BY ROSANNA LANDIS WEAVER — The simple question: “Where are you from?” can be viewed as banal cocktail party chatter, an intrusive means to identify outsiders, or as a core question of the modern-day examined life.
I’ve thought about this question a great deal: taking a “local history” class in high school three decades ago, studying for my Master’s in American Studies at University of Notre Dame, and raising my three internationally adopted children. Sharing those thoughts seemed to be a good way to introduce myself as the newest member of the HL&T staff.
Is where you are from the place where you grew up? I was born in Pennsylvania, halfway between Philly and Allentown near a road we called the “old 309.” Old and new are relative terms in the world of my heritage. I remember being surprised as a child that the schism between “old Mennonites” and “new Mennonites” (common terms in my world at the time) happened over 100 years before my birth. How could something over 100 years old be new?
I once read a statistic about Pennsylvania that claimed it was the state with the highest percentage of residents who were born there and never moved away. Whether this was factually accurate I do not know, but it rang true to me. When I moved to Washington, D.C., after attending Goshen College in Indiana, I was only a three-hour drive away from where I was born, but some peers considered it moving far away.
In this nation of immigrants, is where you are “from” the country of your genetic origin? That is what people often seem to mean when they ask my children. It sometimes frustrates them when the answer, “Maryland,” is dismissed, and it becomes obvious that the question of origin is being asked on the basis of their physical appearance. Yet, I’ve asked the question myself in a genuinely well-meaning attempt to find out whether someone’s country or city of origin is shared with one of my children. I can see how it could be offensive, though, if one has encountered anti-immigrant resistance in the past.
Almost every American’s ancestors came here from somewhere else, and by this definition, my family is from Germany. Though my ancestors began emigrating over 300 years ago, they spoke a German dialect at home, church and school for the first 200 years they lived in North America. Even in my childhood, this dialect, by then known as Pennsylvania Dutch, was the language used to keep Christmas presents secret from children. This personal history inspires me to be patient with more recent immigrants who by the glacial-assimilation standards of my family’s past are rapid adapters.
Sometimes I wonder if where you are from is the place you raise your children. Certainly our home in Hyattsville, where we moved from Mount Rainier in 2005, is the building that has the highest association of sentimental memories for me, more than any other place on earth. Here is the background to all the best photos, of Snowmageddon, of first days of school, of cotillion, of toddlers and teenagers.
Maybe where we are from is where we live right now. We help create where we are from, when we build community. Perhaps the roots we put out are more broad than deep these days, but they are roots nonetheless and their living strength is vital. Some of us have relatives that grew up here, others are recent transplants but (as noted in the article on page **) have taken a deep interest in the history of their homes.
When we become part of Hyattsville’s present we become the caretakers of its past and the creators of its future. We are from Hyattsville, no matter where we may have lived before. .
Rosanna Landis Weaver joined the HL&T in December 2012 as managing editor.