When To Ask The “Where Are You From?” Question

As an Asian Australian living in Australia, I get the question “Where are you from?” thrown at me quite a bit.

When I get asked this, I pause: it’s a confusing question. Where exactly is “from”? The place where we were born? Where we live? Our heritage? One of my favourite responses to this question is, “I’m from three countries. Guess” (I grew up in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore to Chinese-Malaysian parents; see previous post). It’s also an intrusive question that demands a very personal answer, maybe demanding that we give our life story away.

A touch of kindness. A touch of kindness makes us feel at home | Weekly Photo Challenge: Humanity.

A touch of kindness. A touch of kindness makes us feel at home | Weekly Photo Challenge: Humanity.

We usually feel the urge to ask the question when get the feeling the person we’re talking to has a different story than us, judging by the accent on the tip of their tongue, the colour of their skin, the way they dress.

We can be enthusiastic and direct, and ask the question within the first few minutes of meeting someone. Maybe we really want to know about someone’s background out of curiosity and “get the question out of the way”. Maybe we don’t have anything else to say after discussing the weather. Fair enough. But we may come across as creepy and nosy.

Recently, I was sitting in Melbourne Central shopping centre and a Caucasian guy started chatting me up. After saying hello and telling me I looked pretty, that question came out of his mouth. We didn’t have anything in common, we didn’t know each other’s names then. Scary.

We can be patient and ask the question after meeting up a few times, or if the conversation has been flowing well for a while and we’re getting along. Or we can bite our tongue and not ask “Where are you from?” at all. The more we talk to someone we’ve met moments ago, the more likely the answer will come up at some point. And when one of us lets slip where we’ve grown up or lived, that’s a sign we trust the person we’re with.

I rarely ask anyone “Where are you from?” as it can be offensive. A good number of us have globe-trotted and find it hard to call a place home. Just because we look or speak a certain way doesn’t mean we’re from a certain country – that’s stereotypical thinking. As the video What Kind of Asian Are You? shows, the question can come across as racist. The last time I asked the question was last summer. Or rather, I danced around the question and guessed where someone was from…

I stood waiting for my tram at the Melbourne Central tram stop one afternoon in February. The sounds of summer floated around me: the chatter from pedestrians around me. Scraping sounds of skateboard wheels on concrete across the street. The ding of trams in the distance. And someone speaking Chinese in my ear. I turned. A spectacle-wearing Asian girl, probably about twenty or twenty one, not much taller than me with fair skin and a bob for a haircut stood to my left. I shook my head slightly. “Sorry, I don’t understand.”

She looked apologetic. “Sorry. But I was wondering,” she said slowly. “Are you a student?”

What does she want? Directions? “No. But I used to go to Melbourne Uni. Do you study there?”

“I go to Monash Uni. I’m going to Melbourne Uni to visit my friend.”

My tram rumbled to a stop in front of me. I drifted in, and she was right on my heels. The tram doors shut behind us and it began rolling out of the city. With her thick glasses, she looks like a sciency person. “What are you studying? I studied arts and maths at uni. Now I’m working.”

“I’m doing commerce. Where…do you work?”

That accent. Very China-speak. “I’m in between jobs at the moment. Finding a job’s never easy. Is commerce hard?”

“It’s okay. Learning…accounting. Second year.”

Yes, that accent. So many upward inflections. Sounds distinctively Chinese. “My parents are from Malaysia. Are you from China? International student?”

Her eyes widened. “Yes. From Yunan.” A look of surprise stretched across her face. So did a glint of happiness. She doesn’t mind the question at all. In a bustling city, she’s lonely. Which was how I felt when I moved back here.

Sometimes we ask the question because we see a bit of ourselves in the person we’re chatting with; we see the same values and want to connect. Or maybe we really are that eager to learn about another race. We might travel to a foreign town or country; locals here might have barely heard of our culture and are eager to know more and be culturally aware of what offends us and what doesn’t.

