¿De dónde sos? Where are you from? Liz Caskey, a long-time resident of neighboring Chile, finds that this question touches a nerve, and she broached the topic over at the Eat Wine blog in this post. Much of what Liz wrote resonated with me, and her post sparked some interesting conversation with friends on Facebook.
"This question appears to be innocent and overly simple. Some consider it friendly. But imagine how you would feel if they asked you, after 11+ years where you live, the same thing every single day. A 'simple' question that comes even before saying hello, asking my name, or inquiring how I am doing."
Fortunately, given that I live in a small city and tend to frequent the same neighborhood businesses, I'm not subjected to this question on a daily basis. The butcher, the baker, and the
candlestick maker man who owns the corner store already know I'm a yanqui – no news there. However, anytime I patronize a new business or travel outside my home turf, I'm barraged with the same litany of questions: Where are you from? Why did you move here? Do you like Argentina?
At the beginning, I used to make a game of it. When presented with the inevitable lead-off question, I would counter, "Well, where do you think I'm from?" The answers were generally quite varied and amusing and, interestingly, hardly ever included the United States. But after a while I grew tired of the exchange.
Now, don't get me wrong – I'm a talkative person. I have no qualms about chitchatting with strangers and indulging their curiosity. But you know, sometimes when I head to the grocery store for a bag of milk, I just want to buy said bag of milk and leave. I don't want to recount my life story or play a game of 20 Questions (and yes, I am bigger than a breadbox).
Nonetheless, I'm also keenly aware of the fact that, in some ways, I'm an unofficial ambassador of the United States. Unlike Buenos Aires, Bariloche or Iguazú, Necochea and the innumerable small towns of Argentina don't appear on the radar of most international travelers. For some Argentines, I will be the first American they will have ever met, and I'd much rather work to create positive impressions than reinforce old, worn-out stereotypes (e.g. Americans are cold) by brushing off their questions.
For some expats, style of dress, physical appearance and even the way they carry themselves clue people in that they're foreigners and prompt the dreaded "¿De dónde sos?" Chris from In Patagonia offered: "It's a question you just have to get used to, no way around it I don't think!…I think God can use our appearance to open doors of conversation and opportunity."
While I think Chris makes a good point, in my case, I don't feel as though appearance is the big giveaway. Instead, I find that the questions start flowing when I open my mouth. If I keep my talking to a bare minimum, I can sometimes get away without my accent being detected, but these instances are few and far between.
With all that said, it seems that foreigners have devised various approaches to dealing with this issue. Liz recommends the following tactic:
"Now, when I am asked the 'where are you from' question, I try to laugh. I see it as an opportunity to open somebody else's eyes. Instead of getting frustrated or defensive since there must be something wrong with my accent, I simply ask, 'sorry, you asked my name?'. I usually get a confused look first and then they get it – I am a person first and foremost."
Of course, I could always go the route of my friend Eli's father. Even though he and his wife have called Mar del Plata, Argentina their home for over 30 years, he still gets asked the question "Where are you from?", to which he jokingly replies, "I'm from *Tucumán."
*Tucumán is a small province in Northwest Argentina and, needless to say, a far cry from Eli's dad's actual hometown of Buffalo, New York.