The Narrative Burden

Asking adoptees ‘Where are you from?’ is never simple

A.J. Bryant
3 min readNov 6


young boy holding up cart loaded with bags on the street
Photo by Hans Eiskonen — Pexels

Where are you from? Usually a basic question, but for international adoptees, it’s not.

My typical response is, “I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and moved to Central New Jersey in my teens. I’ve lived in Washington D.C. since 2005.”

Which elicits a frown, or quizzical facial expression. Their follow-up question is “Where are you really from?”

I assume they’re asking the “really” part because I have brown skin and speak without an accent. I must be forgoing details from my origin story, confusing them.

Most times, I’m happy to converse with total strangers and continue the conversation.

“Well, actually I’m adopted from India.” I rejoin. But other times, I don’t want to share my life story with those I don’t know. I repeat the Wisconsin, New Jersey, Washington D.C., spiel leaving them perplexed.

‘Where are you from?’ Most people can give a simple one or two-sentence answer.

For those whose physical appearance, mannerisms, and language don’t align with society’s preconceived notions, it’s never easy.

Years ago I attended a conference comprised of transational adoptees. I heard a great term describing the question “Where are you from?”

They called it “the narrative burden.” What an apt description.

How much should I reveal?

When people ask about our background, how much information should we give them? That’s a question that each individual, adopted or otherwise decides for themselves.

I don’t fault the person asking the question. It’s one of the most fundamental in small talk. But should everyone answer it?

Social convention says ‘yes,’ we should at least try to tell someone who asks us. When people give less than forthcoming answers about their background, that raises red flags.

What annoys me, is when I obviously don’t want to continue the line of questioning — yet they continue.

For some reason, people think when I don’t want to delve into my history that I’m being rude. My story is convoluted. If I…



A.J. Bryant

Adopted from Kerala. I write about adoption, my intercultural marriage, and contemporary India. Prawns are my love language. @adoptedkeralite