How To Answer “Where Are You From?”

As an Asian Australian who speaks with a slightly tinged Singaporean-Malaysian accent, quite often here in Melbourne people ask me when we’re mid-conversation, “Where are you from?”.

This question is an ambiguous one. As Melissa Loh has discussed, it can mean: Which city I live in? Which country I was born in? Where I grew up? Which planet? Where my ancestors come from? Which languages I speak?

Each pair of shoes travels far and wide. Where are you from? Photo: Mabel Kwong

Each pair of shoes travels far and wide. Where are you from? Photo: Mabel Kwong

Pretty sure a lot of the time, many who ask me this question want to know where I call home and expect a simple, straightforward answer. Also, they are those whom I’ve met not too long ago and perceive as strangers.

Born in Melbourne to Malaysian migrant parents, I hold Australian citizenship. Having grown up in Asia and Australia, “home” is essentially foreign to me – I feel attached to each country I’ve lived in in some way. From my experiences residing in different continents, I’ve learnt to affiliate with both Asian and Western values, making my identity a complex one.

As such, I don’t have a definitive answer to “Where are you from?”. Instead, when I’m challenged by Asians and Caucasians alike to come up with a quip there and then, a myriad feelings eclipse me and a thousand questions run through my head:

Are you thinking about whether I speak a language other than English? Are you assuming my first language is Chinese? Are you convinced I’m a foreigner?

Why the question? Why are you interested in me? What do you want to know about me?

Are you a bad person? What do you do? Who are you?

Sometimes, I feel flush when confronted with the intrusive question. 99% of the time, I feel uncomfortable because I’m a private person and really am not keen on sharing my life story with someone I barely know. My response depends on my mood and the tone of the person throwing this phrase at me. So far, I’ve responded with these statements and here are the reactions I get:

1.      I’m from Australia.

This is very true. I am Australian. But then people tend to wear a confused look on their faces, as if they can’t believe they’re hearing an Australian speak with a non-Anglo accent.

2.      My parents are from Malaysia.

Using this reply, I’m in a sense diverting attention away from myself. People tend to think that I’m Malaysian when they hear this.

 3.      I grew up in Singapore. But my parents are Malaysian.

Ditto.

 4.      China.

People find this hard to believe since I speak like a Singaporean or Malaysian.

 5.      It’s none of your business.

I usually say this when I’m having a bad day or when I’m not in the mood for conversation. Or when I feel apprehensive towards the person asking me the question or the person sounds nosy. Yes, this response sounds rude and stand-offish. Nevertheless, I get people reiterating the question to me again, or they will prod, “Where did you grow up?”

 6.      Where are you from?

I get quizzical looks when I throw the question back at them. Friendly strangers often mention where they are (presumably) born and then the ball’s in my court.

 7.      …

Silence. With this response, an audible uncomfortable pause follows and a rush of awkwardness simmers between me and the person who asked the question.

 8.      I’m from three places. Guess where. If you get them all correct, you can be my friend.

I say this when I’m feeling cheery or am warming towards the strangers I’m talking to. Usually, they catch on to my humorous side and gamely play along. No one has won yet and I have few friends.

At times, I feel sad because it’s hard for me to truthfully express who I am in one quick sentence to nice, down-to-earth people asking the said question. At the end of the day, I don’t know which is more amusing when people first meet me: them asking me “Where are you from?” or them stereotypically assuming I hail from Asia based on my accent and looks.

How do you/would you answer “Where are you from?”

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55 thoughts on “How To Answer “Where Are You From?”

  1. Thanks for sharing. I get this question a lot but it certainly doesn’t carry the same weight and I like to have them guess as well, especially when I’m in a playful mood. They are usually wrong. I guess that means I’m a bad American. But anyways, your post made me think of this video. Enjoy!
    youtube.com/watch?v=DWynJkN5HbQ
    Have a great day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing this video Matt! I have seen it lurking around on YouTube, but never got around to watching it and completely forgot about it. Until now! Funny how people never really get “Where are you from” correct when we ask them to guess…do they even want to guess correctly and get the question correct? Do they think they know more than us about “where we’re from”? I don’t know. I think a lot of the time they don’t expect to play this lovely guessing game. Have a great weekend 🙂

      Like

      • I find this video funny (as in comedic). I like adding a dash of humour to my responses when answering “Where are you from?”. But as the video shows, sometimes the person asking the question just can’t comprehend funny responses and may get offended.

