“Where are you from?” vs “What do you do?”

In the US, at restaurants, in the elevator, at the grocery line check out, the single most common question you will hear in greetings and small talk is this: What do you do? Upon hearing the answer, opinions are formed, judgments laid out, and various doors and windows to conversation are open and shut based upon your answer to this question. In America, we define ourselves by our profession because we are individualists. We believe in the power of one more than in the power of the collective, we place value on individual rights, individual freedoms, and individual accomplishments. We very often judge a persons’ success by what they have achieved in their lifetime. This individuality stems from our ingrained national morality that values opportunity over heritage, equality over class systems, and individuality over the group. We believe that everyone is born with certain rights, and that with the right amount of hard work, determination, and perseverance, anyone can succeed. We have phrases such as “to pull oneself up by his bootstraps”, “rags to riches”, and “it doesn’t matter where you have come from, it only matters where you are going”. These age-old sayings explain what we respect. We believe in a system where any one person is born with a blank slate, and has the responsibility to make a life for themselves, regardless of whatever previous successes or failures their ancestors may have had. This mentality is part of the American spirit, and in a country that was formed by immigrants, that spirit has served us well, as we have been a nation of entrepreneurs, idealists, and visionaries.

This is a spirit that many who were not born here do not entirely understand. This is because in most other countries, it is the family line that is more important than the individual. It matters more where your great, great-grandfather was from or what he did, than what you, yourself have accomplished. When you meet another American for the first time, they will most likely within a few minutes of meeting you, ask you what you do for a living. Here, it is what you have chosen to do with your life’s work that defines you. Another common, but lesser important question is, “Where are you from?” To an American, this question refers to where you grew up or were raised. It does not have anything to do with your ethnicity or heritage. For me, the answer to that is always “The Midwest, more specifically, Kansas City, Missouri”. But when I use this answer with foreigners, they almost always look at me quizzically and say, “Yes, but where are you REALLY from”, as if I am avoiding their real question. I answer again, “the Midwest”, but they say, “Yes, but where are your parents from, your grandparents?” “They are from the Midwest too”, I answer. “Yes, but what about your great-grandparents, your ancestors?” Again, I answer, the Midwest. Apparently it’s surprising to a foreigner, who usually believes that America is a “baby” country, that an ordinary American like me could have roots that grow for centuries within my own country. It’s as if they are refusing to accept this truth, that I am from here, and so are my ancestors. Most of the time, when people ask me this, they continue to dig and dig until I name some European country, and it is only then that they are satisfied with my answer. It’s as if, I must say that I come from European descent in order to be accepted as legitimate. So I guess what they are asking is, what is my ethnicity, not, where am I from? If that is the case, they could just look at my skin color and reasonably determine that I have European ancestors. I do not consider myself a “European- American”, even though technically, if you trace my family tree long enough, I do have roots in Czechoslovakia, Sweden, England, and Germany. But if you are asking about that, it seems a bit discriminatory, don’t you think? To regard my European ancestors as my only legitimate ethnic roots is to completely disregard my American heritage as insignificant. And to disregard my American roots as insignificant is to ignore the important history of my homeland and the valuable lives that my relatives have experienced.

