Where are you from? – A matter of identity

When you meet someone for the first time, whether it is during your travels or at home, one of the typical questions that comes up in conversation is: Where are you from?  And you would think this is an easy question to answer right? – WRONG!!!  For me, and I am sure countless others, this is probably a very difficult questions to answer and may boil down to a matter of identity.  I may have been born in one place but I have lived more than half my life in another. And more importantly I identify with more than one culture.

But when answering the question I try and keep it simple and usually just provide either the place where I currently live (Florida, USA) or the place of my birth, and where I lived the first 18 years of my life – Venezuela.  However mentioning Venezuela usually causes confusion, scrunched up faces, and puzzled looks, that are usually accompanied by the following – You are from where??!!?? Even funnier is when I am heard speaking Spanish. I get that surprised and perplexed look. You know the look, the one that makes you think you walked out of the house naked. And the look is usually followed by the following statements: “You speak great English for a Latin/Spanish person.” or “Wow I had no idea you spoke Spanish; you do not look Spanish or Latina” or “You do not look like you are from Venezuela!!!”  This last one really gets to me.

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My dear readers, there is something I have always wanted to know and maybe you can help me. What is a Venezuelan supposed to look like? Really, I want to know. Most people that tell me I do not look Venezuelan have never even been to Venezuela. Some of them do not even know where Venezuela is located, so how do they know what a Venezuelan is supposed to look like? Apparently whatever it is, I do not look like it.  Wake up folks, Venezuela, which is located in South America by the way, was built on immigrants and has a mix of every nationality, ethnicity, and religion you can think of.  It is a true melting pot.

Additionally, I speak good English because I was raised by an English speaking American who spoke to me in English all the time – THANK YOU so much mom for this gift!!!! English was also taught in school; most of the books I read for pleasure, I read in English; and I have lived in the USA for more than half of my life now. So yes, I speak English well and without an accent, even though I was not born or raised in the USA.

OK, so now you know I was born and raised in Venezuela.  But to really understand why providing a simple answer, to the not so simple question of where I am from, is actually not simple, you need to understand my roots a bit more.

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My family tree: My dad was Italian, and the son of an Italian Chef who immigrated to Venezuela and started an Ice Cream factory there.  My mom was born in the USA, New York to be exact. She is the daughter of an Austrian who immigrated to the Dominican Republic and then NY to escape the Natzi’s during WWII.  I also have family members from Germany, some that live in Sweden, some that live in Spain, some that live in Canada. 

Religion: To confuse maters even more I am also Jewish, born to a Jewish mother and a non-practicing Roman Catholic Father. This leads me to holidays.

Holidays: The holidays during my childhood were great.  I have memories of a Christmas tree filled with chocolate ornaments as well as a Menorah and receiving gifts each night for Hanukkah.  We celebrated Jewish holidays like Purim, Sukkot and Passover at home and in school.  But I still enjoyed the national holidays like Carnaval and Semana Santa (Holy Week) or got invited to celebrate Easter with friends and Christmas with my non Jewish family.  The celebrations were joyous, we sang songs in Spanish, English, German and Hebrew. And for Christmas we all stayed up till midnight so we could open gifts on Noche Buena. Lets just say it was fun celebrating all type of holidays. These were happy times, no fights over religion, just acceptance and love.  I think this made me more open minded. 

And don’t even get me started on the traditions for New Years Eve. Have you ever worn yellow underwear for good luck?  Have you filled a suitcase with money, a valid passport, and clothing and taken it for a stroll around the block so that you will be blessed with more travel in the coming year?  or have you eaten 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight, while making wishes you want to come true?  I have. These are all part of my traditions and experiences I had while growing up.

Food: Lets start with the holiday food. During Christmas we ate a mix of traditional Venezuelan cuisine like hallacas and ensalada de gallina (chicken salad) combined with German cuisine like red cabbage and pork.  Let’s not forget the latkes and gifilta fish for Hanukkah. And for dessert some Italian Panetone or German Stollen (both different versions of fruit cake). Or how about Cascos de guayaba con queso crema (guava shells with cream cheese) or Sufganiyot (Jelly filled donuts traditional of Hanukkah).

