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July 10, 2012

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I Am From

By Rachel Kiser

This past semester, I reshuffled my reality. I found myself half a continent and an ocean away in Brussels where I lived and worked for the semester. I spent my weekdays in a European newsroom and my weekends traveling to new countries and cities, mastering the art of deciphering public transportation maps, and telling myself it was impossible to get lost—I didn’t even know where I was to begin with.

I met a handful of other travelers in the process, such as a woman in Ireland who knows seven languages fluently (though she can get by in 10) and a cab driver in Rome who told my friends and me that we should think about moving to Cuba.

Regardless of what we talked about, conversations always began the same way:

So, where are you from?

This question always stumped me, even more than people asking me why I was studying journalism when the industry is obviously going to tank soon. The answer only demanded one word, but my brain always worked itself into an exasperated tizzy before my lips would move with my answer.

My gut instinct would be to say I’m from the United States, but this generally wasn’t good enough. The whole monolingual thing usually made that fact clear just as soon as I tried to order un pain au chocolate et un lait russe in a Midwest accent.

Thus, I quickly tried to gauge how much the stranger knew about United States geography. I didn’t find many Europeans who knew any small Midwest towns so I usually lied and took certain geographic liberties. Sometimes I would be from St. Louis—still in the state and only 120 miles east from my apartment.  But I found few people who met that answer with a nod of understanding. Usually I would negate the fact that I am from Missouri completely and instead say I’m from Chicago. It has a relatively recognizable location on a map, so that answer would suffice.

But my white lie led me to have a mini identity crisis, one that stemmed from the simple four-word question.

Because I’m not from St. Louis. And I’m not from Chicago. People don’t define me based on my high school alma mater. I’m ambivalent toward the Cardinals, and I didn’t grow up eating toasted ravioli and Ted Drewes. I still think the Bean is a big deal, and the only major lake near my front door is a man-made lagoon that is the focal point of an oxymoronic beach town in landlocked Missouri.

Instead, I am from Columbia, a city where your teachers could easily have been your parents’; a town where the person sitting next to you at high school graduation is the same kid you always beat at four square during kindergarten recess.

I am from a childhood where I spent my June and September Thursdays at the Twilight festival, from teenage and 20-something years that have seen a handful of True/False films. I am from summer mornings spent logging miles on the Katy Trail and afternoons spent at Stephens Lake Park, chasing the sunshine with a lemon berry slush from Sonic happy hour.

I am from Shakespeare’s pizza, Kampai sushi, and Casablanca gyros. From dollar burgers at Campus Bar and Grill and dollar margaritas at El Maguay.

I am from a university that is shameless in showing its pride. From Gameday Saturdays where neighbors treat the day like the holiday it is, black and gold flags dancing in the breeze and buffalo chicken dip bubbling in Crock-Pots at a tailgate. I am from a sometimes-grueling-but-always-worth it journalism school, from teachers who are blunt with their opinions but who make me a better writer because of it.

When I leave Columbia after I graduate, I’ll find a new place to anchor my existence around. Perhaps I’ll eventually be from St. Louis or Chicago—I might come to see the Bean as a tourist trap and I might eventually care about David Freese’s batting average. But for now, Columbia is that anchor, providing me stability when my reality inevitably shuffles again.

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July 10, 2012

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