I am in California, no longer a resident of New Hampshire, not quite a resident of California yet. I have been thinking a lot about place recently, about how I am never quite in one place. I never seem to be “from here.”
I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as my father started law school there at Harvard. But before I was one year old I was here in California for a few weeks; my father was still in the naval reserve, so when he went off for his summer of service, my mother flew here with me. The next summer (I do not remember any of this) we spent in Cleveland, Ohio. And the following summer (1960) we moved to Arcadia, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.
I remember Arcadia so clearly, even though it was fifty years ago now that I lived there. I attended elementary and junior high school there; I visited the public library daily during the summer; I rode my bike to see friends and to piano lessons and so on.
Then, in 1972, my parents moved to Newport Beach and I went off to boarding school at Phillips Exeter. The two events were somewhat linked; if we had stayed in Arcadia I might have stayed with my friends in the public schools there. But, coming here to a new town and new schools, it seemed to make even more sense to go East, in search of academic challenge. For the next few years, I spent summers here in Newport Beach, but I did not consider myself FROM here. When asked, in California, where are you from, I would generally say “I go to school back east.” And when asked, in New Hampshire, where I was from, I would say “from California.” I even did things to “reinforce” my California identity, like listen to the Beach Boys, which at the time was UNHEARD of back east.
When I graduated from Harvard Law School, and started working in Washington, DC, my “residence” had more or less the same pattern. When asked, back east, where I was from, I would say California; when asked, in California, where I was from, I would say that I lived and worked in Washington. This became even more pronounced in 1986, when I moved to Hong Kong. I was clearly NOT from Hong Kong, but I loved living and working there, in part because almost everyone was “not from here,” they were from New Zealand and Britain and Germany and Australia. And even those who were “from” Hong Kong were generally from some other part of China, and had fascinating stories about how their families arrived in Hong Kong with nothing and worked their way up. I am sure that this was one reason that, in 1995, when offered a chance to return to Hong Kong, I leapt.
For the past six years, we have actually had two houses. When we moved up to Exeter, in the late summer of 2008, we kept our house in Virginia. For one thing, we would never have fit all our books and clothes in the Exeter house; for another, Masami was only given a one-year appointment; who was to say that we would not be returning after one school year? So we commuted from Virginia to New Hampshire and then, after selling the Virginia house and buying the California house, we commuted from California to New Hampshire. We certainly have never dared to say that we are from New Hampshire; one has to have generations of ancestors buried there, I believe, to be from New Hampshire. But we also have not been from California; it is just a summer house, where we stay while visiting my parents and enjoying the beach.
But now we have emptied our Exeter apartment, turned the keys back to the Academy, and (soon) given up our New Hampshire drivers’ licenses. We have only the one house, here in California. So how will I answer that inevitable question: where are you from? Probably not with a simple answer, because I doubt that, even if I live the rest of my life here, that I will feel that I am FROM here.