now. An older student, returning to school after many years, speaks with an Irish lilt and says she thinks of herself as a New Yorker. Yet another says that her name is Sarah, but it’s also Elise, and her family and childhood friends call her Sarah, but since she’s left home people call her Elise, so we can call her whatever we like.