Now for the everyday eats.  I grew up eating food from all over the world (remember I mentioned all the immigrants in Venezuela – this translates to global cuisine and incredible restaurants) and because of this there is not much I do not eat or do not like.  I have even tried and enjoy some less traditional foods in my travels such as snails, frog legs, and kangaroo. I enjoy food almost as much as I enjoy traveling.

I was also blessed with amazing homemade Italian food. My Dad and my Nono made the most amazing risotto, gnocchi, and raviolis. My Nona made great polenta and rabbit in wine sauce. And I remember fondly my Sunday family breakfasts when my mom would make pancakes or French toast with fresh orange juice.

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But if you are wondering what are the typical Venezuelan foods? These are arepas, pavellon criollo, cachitos, empanadas and tequenos, and drinks like café con leche, chicha, malta and frescolita. Thankfully I am still able to enjoy these living in South Florida. 

Travel: My love for travel was instilled in me as a child.  I visited my Great Grandmother in Switzerland before I could even walk or talk. I remember spending summers in Italy and France with my Nona. I visited with my Grandma and Aunt in New York and took road trips from there to visit family in Canada. I also traveled in my birth land. Some of the most amazing places I have ever been to are in Venezuela. 

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I have the best memories of going to “Hato el Burro” – my Aunt and Uncle’s ranch. Riding horses, feeding the chickens, picking eggs in the morning, and going on amazing excursions to places like Angel Falls, Canaima, and Kavak.  Or spending holidays at their beach house in Boca de Uchire.  I also traveled with friends and with school to other places in Venezuela such as Morrocoy, Merida, Margarita Island, and even took a class trip abroad to Israel.

Travel has always been a part of my life and it has shaped it immensely.  My eclectic background and my travels have made me who I am.

So you ask again–  Joella, where are you from? I still have trouble answering this question and I probably always will. Is the correct answer Venezuela the place where I was born?  Or is the correct Answer USA the place where I have lived most of my life? Or is the answer Italy, Germany, or Austria as these are part of my heritage and foundation? 

These days my short answer is I am an American born in Venezuela. But the truth is that it is so much more than that. But in the end I think the important thing is not where I am from but who I am.  I am an original mix and a part of the world.  I am my own. And I would not change a single thing.

So where are you from?

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17 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your story, my friend. I so enjoy reading and learning about one of the most incredible people I am blessed to have in my life. Where am I from? It’s funny, I always have the same response – I’m originally from Chicago… almost like I am reminding myself that no matter where I live, Chicago will always be a part of me. I’ve lived in Virginia, California and New Jersey, but always make sure to say I’m from Chicago. 🙂

    1. I never knew you were from Chicago. I always thought you were from NJ. Chicago is a place I really want to visit. You will have to tell me all about it.

  2. I completely agree and your story is so cool. People also keep on telling me all the time that my German is so good although I was born in Kazachstan. Most of them don’t even know where that is. They don’t know what language is spoken there and so on … Actually the same story! Btw: I know where Venezuela is, as I have colleagues from Venezuela and they don’t look Venezuelan ?
    Hugs, Viktoria

    1. I must confess I had to look up Kazachstan as I had no idea where that was located. It is funny how many people from so many different places can relate to this story. Thanks for reading Viktoria. And Happy Roving!!!

  3. Loved reading this!Thanks for sharing!The hardest question for me also. I feel like I´ve left a piece of my heart in every city I lived and the answer to “where you from?” gets more confusing with every year lol

    1. It does get more confusing every year especially if you have lived in different places. And me like you have left part of my heart in some of the places I have been to. Most recently in Scotland. I hope to be blogging about that soon. Happy Roving Anna!!

