In an interview with Scott Simon on National Public Radio's "Weekend Edition" two weeks ago, singer-songwriter Carole King described how she was born in Manhattan, lived briefly in Queens, but really "grew up" in Brooklyn. "And I've lived in Idaho for 28 years now, which I think almost makes me a native," she concluded.
Hmm. Almost, but not quite. Being a native of a given place isn't an attribute you develop over time. You can settle in a place, make it your adopted home, and sense your attachment growing deeper with each passing year - but you can't become a "native" later in life.
Am I being too doctrinaire? The language of nativity in the United States is rather complex. The country consists largely of the descendants of immigrants, and we historically have not been the sort of people who stayed put. As a result, many of us are "natives" of one place, which may be different from our "hometown," which may be different in turn from the place where we actually live now.
Yet even in this land of perpetual motion, second chances, and fresh starts, nativity counts for much. Those born on US soil have citizenship automatically, even if Mom swam across the Rio Grande this morning, or her plane was diverted from Vancouver to Seattle because of mechanical trouble.
In Britain, people have been shocked at reports that three suspects in the London bombings were native sons. Tellingly, they have been described, in media reports at least, as "British," despite their being nonwhite and from immigrant families.
"Native" also comes into play when we refer to the indigenous inhabitants of North America as "native Americans" or "Native Americans."
"Natives" has sometimes had a pejorative connotation, especially with reference to people outside the US: "Going native" is not seen as a good thing for a diplomat, for instance, to do.
At this time of year in New England, farm stands are full of "native" produce - which people elsewhere in the country would describe as simply "local."
Of course, sometimes "native" means simply "someone knowledgeable enough about a place to give directions." During the college summer I spent in San Francisco, I got so used to being accosted by lost tourists that I took to carrying a fairly detailed street map with me everywhere. One afternoon, I noticed, not far from the Civic Center, a couple striding purposefully up to me. I mentally braced myself and started reviewing destinations I was likely to be asked about.
But the first question out of the man's mouth was, "Are you a native?"
I bristled slightly. "Well, I live here, if that's what you mean."
It was true, for the summer at least. And I was, after checking my map, able to direct the pair to their destination.
The following year I was in Bonn, Germany, mastering another map. At one point I took the right bus in the wrong direction and ended up unexpectedly in the village of Duisdorf.
I made my way back to where I belonged. The next day, as I was passing the bus stop where I'd gone astray, I noticed a car crawling along at a pace that signaled unmistakably "lost driver looking for someone to ask directions of." I immediately ran to hide behind the nearest big tree. But too late!
"Hey, you over there, hiding behind the tree!" the driver called out. "I need you to tell me how to get to Duisdorf."
Sheepishly, I emerged from my inadequate hiding place to explain that I was too new to the area to help him.
I considered suggesting he simply park his car and wait for the bus. But I thought better of it.
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