She was smiling, but I wasn’t. What if I had guessed wrong? I felt I had been rude. I had made an assumption in her face within a matter of minutes seeing her. As the tram hurtled further away from the city, my mind raced back to one time someone confronted me with the question…

“Hi!” I greeted my client waiting at reception at work. Time for me to help another student at my university with their taxes. “C’mon in.”

She sat down right across me at my desk in my office. She looked like she was in her mid-twenties, no older than thirty. Straight dark brown hair fell halfway down her back. The set of dark brown eyes on her light brown face looked at me. “I need help with my taxes.”

Excellent English, Australian accent right there. But she’s not Caucasian. Maybe she’s Indian. Or Sri Lankan. Who grew up here. “Sure. Let’s see what documents you’ve brought.”

She rustled through her bag, pulling out a stack of papers. “Where are you from?”

“Australia.”

She paused. “No. Where are you really from?”

“Australia. Melbourne. I’m Australian.” I looked her right in the eyes. Maybe she misheard.

“Where are your parents from?”

They’re from Malaysia.”

“Oh that’s right! You’re Malaysian!” Only a table between us, yet we’re oceans apart when it comes to describing what it means to be Australian. Australia is a diverse nation, fact.Does my brown hair and yellow skin make me less Australian? Or maybe it’s my Singapore-Malaysian tinged accent? I’m wearing the truth. I’m telling the truth. Does the truth hurt?

Melbournians right at home in the hustle and bustle of the CBD.

Melbournians right at home in the hustle and bustle of the CBD.

We’re reminded of where we’ve been each time we get asked “Where are you from?”. Perhaps even more so when someone skirts or prods us with different variations of the question since we’re really forced to think about who we are then. But as we’re struggling to come up an answer to the question, it’s not a bad thing looking back on where we’ve been: looking back we remind ourselves of the lessons learnt from the people we’ve met, the cultural lessons learnt about ourselves and those around us.

Beyond our physical features, all our stories are different. No two people of the same ethnicity have the same stories past and present since we have different parents, upbringing and experiences. As Melissa Loh suggested, maybe instead of “Where are you from?”, we should be asking, “Where are you going?”.

But that second question is a creepy question in the literal sense. So, if we’re keen on getting to know someone, maybe we should really be asking the forthcoming, “How do you do?”

Have you said “Where are you from?” to someone? How do you respond to the question?

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127 thoughts on “When To Ask The “Where Are You From?” Question

  1. I’ve been asked many times now that I live in North America. I don’t get offended. They ask me (especially moms who bring and fetch their kids to school like me) because it’s their way of starting a conversation. They knew that I’m Asian because of the colour of my hair and skin but they wanted a particular answer. The next question will be, what brought you here? Worker? Immigrant? Citizen? I answer them politely. I’m from the Philippines, my family was based in Singapore and KL before moving here in Canada. And I give them a little background about my husband’s career, the reason why we are mobile. Then it’s my turn to ask them the same question 🙂

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    • Sounds like you are used to the “Where are you from?” question! Yes, the question is definitely a conversation starter and not everybody knows everything about a particular part of the world. You mentioned the mums at school wanted a particular answer – sounds like they are trying their hardest to get to know you and your culture.

      Being mobile, I suppose we can chat on and on when the question is asked to us – we have so many stories to tell and so much of us to share. But I like that you keep your answer quite short and then ask the question back. Two way conversation right there, and I’m sure because of this quite a few of you are friends now.

      By the way, I really like your gravatar photo. Three of you in a tub waving hands in the air. It’s like you three are waving hello to us 😀

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  2. Another thought-provoking post! I can relate to it immensely.

