“So, where are you from?”
Not a hard question to answer, right? I’m from South Carolina, in the United States. I study at Duke University, and I’m volunteering here through a comparative service project on economic development. Of all of the questions I’ve been asked since coming to the United Kingdom, this one is definitely the simplest. Unlike inquiries on what I’m studying, my thoughts on British weather, or which Durham restaurants I want to try next, questions about my home have easy, unchanging answers.
And yet, visiting the UK has me thinking about home more than ever. During our first days in Durham, I saw a side of “home,” and of the relationship between origin and identity, unlike what I’ve known in the United States. One of our orientation speakers was a prominent figure in Durham’s government and had spent several decades living and working in the city. Yet, he claimed he was not a Durham man. In the days that followed, I met people who’ve lived in England since childhood and consider themselves Scottish, staff who’ve resided in Durham for forty years and say they’re from York, and Durham University graduates living in the area who identify more strongly with their southern hometowns. For the people I’ve met, “Where are you from?” is not a simple answer about where they are, but where they originally were.
These encounters differ hugely from what I saw in North Carolina. The Bull City community was one you joined—you became Durham once you knew the streets, talked to the people, and understood the history. Panelists, supervisors, and volunteers called North Carolina home after a few years, let alone their entire lives. In Durham, England, I’m meeting people who find home in their origin stories. Their family histories play a much stronger role in defining personal identity than their current locations do. For the last two weeks, I’ve been fascinated by both views and how they speak to the different cultures, histories, and economies of the two Durhams.
Exploring what it means to be from a place—not just in one—has been one of the most intriguing parts of serving internationally. In North Carolina, I learned about the ways community fuels economic development. In the UK, I’m seeing the influence of identity and home on community itself. Through my work at The Fells, a residential hostel for homeless, adult males in County Durham, I’m gaining even more perspectives on defining “being from” and home, and how those definitions shape individual experiences. My time in England has been as full of learning and discovery as it has of service, and I’m excited to keep exploring identity, community, and the UK in my last two weeks of DukeEngage.