My mother can trace our family tree at least back to the 1600s, when Katarina Sheer came over from Germany, married a Juhngen (changed to the more American spelling -Younkin). She tells me about another Younkin, who was a private in the army in the Revolutionary War in 1775. We also had a relative in the American Civil War, a young boy who lied about his age, claiming to be 15, when he was only 13 so he could be a drummer boy, instead of staying home. A woman relative of mine helped found the National Benevolent Association in the 1880s, which was an orphanage in St Louis, Missouri, a city very close to where I was born one hundred years later. This association is still in existence today. I am also related to Alexander Majors, a founder of the Pony Express, the precursor to the United States Postal Service, and an important chapter in our history. The Pony Express originated in Jefferson City, Missouri, a town very close to where I was born generations later, and the same city that I competed in cross-country athletic races while I was in high school. Another relative of mine was a conscientious objector in the Civil War on the Confederate side; I also had family on the Union Side. One relative of mine rode with the cattle on the railroad from the Midwest out to California tending to their health along the way; he later became the State Veterinarian for Nebraska. Besides all this, we have a handwritten diary from our relative that was scribbled out while he crouched in the trenches as a soldier in World War 1. We have relatives that were Pioneers of the Wild, Wild West, and homesteaders who grew crops, developing the agriculture of our heartland on the unexplored prairie land. We even have an ancestor that boarded the Mayflower as a Pilgrim on the famous voyage to America in the 1620s. Moving to more modern history, my own grandfather was a commander of a Navy Ship in World War II, and my Great Uncle was the head of the cryptology (code deciphering unit) state side, and was in charge of over 100 waves (women military workers) that worked nightly deciphering codes coming in from the front lines. It was one of these women brought a decoded message to him in the middle of the night indicating that the war would soon be over. He promptly replied to the woman who brought it to him, “We need to go wake the admiral.” He was the 2nd person to lay eyes on those words that signaled the end of World War II and would soon shape world history.

A page from my family history book.

Another page from my family history book.

So yes, my ancestors have all played their roles in the significant and fascinating history of the United States and to dismiss all of that history, implying that it is only what happened before all this that is really important, it’s ignorant and disrespectful. When I hear people saying something like, “Yes, but where are you REALLY from”, it shows me that they don’t value my American heritage. While America has shorter roots than some other nations, they are certainly no less important.

My pride and awareness of my own cultural heritage in this country has little to do with the extensive history of the Balkans, however, it is interesting to note some societal milestones, to give us all some perspective. For example, the oldest major educational institution in Serbia, the University of Belgrade, was founded in 1808 or 1838, depending on which date you use as its origin. In contrast, the oldest university in America was founded in 1749 (University of Pennsylvania) or perhaps Harvard University (founded in 1636). And yes, our arts and culture paralleled each other as well, with the first American Opera house was constructed in 1859 (New Orleans), and a Serbian counterpart, the National Theater in Belgrade, was formed 9 years later in 1868.

As we all know, we cannot take credit for our ancestors; we can only claim what we have created in our own lives, the life we have chosen, not our genetic code or our country’s history. We favor personal responsibility over a sense of entitlement or ignorance. And what is even more valuable than my own ancestry is that every single person here has an opportunity, whether their parents were house cleaners or politicians, and that is something that my ancestors did fight to preserve. What you do with your own life is more of an indicator of your character than what your great grandparents did with theirs. Our inalienable rights given to us by our Creator and stated in our own Declaration of Independence say that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. America is not perfect, we admit it. It’s hard to maintain the values that our founding fathers stood for. But we embrace all Americans, whether they are born here or are new citizens from abroad, whether they come from royalty or from poverty, and regardless of creed, ethnicity, religious belief, or national origin. This is what my being an American is about; it’s not about what part of the world my ancestors were from. Our sense of American identity encourages each person to be themselves, to preserve their own identity while contributing with their own unique talents and skills to help make this place better. It’s this sense of identity that I am proud of, not a distant cultural heritage that skips my American roots.

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9 thoughts on ““Where are you from?” vs “What do you do?”

  1. Sir, I just randomly ran into your blog. I am from Eastern Serbia, but I currently live in the Deep South, in the great state of Mississippi, where I am attending Ole Miss. I have to say that after living in the US for couple years now, I completely understand how you feel. I come from a fairly non-prominent background myself; nobody in my family did anything epic for the country. Therefore, we have not accumulated capital from the past, nor do we have great family connections. Everything I was able to do came through my own personal “rags to riches” philosophy and achievements. Although I’m only 22, I want to instill that philosophy in my fellow Serbs for many reasons. The biggest one of those is the value of competition. If we level the playing field for all the social strata, we’ll all be able to compete with one another for our own, rather than familiar, achievements. I don’t want to take too much of your time, but I’d definitely be interested to hear more about your deep impressions of Serbia, things such as the article above, where you reflect on values. Thank you for a great read, and I have to say I’ll definitely be reading your blog lots more. As they say in the South here, “Y’all come back now, y’hear?”

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