    Your post reminded me of a story told to me by another fellow Canadian living in Taiwan. He, like me, moved here when he just graduated from university and have been living here ever since. He has a PARC (permanent residency card) and he speaks fluent Chinese as well as Taiwanese (very impressive to have mastered the latter). Anyway, he has lived in Taiwan the same amount of time that he lived in Canada. So, one day, when he was asked the question ‘Where are you from?,’ he answered, ‘Taiwan.’ The woman rely was ‘No, you are not.’ But the ironic thing about the whole situation is that she introduced her son as ‘Canadian.’ Apparently, her son’s situation was similar to his but it was ‘OK’ for him to be Canadian.

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    • That is a very interesting story about your Canadian friend in Taiwan. Maybe the woman who asked him “Where are you from?” picked up the Canadian-ness within your friend and just couldn’t fathom how a Canadian could say that they are from Taiwan..I can always tell if someone if from Malaysia just by looking, maybe even hear them speak too. It’s a gut feeling that I might have inherited from my Chinese-Malaysian parents. Maybe she had no idea he had lived in Taiwan for a lot of his life.

      I wonder if your friend did end up convincing the woman his answer to her question.

      Thanks for stopping by again, Constance. I love your comments.

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  3. It’s not that bad to guess in the story you described. I assumed a Korean was Chinese the other day at a party, I said sorry and went on my way and I don’t think it was that awkward.

    In an expat scene, it’s very common to ask people where are you from. People of all races, all accents, it’s just the common first question asked. But that is in a specifically international scene.

    (Funny, when I lived in Los Angeles it was also common to ask people that when you first meet. The question wasn’t about nationality or race, but wondering where one’s hometown in America is since most people in L.A. are from somewhere else.

    Personally, I try to avoid asking “Where are you from?” because it’s just so obvious. Should try to be more original in small talk.)

    Of course, being Asian in a place like Australia, the question has other implications. First of all, it’s a loaded question which assumes you’re not *really* Australian and that is definitely offensive.

    What they are really asking, is “What is your ethnicity?” which is a weird personal question to ask when you first meet someone. Might as well ask about religion and how much money you make while at it. If you really make friends and you’re wondering and it comes up organically, it’s not that bad to inquire about someone’s heritage to get to know them better. But it is just plain bad manners to ask that, like you said, before you know someone’s name! Learn social skills people.

    It’s one of the challenges of being a minority, worth a conversation. Do your best to handle such challenges with grace 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • That is a very interesting point, that the question is asked quite a bit in expat circles. And it makes sense. I suppose the question also does the rounds at international conferences too. The various places where I’ve worked in Melbourne involved attending to clients from abroad, and the question makes regular appearances as well. I’ve learnt to expect the question all the time now – it’s unavoidable.

      There have been a few times where I’ve went along with the question. The other day I was chatting to a client at work in person. She sounded like she was Malaysian, and within five minutes of meeting, she asked me if I’m from Malaysia. I said yes, I was from Malaysia and didn’t mention I was Australian (white lie there…it hurts me to tell one!). She looked very excited to hear that I am “Malaysian” and we ended up having a good conversation about settling down in Australia.

      It’s always challenging to make small talk with people you’ve just met. Apart from general hobbies and news, there really isn’t much to chat about that isn’t too personal.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Mabel I can not recall asking someone this question. I’ve always assumed it to be rude or offensive. Your post is very thought provoking and I will be listening more intently to myself and others in the future.

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    • You are very polite, Sue. I am sure everyone you’ve met sees you as very affable, and they don’t have to hear the “Where are you from?” question. I hope you have a good upcoming cycling trip to Italy. Maybe someone there will ask you the question, you never know 🙂 Thanks for your nice words, as always.

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  5. I learned not to do this so long ago that I can’t remember situations where I did – except that I sometimes have to ask African taxi drivers where they are from, in case they know my son’s dad and I later get into trouble for not having introduced myself! But usually I can tell if they are likely to be Ghanaian and then I say – hope you don’t mind my asking, but are you from Ghana ? and explain why.

    I’ve never had a bad reaction to that, they almost always turn out to be from Ghana and then we spend the rest of the journey trying to figure out who we know in common and talking about Ghana.

    It’s good to see more conversations happening around this issue.

