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‘No, where are you really from?’ Addressing never-ending questions as a first generation American

Where are you from?” is a question I often hear. “I’m from Columbia, Missouri.” This response is sometimes followed by the question first generation Americans tire of hearing: “But, where are you really from?” “Still Columbia.” I was born on May, 29, 2002 at the University of Missouri Hospital.
But what people really want to know when they ask that question is my ethnic background. My parents are Sri Lankan, and they moved to the United States in 1992. To answer the question of their status, which people often accusingly ask me about, no, they are not citizens, but yes, they are here legally.
I am proud to be a first generation American and of how hard my parents worked to get to the United States. But the privilege of being American doesn’t come free.
Much of life is spent somewhere in the middle between euphoria and depression, perfection and failure, awe and distraction. We shift amidst extremes in a constant search for balance.
Mine is spent between cultures; not quite American, but definitely not Sri Lankan. I float somewhere in the middle. English is my first language, but I understand and speak a tad bit of Sinhala, one of the three official languages of Sri Lanka. I talk and act like my white peers. But I wonder: is my behavior is just a result of mimicry?
There was a time at which I wasn’t so adept at camouflage, though. I first realized I was different in preschool. Up to that point, a Sri Lankan family friend cared for me. At her house her three-year-old son and I spoke Sinhala and ate rice with our hands. It was only natural; however, on the first day of preschool, I sensed danger.
At lunchtime, bowls came around, and everyone served themselves strange-smelling mush. I sat quietly, unsure what to do and watched the girl who sat across from me. As she brought her fork up to her mouth, I slowly copied her actions. When she caught me staring, she told me to chew with my mouth closed.
That was enough lunch for me.
I learned to eliminate what made me different as quickly as possible. While I worked hard to fit in, there were some things I simply couldn’t change about myself. My mom told me I had once asked her, “All my friends are yellow. Why aren’t I yellow?”
From a young age, I could tell something was off. I was off. Since then, I have become thoroughly Americanized.
This assertion has been a point of contention between my family and I though, as I have always thought of myself as American. How could my aunts, uncles and grandparents say I was Sri Lankan when I go there for just a few weeks only every couple of years?
No matter where I am in Sri Lanka I feel out of place in spite of my caramel skin, fluffy ebony curls, and dark chocolate eyes. I’m scared something will tip them off that I’m an imposter, whether it be my clothes or my mannerisms.
Once I talk, it’s all over. I become a strange, exotic attraction, a tourist, a visitor in a land I cannot call home.
Then there’s the fact that I live in a world away from most of my family. Thanksgivings and Christmases? They are pretty quiet at my house. No drunk uncles or little cousins causing mayhem. If we time it just right, we might be able to catch my Sri Lankan family for a call, but with the 10 and a half hour time difference even this is a challenge.
It is difficult being so separated from the people you are supposed to be closest to. They know me, but I can’t remember the memories we made visiting Sri Lanka when I was two or when my grandma stayed with us in my kindergarten year. My grandparents also aren’t as young as they used to be.
When I visit, I see them slipping away without fully knowing who they were before. When I talk to my aunts and uncles, it is restrained and polite, more like the small talk you would make with a parent’s co-worker rather than the people they spent their whole childhoods with.
Mine is not a story of despair, though. I love this country and I love being Sri Lankan. Even though I sometimes feel like a fraud, I still love wearing my sari and talking about people in the grocery store right in front of them to my mom in Sinhala.
I love teaching people about the pearl of the Indian Ocean, the thing they thought was a smudge of dirt on the map.
I love having the guidance of the virtues my parents have gained through growing up in a developing country, seeing the poorest of the poor and working hard everyday to create a life of opportunity and privilege for their children.
I love having a worldview that is more expansive than what my little Midwestern town could ever provide.
Of course, these advantages don’t come without a trade-off. Even so, I can’t imagine living anywhere other than the United States; nor can I imagine coming from anywhere but my quirky, caramel-skinned, exotic, Sri Lankan family.

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