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    • Haha, yes lah. My accent really does confuse people and sometimes their mouths fall open. To be frank, my speech is rarely peppered with Singapore-Malaysian words…it’s the intonation of my words that makes me sound foreign. I’m sure you don’t get the question all the time, if at all. But it really is fun sometimes to get people to guess my heritage and race when it pops up!

      Like

    • It’s quite normal for children regardless of where they are born to pick up the accents from their parents. i know quite a few people who were born in the same country as me but have slight foreign accents. Also if someone lives in a mixed area then accents and loan words can be picked up as well. If you go back in history both American and Australia accents were formed largely from English speakers from different areas/accents all mixing with each other.

      I’m sorry to disagree with your views Conrad in that ‘That will change over time though’. Even in 50 years time or so a second or third generation Asians will still be asked ‘Where do you come from?’ The YouTube video above is an example of that.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It is a good question. But at the same time, as you mention, it can be rather redundant. Our ancestors all come from somewhere, usually a different city or country altogether. So we’re all from “somewhere” or “some place”!

      Like

  2. The video Matthew posted is hilarious!!! I’ve seen it before. May have to post it on my blog one of these days.

    You definitely have a hard situation to describe in response to that question. I would imagine that most people don’t mean harm when they ask you, though. I think it’s cool that you can claim heritage in a lot of different places. I definitely feel as though I’ve had a lot of home throughout my life, though California is where my roots are and where my “home home” will always be. Your heritage is much more interesting… So embrace it!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think most of the time, people really are just curious about my background and want to know more. Nothing wrong with that. I’ve had some conversations with some people where I can just feel that they want to know where I’m from but don’t dare voice that question, possibly afraid they’ll offend me I presume. The question also serves as a good conversation starter in my opinion. To me, your background is very interesting. Always been fascinated by how some people can comfortably call one place “home” 🙂

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      • Well I spent the first 18 years of my life here. Since then, I’ve had many homes. And for that, I am so so glad. A single home produces a small worldview, which is what I discussed in my most recent poem. 😉

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  3. I don’t think it’s anyone’s business to know where you’re from. You ever ask a Caucasian Australian with a noticeable accent where he/she is from? (Perhaps we should ask a Caucasian Australian this question.) My background is kind of like yours – parents escaped Mainland China to Taiwan during communist invasion. I was born in Taiwan and moved to Canada when I was 4 years old. Moved back to Taipei for a few years in the early 90s then did my MBA in the States, then got a job in Canada. Then lived in China for 8 years. Now I live in three countries. When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them where I’m living now. (Which is also kind of not clear, but oh well, better than explaining where I’m from.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really is no one’s business to know where we’re from. Sometimes when I ask a Caucasian where they are from, they look at me as if I’m joking and am being ridiculous asking such a question. We have every right to ask that question and I think it’s shallow of Caucasians to laugh at us when we ask them it. It’s just another question, really…

      I like your response of telling people where you live. I guess people usually nod their heads at this response and the conversation would, hopefully, quickly drift from there to a topic less personal and invasive.

      Like

  4. I myself am an Asian Australian. Grew up in Australia, have an Aussie accent, and have viewpoints which are considered ‘non-Asian’. My friends in Australia do consider me as Australian, though some randoms on the street will sometimes ask, “Where are you from”, with one man referring to me as a tourist once when I was riding a bus in Sydney. I identify myself as being Australian (since this is the culture I was exposed to and lived in the longest and is the place where I live permanently), but whenever I tell people (especially Asians like the one I encountered in trips to my ancestral home in Asia) that I’m Australian, they look at me like I’m nuts. It does confuse me sometimes when people ask that 🙂 I guess the ‘where are you from’ question’s preferred answer depends on each individual. For example, what makes someone Australian? Do they need to be born there from a long line of Aussie citizens?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The two questions you posed are very interesting ones. Australia is a migrant country, so you would think that a lot of Aussie citizens/ancestors are from diverse background and/or countries.

