Where are you from?

I recently completed an application for the REACH Program LinkedIn is launching. Their application was a series of short answer questions, and the first one really inspired me to write, which was an unexpected high point in the tediousness of job searching. I’ve included the prompt and my response below.

The Prompt

Your Personal Story: At LinkedIn, we strive for a culture that embraces and represents diverse ways of thinking, background, and approaches to solving the world’s problems. Tell us about yourself, and what unique point of view, experiences, and background you bring to LinkedIn.

My Response

“Where are you from?”

This is supposed to be a simple question — easy to ask and quick to answer. Yet because of my diverse experiences and travels, any satisfying answer I could offer would be relatively lengthy, which (outside the context of normal chit-chat) delights me.

My parents are about as different as you could get. My mom is adopted and grew up in Texas; she lived in a family where blood meant nothing and actions meant everything. My grandmother adopted and took in anything that needed love and a warm meal: neighborhood kids, Cambodian refugees, a Chinese child, and even a variety of animals. On the other hand, my father is the first-born of a traditional, New York City, Jewish family; the product of Eastern-European immigrants who fled WWII. Family, whatever form it takes, has always been a core value of mine and my family, and so it feels like going home whether I’m headed to the Big Apple or the Lone Star State.

And yet, these are two vastly differing, even conflicting, places. Linguistically, culturally, geographically — one serves you up a bowl of Southern Hospitality so full you can feel your stomach against the Bible Belt, while the other thrives on curtness, efficiency, and brute force. I like to explain all this because I think it sets the stage for understanding how I have managed to continually experience life from two, sometimes conflicting, vantage points, but still manage to understand and value both points of view.

Growing up, I went to a private school in Florida where I never really fit in. The other kids would ask me what kind of car my parents drove, and I would tell them “A black car and a white car.” This was apparently not the answer they were looking for, but I didn’t mind, because I had my books and found delight in my learning. For all intents and purposes, I was in the “nerd” category. That is, until, I found my next “tribe”…the theatre kids. I was lucky that my school had a phenomenal theatre program, and was happy to be a part of it, but having such diverse interests spelled trouble socially. The nerds thought I was crazy to be happy belting out showtunes in front of actual people, but I was too quiet and reserved for those with whom I graced the stage.

I attended Oberlin College in Ohio, convinced I had found the place for me because it would enable me to graduate with a degree in Chemistry and Vocal Arts. However, halfway through I discovered pre-med wasn’t the right path for me and was also struck with the realities of a starving artist lifestyle. I reassessed my options and found that I had acquired a great deal of credits in linguistics and language courses. I changed my major, convinced that even if I didn’t know what I wanted to do, at least I would be able to do it in two languages. This switch also led me to study abroad in Spain for 6 months, a life-changing experience which made me question everything about my lifestyle — I truly didn’t think there was anything more different than New York and Texas until I studied abroad.

I completed my degree and was scooped up by Teach for America to teach Middle School Math and Science. I had done a lot of babysitting and other tutoring throughout my academic career, so I wasn’t nearly as scared as I should have been. Since I had gone to a private school growing up, I really wasn’t prepared for what awaited me in the third lowest performing middle school of Durham, North Carolina. This experience, more than anything, taught me how ignorance can be hurtful. I considered myself pretty well-rounded going in, but I was sorely mistaken. I had read about mothers that worked 3 jobs to support their children, but I’d never met anyone who lived this journey. I came to understand the social norms of poverty and was frequently embarrassed at how I had taken the privilege of my life experience for granted.

After teaching for 5 years, I moved from North Carolina to San Francisco (which provided another chance for reflection on different culture and lifestyles) and used the move as an opportunity to transition out of the classroom and into tech.

So where am I from? I think this question is usually asked to get a snapshot of someone’s identity, and a sense of the culture in which they feel at home. In this sense, I don’t think I’m “from” any particular place. I take pride in being a chameleon with profound connections to many places because it enables me to see a single issue from many different points of view. My life experience is a constant reminder that different lives and circumstances foster different ways of defining words, norms, and expectations. My journey has shown me that every opinion is the result of a different path, and that every idea should be met with humility and respect. I can always be sure that there is a perspective I have not considered and a way of life that I have not experienced, but I believe that results are stronger when more stories are represented.

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