July-August 2017

Where Are You From? By Nina Gautam

High School Essay Contest Winner, Winston Churchill

Illustration by David Owens

Home. Four small letters yet the word has infinite meanings. On the first day of summer camp, cheesy icebreaker activities are always a go-to for counselors. This year, the question addressed to my group was “Where are you from?” Immediately, flashes of the yard in Uganda appeared in my head, the homemade swing in Tanzania, my bedroom in Maryland. When it was my turn to share, I hesitated, then quietly mumbled something about Bethesda as I was finally able to picture one complete house instead of fragments of rooms in multiple houses. That first night, I lay awake in the dorm for hours pondering the different answers I could have given, and if I had given the right answer.

In Uganda, my two best friends, the daughters of our housekeeper, taught me how to ride a bike in the red-dust road filled with potholes and broken glass, while I taught them how to type on the computer. We shared everything from clothes to forbidden afternoon snacks to lice, intertwining lives so closely that our accents at the end of three years were not Lugandan, American or British, but a strange mixture of all three. I am from Uganda. 

In Tanzania, I learned about the East African slave trade and the endangered species of the savanna, how to snorkel and pick up sea urchins without getting pricked, how to properly open a coconut, and how to use only two buckets of cold water to shower when the power was out. I have numerous Tinga Tinga paintings, for which Dar es Salaam is famous, and a dhow wood bookshelf made from recycled local fishing boats. I am from Tanzania. 

Here in Bethesda, my bedroom’s walls are purple, but the paint is barely visible behind all of the pictures and signs hanging up. I have our red diplomatic license plate from Uganda, beaded Swahili signs, and an Indian bedspread and tapestry that I got on one of many visits to New Delhi, where my dad was born and raised. I learned how to ski and drive here, how to use a cash register and play competitive volleyball. Here I see the other side of the scale, what comfort and abundance look like compared with the poverty of developing countries. I am also from Maryland. 

After hours of lying awake on the first night of camp, I fell asleep with one conclusion. I don’t want to be a person who defines herself by the address of her current house. I see no borders; home cannot be confined to one address, one city, one country, one continent. I thrive on diversity and compassion, on new experiences and different perspectives. Whatever I end up doing in life, I hope I will be able to satiate this desire, because I am a mosaic of past experiences. In the future, I hope the question “Where are you from?” never fails to make me pause and reflect on the different pieces of the mosaic, of me. 

Nina Gautam


Lives in: Bethesda

High School: Graduated in May from Winston Churchill in Potomac

Age: 17

Favorite place to write: “Anywhere—setting does not matter.”

Favorite author: John Green

Up next: Attending UCLA, where she plans to be on the premed track, majoring in human biology and society. “I am looking forward to participating in research and studying abroad. I do plan to keep on writing, but only for myself.”