When I started at uni and moved into the Halls, we had three questions. They were our conversation-starters. You could ask them of anyone, in the hope that the answers would give you something to talk about, if not common ground. They weren't always asked in the same form, but the gist was the same. What's your name, what subjects are you doing, and where are you from?
That was the thing about being in Halls of Residence: we were all from somewhere, somewhere outside of Christchurch. The "Where you from?" question does, in a way, imply that you don't belong where you are, but it was never meant maliciously. We were all leaving home for the first time, so we didn't want to belong in the place we'd left, either. We could band together and commonly commiserate about being from Hokitika, or Masterton, or Oamaru – unless you were the guy from Auckland we were making fun of.
Once we started mingling with the wider student body (in some cases more literally than others), the answer to "Where you from?" was occasionally completely different. It was Cashmere, or StAC, or if they were prepared to admit it, Shirley. The meaning of the question actually changed depending on the answer.
Our "fromness" is broad, flexible and context-dependent. If we're in another country and someone asks us where we're from, we say "New Zealand". If we're in our own city, we might give a suburb, or a place of work, or wonder why the hell we're being asked. Do we look like we don't belong? Are we wearing the wrong clothes, or the wrong colour skin? Did we just order a daiquiri in a bar that has leaners?
Sometimes our "fromness" is deceptive. When I'm in Auckland, people who know me slightly but not thoroughly will say, "Christchurch? I thought you were from Wellington." Despite never having lived there, I seem to have something of an air of Wellingtonness about me, which is not displeasing. Though it should be added that this is not a mistake Wellingtonians tend to make. Mind you, half of Wellington's from Christchurch anyway.
When a place makes the news, especially in tragedy, whatever degree of "fromness" we have for it resonates. Even if our memories of it are painful or conflicted, we feel it. The negative fades away for a while: our sense of belonging, our memories of place, come to the fore. I watched it happen with ex-pats with Christchurch, and then again with Japan.
About three weeks ago, I left a phone message with a receptionist in another city. She asked where I was calling from, and when I said "Christchurch," she said, "Oh my God, I'm sorry!" and she wasn't even being snide. Then she asked if we were alright and how our house was, and I realised this was going to be the way of it for a while. My "fromness" involves disaster. The answer "Christchurch" now opens a conversation every time.
I guess I kind of knew this, even before the "You know you're from Christchurch when" stuff started turning up on Facebook. (Primarily, apparently, you know you're from Christchurch if spelling and grammar are amusing relics of a totalitarian past.) Those of us who have the choice, through circumstances and economics, have thought about whether to stay or go. We've made a conscious commitment to Christchurch, and driving our kids across the width of the city every day to their "temporary" school site. We're from Christchurch more than we used to be.
Last year marked the point where I'd lived in Christchurch for more than half my life. That did just sort of happen when I wasn't looking. What I'm more aware of is that we've just had an offer on my mother's house, and when that goes through, the last of my ties to Timaru will be severed. I'll never go back. I won't be from there any more. Unless, I suppose, it gets hit by some terrible natural disaster.
No, seriously, I'm just kidding. I wouldn't even wish this on Timaru.