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    • I suppose if you spend time around a certain race or group, you get to know how they typically talk, dress and behave – and learn how to spot them from a distance. But sometimes you just never know… Sounds like the taxi drivers in Ghana don’t mind the “Where are you from?” question. Maybe different people in different parts of the world interpret the question differently.

      In Australia, it seems to be a question that is dreaded, but as you’ve mentioned in Ghana, people there tend to not mind it at all…or is this only applicable to taxi drivers?

      You know what? I’ve never really heard of too much discussion around the question. Especially in Australia.

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      • Hi Mabel, thanks for your response , I don’t know how you keep up with all your thoughtful responses to comments!

        I think the taxi drivers would probably not like it if I just asked the bald question without contextualising it (i.e. they might know my son’s Dad, it’s not a big community here in Sydney), and asking if they minded. Once they realise I have a connection to Ghana, they like to have a chat, although usually they are more interested in my story, once they find out I’ve been to their country and have a half-Ghanaian son, than in talking about themselves. I suppose it fast tracks the ‘relationship’ by giving us common ground. Also equalises it a bit.

        Just to clarify – I’m talking about African taxi drivers in Australia. When I’m in Ghana, on the other hand, I’m the one that gets asked where I’m from, because of course I stick out like a sore thumb, but I don’t really mind that.

        I learned from my son’s dad not to ask people ‘where are you from’ first up, because he talked to me about what it was like for him, and how it’s usually coming from a desire to categorise someone who’s different – or if it’s not, it feels that way.

        I suppose it’s not being talked about so much in Australia, but I’m seeing more local social shares of overseas content on this topic, and I’ve also seen one or two Australian blogs addressing it. I’ve also been at events where it gets talked about. Perhaps it’s just who I follow and who I know!

        Also, I’ve been reading some books from the US on being mixed race, so perhaps that’s why I feel surrounded by the conversation – it’s been on my mind a lot & I’m preparing some posts myself that are related to the topic.

        Thanks for putting it out there, I think it’s a really important question, although it might feel trivial to a lot of people.

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        • I figured you were talking about African taxi drivers in Australia. The other way round just didn’t sound right 😉 I’ve had my share of (migrant) taxi drivers in Melbourne asking me, “Where are you from?”. And I always ask the question back and they happily give an answer and talk about growing up in their home countries.

          I think your approach to the African taxi drivers is great, Maamej. If you give a bit of and open up about yourself, chances are others will be happy to share their stories too. It’s probably then that “Where are you from?” isn’t scary, but just another question in the conversation. From your story, the Ghanian/African taxi drivers here seem to be very proud of their country and culture; because of this maybe they don’t mind the question.

          You’re very sharp. I reckon too that other countries (especially the States) talk more and more openly about these topics and in culture in general. In Australia, a lot of this kind of discussion is confined to academic circles, and I get the feeling many of us are peacefully living in our own (sort of secular) racial communities in the different suburbs – hence the lack of discussion. I pride my blog on being an Asian Australian blog, but only a few of my readers are from Australia.

          Thanks for the nice words and comments as always, Maamej. I really don’t know how I keep up with the comments. I feel I learn the most when I’m reading and responding to comments, as opposed to writing the posts 🙂

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  6. I think what most people mean when they say, “where are you from?” is “what is your ancestry?” Even so, that is a strange question to just randomly ask someone when you first meet them. What the asker means and what the person being asked thinks are two different things. Like I said on the last post, it’s a media thing of what the “typical American” (or Australian) looks like.

    I think the appropriate response to give people who asks those types of questions is something like this: “I am an American/Australian/Canadian with Asian/European/African ancestry”.

    The truth is that everyone in the world comes from somewhere, even the “Anglo”-type people who ask “where are you from?” without realizing it themselves.

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    • Yeah, I do think as well people mean “What’s your ancestry?” or “What’s your ethnicity?”. Many of us are proud of our ancestries, but it’s also something that’s very private to us. With ancestry comes (usually) sticking by certain cultural norms that we follow – cultural norms that some may find off-putting.

