They tell me that in the US, the first question someone will ask you is, “what do you do?”; in Europe, they ask, “where are you from?”. This is usually given as a slight on the workaholic culture of the U.S., but as someone who hasn’t had the “where are you from” question asked in the best of contexts, I’ve always questioned its function.

It’s Christmas time and suddenly we’re all from somewhere. Doesn’t what you do with the majority of your day describe yourself better than where you happen to have grown up?

“Where are you from?” It’s a question I’m asked all the bloody time.

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I’m from West Auckland, I say. The place with the ugly brown wallpaper and ugly brown carpets that clashed just so that they must’ve supposed to match somehow. Those houses where there’s a garage and kind-of-lounge on the ground floor, and a concrete path leading up to the main living space on the first floor, bordered with metal fences that were always either rusted black or painted white — usually both.

The kids of the family we were staying with had a collection of lasers with interchangable lenses that projected different images. We’d wait ‘til late, hide out in the bedroom and project pictures of dragons and naked ladies onto the neighbouring house. Their house looked just like ours, a Minecraft iteration with all the same features in slightly different places.

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There is something about physical place that becomes indelible in the mind. Like when a smell transports you back to a memory so vivid and real you could relive it again. Place and smell are potent drugs, hitting all the right neurons to elicit that which you thought you’d long forgotten.

That’s the fear, isn’t it? To forget. To live a life but not know that you’ve lived it. And that’s the joy that comes with memory — the relief that, yes, I was there, I did that. I remember. I have lived.

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I’m from Dunedin, I say. I swear the sky looks bluer here. It’s darker, more saturated. And when there wasn’t a sheep truck leaving a trail of stench through town, the air down south is the freshest thing I’ve ever breathed. Inhaling deep southern air is like taking a long drink of water, realising in the middle of a gulp just how thirsty you were.

Things felt semi-permanent — like nothing was meant to last. You could be stupid and make mistakes, and everything would be alright.

In autumn, when the leaves started to turn, a mysterious wind would shake them from their branches. I was once walking to lecture, (late, as usual,) and Kashmir by Led Zeppelin started playing on my iPod shuffle. The slow beat and heavy, whining guitars made the leaves fall in slow motion and the wind warm and ominous. It was much too epic for a prelude to PHSI232.

In winter, if you were lucky, it would snow. The morning after, the sunlight would catch on that gross, green-tinted safety glass, and reflect stark teals onto the melting slush. It was magical, until you had to be somewhere.

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An immediate bond can form between two near-strangers when they realise they’ve both lived in the same place, once upon a time. Physical place provides a context unmatched by anything else — an unspoken understanding that despite everything, to have lived where you both have lived means deep down, you’re made of the same stuff. I have yet to find anything else that endears people more efficiently than the memory of a shared place.

Of course, this in turn makes me wonder how conversations over dinner and drinks will change as we become increasingly detached from the physical world. Would you say you were from UseNet? LiveJournal? Facebook? What does that even mean, to be from a space so temporary, so fleeting?

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I’m from The ’Naki, I say. It’s proof that despite my indoors branding, there’s something immutable within that longs for salt on the wind and the pull of the ocean.

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Also known as a “memory palace,” or the “roman room”, the method of loci is a mnemonic technique that puts information in a real or imagined physical place. To recall this information later, one imagines oneself walking a path through the spatial construct. Nine out of ten “memory champions” use this method to remember vast quantities of unrelated information.Maguire, E. A.; Valentine, E. R.; Wilding, J. M.; Kapur, N. (2002). “Routes to remembering: The brains behind superior memory”. Nature Neuroscience. 6 (1): 90–95.

Dating back to GreekThe etymology of the word “topics” literally comes from the Greek topos, meaning, places. poets in the fifth and sixth centuries BC, the link between spatial processing and memory has been well documented. Modern studies in cognitive neuroscience point to the hippocampus underpinning both “our ability to navigate, to form and recollect memories, and to imagine future experiences”Hassabis, D.; Chu, C.; Rees, G.; Weiskopf, N.; Molyneux, P. D.; Maguire, E. A. (2009). “Decoding Neuronal Ensembles in the Human Hippocampus”. Current Biology. 19 (7): 546–554..

Maybe that’s the function the “where are you from?” question serves. As a neuronal shortcut to rich, lush contextual information about who you are, or at least, where you’ve been.

(I guess on some level, those are the same thing.)

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I’m from China, I say, to the rare few who I can be assured won’t hold that against me. Grandmaster Ip Man lived and trained in my birthtown, where lush greenery provided welcomed respite from the summer heat. As a toddler I’d climb up a precarious ladder to the rooftop of our cement apartment building, where my grandpa would practice his forms. We grew watermelon vines, hung out sheets to dry. The roof cement was light, it reflected sunlight everywhere and made my eyes squint. I ran around at full speed, not worried even a little bit that I was five storeys about the earth. At that point in my life, that rooftop was the biggest playground I knew.

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“Where are you from?”

Throughout my life the question has been a weapon to highlight difference; a sharp blade to effectively cut out and ostracise. “Where are you from” carried the subtext of, “you couldn’t possibly be from here.”

But as I move from place to place, and as my relationship with the concept of belonging shifts, becomes more complex; “where are you from?” can also be a question of commonality. It can instead carry the subtext of, “are you from somewhere that I am from, also?”. A pursuit of a thread so inexplicable and unbreakable, linking people together.

We know what it’s like to be from this place. We have, in some small way, lived the same life. And deep down, we’re made of the same stuff.■

Tagged: memoir place memory