      Sometimes when I am out taking photos with my camera (this is a hobby of mine) in Melbourne, I get strange looks from white Australians and at times they will purposely stop behind me and let me take a picture so they will not get in the way. Their facial expressions say it all – that I’m a tourist which is so not true. Like you, I get confused when white Australians or Asian Australians ask me “Where are you from?”. When I say “Australia” and people look at me like I’m crazy, sometimes I like to say, “I’m…REALLY from Australia” just to throw them off more. Once I had someone who kept insisting that I was from New Zealand, but this is another story altogether 🙂

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    • Hahaha! I guess this is what we have to put up with… Some Asians who grew up in the West get insulted when they hear such an answer. But if you have a positive attitude, well, this question will always be a fun one 🙂

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  5. I’ve also been asked this question quite a few times but sometimes I feel uncomfortable with answering it. Do I give a short answer, do I give a fuller explanation (and bore them in the process) and what happens after they have digested the answer. I’ve had a few people look at me differently after I have told them as well. (I was same person 10 seconds ago before you asked)

    Although I’m not Asian I could in part relate to the story behind ‘Shanghai Kiss’.

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    • “Where are you from” seems like a direct question but in all honesty it’s one of the most ambiguous ones ever. So sorry for you and sad people actually have another opinion of you entirely after you’ve answered the question. It goes to show how judgmental and narrow-minded some people can be.

      These days I don’t mind the question at all…I love seeing people’s reactions and in a sense it’s a way to see who has a good sense of humour. I haven’t watched Shanghai Kiss but it seems like a good movie to see on a lazy weekend.

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      • The question itself is actually fairly innocent because people ask standard questions when they first introduce themselves to each other. I guess I need to ask that question back at people more.

        The movie I’ve mentioned I enjoyed watching because it does I believe answer this topic. Interestingly I have the European version of the film which has the better front cover on it. I’ve seen other front covers of that film and didn’t like them so much.

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        • “fairly innocent” is a good way of putting it. It would be fun if we started asking the question back at those who ask it in the first place. Most of them would be very, very surprised and some might be a bit insulted – that is, if they are a local living where we’re at. We might look rude asking that question, or we might come off as curious.

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  6. Hi,
    I found your blog when googling answers for “Where are you from?”. I’m glad that I am not the only one who finds this question tedious as well as intrusive. I’ve been in the UK for 30 years and speak without a hint of Chinese accent, yet when anyone has a conversation with me for the first time and asks “Where are you from?”. They are not satisfied with my answers until I tell them what my ethnic background is. First I answer which town I live in, which is met with “No, where are you from originally?” to which I reply which country I grew up in i.e. the UK, then again “No, what country do your parents come from?” then that’s when I have to say Hong Kong even though I’ve only been there once on holiday and not to see any relatives either. I think I might try and see how many different answers I can give before we get to my ethnic background. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • “tedious as well as intrusive” That’s a good way to describe the question. It can be an amusing question, but is can be a very personal one that we would not rather be asked for privacy reasons. I really like your friend’s response. It is a very honest answer, but at the same time someone might take it the wrong way and think you are insulting them.

      Have fun with answering “Where are you from?”. The more varied responses you give, the more intriguing responses may you get 😀

      Like

  7. One that is not on the list of answers that my friend would use when she’s not feeling sociable is “my mother’s womb.” Technically correct although I would never have the nerve to say that myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is the most difficult, pointless, meaningless, and offensive question to me. And one few long-lasting problems I’m trying to find a key to.