      That is so true. We’re all from somewhere. After all, we’re all born somewhere, and born into a particular culture. That is, our lives and journey of discovering ourselves start somewhere on this planet.

      That is a very appropriate response you suggested. Sometimes I say, “I’m Australian. My parents are Malaysian”. Like I’ve written I this post, people (Asian and non-Asian, Caucasian) tend to focus on the “Malaysian” part of my life. Somehow living in Asia seems attractive…

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      • I often wonder if someone is born in America or Australia and was of such and such ancestry, and they visited the country their ancestors were “originally from”, but could only speak English and had basically been “Americanized” if the person in that country would ask them where they are from.

        As an example, what I mean is, an Indian-Canadian comedian named Russell Peters did something where he said people in Ireland get annoyed when some caucasian Americans say things like, “I am proud to be Irish” even if they have never even been to Ireland or know anything about Irish culture.

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      • I haven’t really had this question so much since living in Greenland, which has been really refreshing.

        However, they have another take on the question / it might not be where are you from, but it is who are you really?

        Both questions have an element of asking where you belong. And that’s where it hurts. Because people want to belong somewhere.

        I like some others in the thread get tired of the question of where are you from. But I think I would get even more tired of having to justify who I am even if I am actually from the place. Here people say I’m half this half that, a third this two thirds that. It’s too strange. I prefer that in Australia we just say that if an Aboriginal chooses to be Australian, and their tribe has accepted them, then they are just that. Forget about the quarters and eighths!

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        • :..who are you really?”. That is a very interesting way to put it. Maybe that is what most of us who ask the question want to know. Then again, when someone speaks to us, we usually think “who are you, what do you want?”.

          Belonging in means fitting in somewhere, being a place where you’re accepted for who you are. Those of us who grew up in different countries or come from racially mixed backgrounds might feel on the outside a lot of the time; maybe that’s why “Where are you from?” tends to spark resentment in us.

          It is a very confusing question that confuses people. Things would be less complicated if we all saw each other as people, people who all have their own unique backgrounds.

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            • It’s hard to feel a sense of belonging to a place if locals there give you the cold shoulder. Sometimes the feeling of belonging is in a sense determined by how others treat us, which is sad. No wonder some of us don’t like the question much. It”s 2014, and it’s really time we accepted one another for who we are.

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  7. The story of someone’s origin should be appreciated. I think it would be a good way to communicate if we really want to exchange the information of each other just in case a further relationship could be established. I love to hear people share interesting things about places I have not know yet but I do agree with you that a careless use of this touching question would become offensive action.

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    • “The story of someone’s origin should be appreciated.” Perfectly said. I do think there are some situations where we genuinely would want to exchange information about where we’ve been and lived. Think conferences and travel groups.

      You’re right, people do have a tendency to want to know about places, and many of us have the capacity to travel today. So “Where are you from?” is a good segway into talking about different places.

      As for (in)sensitive use of this question: though these situations make for good stories, it really is nothing to laugh about. Culture and “where we’re from” holds a lot of significance to many of us, and everyone should learn to respect that.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. There is another angle to the question ‘Where are you from ?’ specially if you are asked by an elderly person in India. Here, a girl’s identity takes a swift shift when she gets married. She is now supposed to cite she husbands hometown as her own. Why on Earth does she need to let go of the place where she was born and brought up. It upsets me. So when ever anyone asks me the question, they have to be patient. I give them my very looong standard answer , my whole history all the places where I have lived and then finally add that my husband is from a different town 🙂

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  9. Yeah. This is definitely a touchy subject for many people. Asking it right out can be disarming at best, offensive, or even worse. Recently I started substitute teaching in K-12. All the kids want to know where I’m from and my last name. They ask and ask. Now, I’m in a room that is a good 99% “white”, whatever that means, and the area I’m in has a pretty good grasp on our ancestral roots. But still, the question lingers. “What is it that they’re looking for?” I wonder. I am also a local so I kind of know what it is. They want to know what family I belong to and all that carries with it.