  4. I SO relate to much of what you’ve said and I tend to just say I live in California. I was born in Ireland but have never lived there, though I feel more and more Irish as my mother now lives in Dublin and I visit frequently. I live in the US and have been here for decades, but I spend a lot of time outside the country. My father was British and my mother Irish and they married back when Catholic/Protestant marriages were rare. My parents lived in Africa for much of my childhood (Egypt and Nigeria)but I was educated in England. As an adult I spent a couple of years in Southern Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia.Frankly, like your cosmopolitan background it just sound profoundly unlikely to most Americans who may not travel a great deal. I tend not to mention it and when people hear the English accent they feel they’ve “placed” me – though being English has never begun to define how I think about myself. When I travel I feel I often meet people with similar experiences of dislocation and I relate to other immigrant in the US. You and I sound like we belong to a similar tribe ?.

    1. Yes my dear we sure sound like we are part of the same – so nice to find others that can relate so well because they have lived it. Your background is indeed very interesting and you should consider yourself lucky to have it. What an amazing story and I am blessed that you have shared it with me.

  5. Wow Joella! Mil gracias por haber compartido este post conmigo! Que impresionante la educación cultural y lingual que has obtenido durante de tu vida! Pero entiendo que puede ser confuso para ti porque creciste en Venezuela pero tus padres no son Venezolanos. Así quiero que crezca mi hijo. Tu eres el contrario completo de mi. Yo supuestamente soy 100% alemana pero no me siento así. Crecí hablando solo alemán. Como adolescente me enseñé inglés a través de mi página web y amigos de internet que tenía en EEUU. Cuando tenía 18 empecé a vivir en otros países. Aprendí español, sueco… Tengo varios amigos colombianos (como Alexita del post al que contestaste) y en mi trabajo anterior trataba sólo con Latino América (básicamente cada país aparte de Venezuela por las limitaciones de negocios que había). Me alegra mucho haber aprendido un poco con respecto a tu historia. Eres una mezcla muy linda de muchas culturas que me encantan 🙂

    1. Gracias Martha por tomarte el tiempo de leer mi historia y dejarme un comentario en mi pagina. A mi me encanta aprender de otras personas y culturas y le doy gracias a D-os por haberme dado las oportunidades que me ha dado. Tu historia es muy impresionante. Mucha dedicacion para aprender todo lo que haz logrado. Tu y Nigel han vivido una vida increible y que bendicion que puedan viajar y impartir esa cultura a tus hijos. Estoy muy agradecida de haber cruzado camino con ustedes y espero algun dia conocerlos a los dos en persona.

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article and I was really taken by your diverse childhood. How wonderful to have experienced so much and to have not conformed to being just one thing but many. I loved reading about the different food you had and your fabulous traditions. I may have to adopt the “taking your passport for a stroll in your suitcase” one. I can’t help but feel that the world would be a better place if we all embraced everything instead of just being one thing. Y

    1. Suzanne thank you for your kind comments. Travel really helps people grow and be more tolerant. My background is diverse and I am thankful for it. I love all the different traditions that different countries and cultures have and it is fun to adopt them. And you are right the world would be better if people would be more tolerant and embraced the differences.

      1. We are back in the U.K now after spending the the last 4 years living in Qatar. Whilst we were so sad to leave Qatar, my children remind me regularly of how lucky we were for the experience we had. Even now (been home 6 months) they still come out with Arabic words and it makes me smile every time. Thank you for helping me start my morning in such a nice frame of mind.

        1. How wonderful that they got to learn a new language. Those are skills the will have with them for a lifetime. I am glad I brought a smile to start your day. Your comments have brought a big smile to mine. By the way I love the U.K. especially Scotland.

  7. What an unexpected post! I had no idea as to what to expect when i clicked on the link but so pleasantly surprised. I loved reading about your background and exploration of identity. I can totally relate too. I was born in Argentina but as of next year I would have spent as much of my life there as I now have in Australia. My dad’s side is also Italian and my mum’s a mix of other nationalities. It’ll get even more confusing for my children! I now have two little boys whom I am trying to teach Spanish to in an English speaking country. They have an aussie dad with English descent. So I do wonder what their reflection on their experiences will drive them to describe where they are from. So thanks for sharing! This is definitely a question that will never be quite precise to answer =)

    1. So glad you enjoyed this post Elisa. It is a question that becomes even more complex as we change and move and have children who are born and then live in different countries. I love my background. I am thankful for it. And I know your kids will be as well.

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