    A little bit of a background:
    I was born in one country in Europe. I grew up there. I lived in 4 Asian countries last years. And live here still. My relatives hold different nationalities/ethnicities which could describe them by blood: arctic race, asian descendent, caucasian race… overall 5 different “nationalities”. While I was growing I absorbed mostly American-ish and Japanese culture. When I was a teenager I dived in counter-culture, Greek philosophy, Hawaiian while continued to possess the interest in American and Japanese. Later I took some from Indian, native American, Finnish, Chinese while continued to have the interest in Japanese and Hawaiian. As well as Hong Kong and Singapore. And it’s not like I completely took all the cultural features but shared some of them. So I also took some from Sri Lankan and Thai since I lived there a bit. I always was local everywhere I lived or visited, some places were closer to me, some were not.

    The thing is:
    1) I don’t like to be framed or put a label on me. So most of the questions like “Are you christian, buddhist, vegetarian, democrat, Greek, Chinese… this and that?” are not so easy to answer.
    2) I don’t live in the past so I live only presently.
    3) I don’t consider myself as a part of any community, nation, country, religion, race, ethnicity, culture, movement, idea and whatnot.
    4) I develop my culture every day. I stay dynamic. I do not use static terms, descriptions etc. I don’t say or act in absolute. I’m here and now. Everything that is absolute, strict, framed, labeled already belongs to past the time you mention it.
    5) I don’t understand what people exactly want to know and it’s not so appreciated to ask 10 questions back, whereas most of the people answer with one name.

    I shaped a lot of responses to that question, yet there’s no universal one. Sometimes if you pick the wrong one it creates some extra weirdness. The other thing is how you answer of course. I try to be easy going, positive, funny and smiling and etc.

    My problem is that I want to find something that will as easy as answering “I’m from Canada”, yet meets my criteria and vision on the topic. I don’t want to play psychic and riddler every time. I don’t want to give the answer people “want” because then the framing and tons of prejudice, preconception, and weird questions, and “related” news show up. And all that returning and talking in past tense etc.

    I seek for help. Please, someone give me some hints!

    Here are my answers:

    Uh, you know, here… There… You know how it is..!

    I wear many hats

    I don’t care

    It doesn’t matter

    It doesn’t matter to me

    Does it matter?

    Lived in [name the countries you lived in]

    Krakozhia / Mordor / Tatooine / etc

    Asia / Europe / Savanna / Desert etc

    Was born in [country]

    I’m a universal soul

    I’m a world citizen

    Sorry, I find this question offensive

    What do you mean exactly? What do you want to know?

    I don’t belong

    From a place where I don’t belong and have no connection but a legal one

    I cannot name a one particular place

    This question makes me feel uncomfortable

    [Country]. What does it say to you?

    I don’t consider myself as a part of any particular country

    I came from [name the last country visited]

    I cannot answer that question

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is an very interesting background you have, Yvor. One learns to see and experience so much coming from a family of different nationalities and having the opportunity to live in more than one place. “I don’t live in the past so I live only presently.” This is quite a profound phase, one that I agree with. A lot of the time the present is where we’re at, where we rightfully live in the moment to learn and define ourselves. Then again, sometimes certain things from our past might stick with us into the present, so in a sense for some of us, we might live in the past. Which would make “Where are you from?” a really complex question for them. It really is a loaded question.

      I really like all of your suggestions to, “Where are you from?”. “It doesn’t matter” reminds me of a time recently where I responded to this extended. To the question, I responded, “That is completely irrelevant”. The person who asked the question seemed quite miffed at that response, and you are right in saying that not all responses will go down well with everyone and in each context. I suppose if you take the time to know someone and what they can do and in general the way they think and behave, then “Where are you from?” becomes less and less daunting and awkward.

      Like

      • Hi Mabel,

        Thank you for the response. Exactly, when you get to know someone closer it doesn’t really matter, you can tell them “where are you from”, and because they know you they will understand your opinion.

        I’ve come across more answers just recently. I’ll post here once I’ll have something if you don’t mind. Maybe I’ll find someone who has a key to my question of how to handle it…

        It’s not my favourite topic

        I’m not into labels

        Why’s this important right now?

