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?
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.
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.
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?”