Redux: How an internet quiz put me in my place

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This post first ran on January 7, 2014.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I am from nowhere.

Until my husband told me this — stated it as a fact, like “it’s raining” or “the sky is blue” — I’d never had a truthful answer to a question that has always given me pause: where are you from?

“You’re from nowhere,” Dave said. His words hit me like a punch in the gut. He’d meant it as a joke, a clever way of stating the obvious. To him, my lack of roots was a sterile fact. To me, it was a gnawing wound, a loneliness I could never shake.

As an Air Force brat, I moved every few years. Before settling in Colorado, I had lived in three countries and more than a dozen towns. I was born in Texas, but we moved on before I formed a single memory of the place. My earliest recollection is of landing at a military base in Greenland and wondering who would give that name to such an icy place. I remember the swing set outside my kindergarten classroom near the Air Force Academy and the blue swimming pool in Phoenix that summer before we moved overseas, but the first place that feels anything like mine is a tiny village in West Germany—a town where I’m now a stranger, in a country that no longer exists.

Somewhere along the line, I devised a tidy answer to the uncomfortable question. Albuquerque. That’s where I’m from. It’s where I graduated high school, and I claimed it as my place of origin to obscure the truth — I am an impostor, a fake. I can fit in anywhere, yet I’m always an outsider. Though I’ve finally put down roots, I’ve never felt like a genuine local anywhere.

Until recently, that is. You’ve probably seen it by now — the quiz circulating the internet that promises to determine where you’re from, right down to the city, based on your manner of speaking. It’s a simplified version of the Harvard Dialect Survey, which polled more than 30,000 Americans about how they pronounce words like mayonnaise and what they call it when rain falls while the sun is shining (“the devil is beating his wife,” if you’re from the Southeast).

I snickered when I saw the quiz. Ok Dr. Smartypants, where am I from? 

A few minutes later I had my answer: Albuquerque.

Such unexpected vindication! The lie I’d been telling all these years was declared a scientific truth. Researchers who’ve built careers on such things had declared me a native of a bona fide place. For the first time in my life, I felt legit.

I did a little happy dance and then went about my life. But over the following days, I found myself pondering the elation I’d felt when I saw my result pop up on the screen. Why had it felt so good to have an impersonal quiz confirm something that, in retrospect, should not have been surprising at all?

Around the same time time that I took the survey, I visited a friend at a university where I once worked. Walking along campus after our meeting, I came upon a name scratched into a sidewalk. It was a very common boy’s name. I’d completely forgotten it until that moment, but this particular etching in the cement once meant something to me. Years ago, when I was young and foolish and working at the university, I was having some personal troubles. Let’s just say there were two boys, and one of their names was written in that sidewalk. At the height of my confusion, I’d stumbled upon this name in the cement, and taken it as a sign. Him.

He was the wrong one, of course — they both were. And seeing this long-forgotten name now made me laugh out loud. How silly I’d been to put any credence in that coincidence. That name in the sidewalk was nothing more than external confirmation of something I already knew. I paid attention only because it told me what I wanted to hear.

And so it was with the dialect quiz. For most of my life, I’ve felt like a newcomer — someone who didn’t belong. While it’s true that there’s no single place that made me who I am, I’ve been claiming Albuquerque as my hometown for several decades now. My parents still live in the Duke City, as it’s called, and I visit regularly. Somewhere along the line my white lie became the truth. I’ve got roots in Albuquerque now. I may not belong to the place, but it certainly belongs to me.

My friend Rosemerry recently taught me a wonderful trick. Take a belief, one that defines you and your struggles, and turn it around. Assume for a moment that the opposite is true. I am from nowhere becomes I am from somewhere. We use stories to make sense of our lives, but if we’re not careful these stories can imprison us.

In my first three decades, I was the girl from nowhere, but I’m no longer that person. The truth had changed, but it took a quiz on the internet to make me realize that my story about myself hadn’t. I didn’t need a Harvard researcher’s permission to claim the identity that I already inhabited. It was me who needed to let the old self go.

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Image of Sandia Peak by Christie Aschwanden

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4 thoughts on “Redux: How an internet quiz put me in my place

  1. I took the quiz and got a fascinating result.

    I grew up in a bedroom community of Dallas, born to non-Texans and surrounded by people not from Texas, but with school teachers so Texan that it was impossible to distinguish between the words “like” and “lack”. (Don’t get me started on “nucular”.) In late teen years, I “escaped”, first to Canada, then to Austria, and finally to California where I’ve been ever since. And here’s the fascinating thing: according to the quiz, I could be from almost anywhere. Anywhere in the US except the 6 states east of New York where the heat map finally changes from a collage of reds and oranges to deep blue.

    Maybe that’s why I don’t feel like I belong anywhere. Can language accent do that?

  2. I took it too and because I grew up outside Chicago and have lived in rural Pennsylvania for 10+ years and Baltimore for 30+, I couldn’t decide which of the pronunciations I’d choose as “mine.” I should just take the test three times, one for each locale, but I really am supposed to be working.

  3. I thought I’d take the quiz as a bit of amusement, to see where it would fit me. That’s because I was born, brought up, and have lived most of my life in Australia. I have spent two or three years in the San Francisco bay area, a year in Boston and a bit of time in Albuquerque. However, the quiz suggested I was from New York – Long Island specifically.

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