        Not important

        It’s insignificant

        It’s inconsequential

        I’m extraneous

        I’m am a mongrel

        I’m multi-local

        My home is where I am

        My home is where I’m happy

        Perception stains reality

        I possess no personal designation

        I have no personal classification

        I have no personal categorization

        I have no place of personal association

        Liked by 1 person

        • These are excellent responses, Ing, some more literal than others. Some of them more thought-provoking. I really like “My home is where I am”. Home is what we make it to be.

          I’ve been working on another blog post about this question again for a while now. It’s a topic that can be debated for hour on end.

          Like

  9. What I experience is –
    “Is that a Scottish accent I hear?”
    Yes
    What part of Scotland do you come from?
    There……..
    Oh my wife/husband and I went there on our last holiday
    Lovely – what did you think?
    Then an interesting and friendly conversation follows before we part and go our different ways.
    Sorry – but in my experience, I do not find the question intimidating in the least.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good for you and nice you get interesting conversations out of it. Small talk can be enlightening. Like the question, small talk is intimidating to me too quite a lot of the time – I’m very much the introvert.

      Like

  10. I’m glad I saw this post, I’m often asked this question, which I’m sure many people are asked this question very often as well. It often tends to be a conversation starter for a lot of people. I don’t mind being asked it most of the time, but it’s only when it’s asked very suddenly out of the blue. At the same time, I feel like it’s such a simple question, but it means so much to every person!

    For example, when people ask “Where are you from?” they’re usually wondering where the person was born and raised. They want to know what race you are. I usually instinctively say Auckland (as that’s where I was born), but then they’ll ask “No, where are you really from?” or “Where are your parents from?”. The question where are you from to me is like asking, where is your home, and home is in NZ for me.

    I do feel (and I hope it doesn’t offend anyone who may read this) that we do live in a white culture, in the sense that generally speaking most people won’t ask a white person where they’re from, unless perhaps if they have a different accent. Where are you from instantly makes it feel like I’m not from here, but perhaps I’m a bit more sensitive towards this question, as it’s been something that’s been asked my whole life. Ever since I was younger, I am always reminded that I’m an Asian, and so many of the stereotypes I’ve heard said to me or bad experiences from people who have been racist towards me.

    The question “Where are you from?” can have a lot of emotional, psychological and personal weight on it. Although, most days I will say “I was born in NZ but my parents are from Taiwan” or I’ll ask “Do you mean where I was born or my ethnicity?”

    Liked by 1 person

    • ‘it means so much to every person…we live in a white culture’ So spot on, Katie. And I agree with you. The question is always more than meets the eye, and often the person asking it has a pre-defined notion of who we *should* me. Like you, I tend to be more sensitive towards the question no matter how many times I’ve been asked it.

      It is polite of you to clarify the question with the person asking it. More often than not, I feel it is too much of an effort to do just that, and will just mumble something about my parents’ home country – and the other person will immediately ‘get it’.

      Like

      • Thanks for your reply Mabel! I suppose there are many of us who are more sensitive towards the question because whatever we answer with would be how others see a part of our identity and if it gets quite deep, maybe even stereotypes on personality, behaviour and values.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I am a white Slavic and have lived in London, Paris, Prague and Vienna and this question always comes up. Cue to Western Europeans prejudging me as untrustworthy as I come from the Balkans.

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    • I like how you say it ‘‘Here, from the heart’, and you? Still smiling.’ It’s a phrase I will keep in mind. We carry our hearts wherever we go, and who we are is the makeup of the heart. Very clever. Thank you 🙂

      Like

  11. It must be frustrating. I’m guilty of sometimes asking people where they’re from if they’ve got a foreign accent I don’t recognize. I try not to because my mom’s English and people tend to ask me if I got her accent and whether or not I’ve visited England and if I’ve got a dual citizenship. Just because I’ve got a foreign mother mean I’m an expert on that country. I grew up with my country’s ideologies, just like everyone else.

    Like

    • Sometimes we are just plain curious about where someone has been, and the most direct way to ask it is ‘Where are you from?’ It is very thoughtful of you to not generalise. So true what you said – not all of us will have ties with a certain place even if our parents do. Where we are from and where we feel comfortable calling home is dependent on our individual choices and experiences.

      Liked by 1 person

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