Home is wherever you choose to say you're from

PARADOXICALLY, my new colleague said, everyone knows someone from Sunnyvale, but no one actually is from Sunnyvale.

We kicked this idea around near the office kitchen, arranging ourselves in the automatic hacky-sack circle of spontaneous conversation.

Does Sunnyvale really exist?

How many Sunnyvalians have to leave Sunnyvale to ensure that any random New Yorker knows someone from there? When does a person stop being from Sunnyvale?

My parents went from living in poverty in small Indian towns to middle-class houses in medium-size American cities in just one generation.

They never stopped being from India, but they had kids in the U.S. We lived in several states before settling in Stockton.

The big cities suck talent out of the small hometowns; Stockton acted as a feeder school preparing me for San Francisco.

I lived in California half my life, about as long in Stockton as I did in Berkeley and San Francisco combined. I used to think I was from Stockton, and then I felt as though I was from the Bay Area.

Now the vortex of New York has drawn me in. Where will I be from in 10 years? I'm from a lot of places, so I'm not really from anywhere. I feel like a country bumpkin wandering around my own history.

Small California town to college city; then college to L.A. or S.F.; then L.A. or S.F. to New York City. That's the pattern I'm observing in my peers.

Will we return to our roots to have kids and lay the groundwork for them to repeat the cycle? Will every child have to learn how to live in the city on her own, in a geographical puberty?

A couple of Indian folktales I like have interesting takes on rubes in the big city. First:

Ravi stepped outside the Bangalore train station and stopped in amazement. How could people live in those buildings? That one was surely as tall as the Chamundi Hill, a thousand steps high. He started counting its stories.

"The city is unbelievable! Wait till the family back home hears about this!"

Vijay, the city charlatan, saw the dowdy fellow gaping and decided to have a bit of fun with him.

"Excuse me, sir. I see that you're counting the floors of that building. You'll have to pay me a rupee for each floor you've counted. City rule."

Ravi obligingly dug out his coin pouch.

"I've counted 10 floors, so here's 10 rupees."

Vijay tipped his hat, thanked Ravi, and walked away. Ravi felt a burst of pride at his quick thinking; He'd actually counted 20 floors! These city slickers couldn't put one over on him!

Here's the other:

Arun arrived back home late at night, as his neighbors were outside having tea.

"Arun! Welcome home! How was the city?" they greeted him. "Care for some tea?"

"Oh, it was wonderful. Everything is more amazing there. The buildings, the women, the music. Ah, thank you. The food in the city — I've never had such food in my life!"

Arun sipped his tea. "Even the tea in the city is better. My friends, you would not believe it; their tea is so much better than this, it's astonishing."

The glistening moon caught someone's eye. "Hey all you, look at the moon! It's beautiful tonight, isn't it?"

"Well, it's all right," Arun acknowledged, "but the moon in the city is much prettier."

"You fool," cried his neighbor, "the moon is the same everywhere!" He punctuated this retort with a ringing slap on Arun's face.

Arun replied, "I hardly felt that slap. You get better slaps in the city."

These stories don't just warn tourists that they might get scammed or become irritating. They show tourists holding on to their dignity. Ravi and Arun show sophistication in their arguments; that is the same sophistication that probably drew them to the city in the first place.

Every time I move, I feel like a rube, my sophistication unequal to the task of mastering my new city.

But a world-class city is one that no one can completely master. I learn to use a city, like a tool, for a particular purpose: to commute to work, to eat Ethiopian food, to find friends I haven't met yet. And to someday be a place to come from.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at sumana@crummy.com.