    I know my experience and yours are not the same. I’m just hoping that sharing mine and learning about yours can help broaden the conversation on this important topic.

    I don’t really ask the question anymore. I want to let people be who they are.

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    • Oh no, so sorry to hear that the kids bombarded you with the question. And kids being kids, they will keep asking a question until you give an elaborate answer in simple words. They won’t let you get away with a one or two word answer…

      I reckon you’re right, that people are interested in our heritage and origins, which are essentially beginnings. We all seem to have some fascination with achievements, but more importantly, a fascination of self improvement. I suppose in my case, it’s being Asian and having a fairly good life in Australia.

      “I don’t really ask the question anymore. I want to let people be who they are.” I could not have said it myself better 😀 You said it all.

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  10. Since we arrived I have heard this question a lot. The thing is that they don’t ask about me but they ask me about where my wife is from. The English level in Germany is very poor resulting that I have to do very much translating work now between officials and my wife (to get all kind of tax numbers, children support money, registration in the city and so forth).

    The first few times it wasn’t so bad but now after 1 1/2 weeks here it is getting annoying, especially when they ask me about it and appear entry forget what I told them and write japanese down…oh well, everything is just too exhausting recently

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    • It must be very annoying for your wife – and you – to get the question all the time. In your case, dealing with officials, you have to get the “correct” answers and it’s no laughing matter. Sorry to hear that the language barrier makes this all the more difficult too…and putting your ethnicity in the spotlight further.

      Hope this all simmers down when you’ve settled in. Get some rest too 🙂

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    • I love that video! Especially when she gets all animated and throwing back his responses right in his face. It’s definitely amusing to watch, but what she did is something I won’t do. That’s because I’m way too shy and I don’t want to give the guy too much of a hard time 🙂 Thanks, BB.

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  11. Mabel you describe the dilemma well. One thing I learned (as an American) from a Brazilian friend is that Americans like our ties to our native country(s). Perhaps a little too much. I’m a San Franciscan and( rather rare ) I was actually born in San Francisco.
    I love meeting people from all over the world. I hope when I ask the proverbial question”where are you from?” they can tell I am genuinely interested in their culture/their world.
    Hope you have a glorious spring weekend

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    • San Fran. I heard that part of America is very diverse, popular with tourists and residents all over the country and world. You are lucky to live there. It is interesting to hear that some cultures associate Americans’ origins to the native land. This is quite the opposite in Australia. Indigenous land is hardly acknowledged here.

      It’s not a crime to ask “Where are you from?”. And yes, some people are genuinely interested in knowing more about a particular culture or place through that question. Thanks for stopping by, Leslie 🙂

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  12. I see you got inspired with the topic…. I loved it!!! 😀
    Well, I guess this question became a problem because of globalization… its very confusing for many people to say where they are from. I personally dont mind if people ask me where Im from, I prefer the question than the guessing, because in my case they never guess right hahaha So I dont mind the question, but the answer is like: Im fro Brazil but I live in Germany… 😀 but I know that some people dont like the question 😀

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  13. I expressed my thoughts in the previous post. The thing is that after answering the same question (for whatever the reasons…), it just becomes ooold, very OLD, to say the least. I have answered hundreds of thousands of times. 😕
    As the world is getting smaller and people around the world are well connected via the social networks. My question is why we care where people are from (as the old era) and why not care who they are and other important things we need and should care about people or persons.
    I really like how you write the topic. Thank you so much for your insight and well written article, Mabel! I’m so well educated here by a young, intelligent lady!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh dear, Amy. So sorry to hear that you’ve been asked the question more times than you can count. I reckon you’ve described it perfectly when “Where are you from?” is thrown at us a lot of the time: it becomes old. Exhaustively old. If we don’t give a straight answer, we’ll get prompted with the question again and again. My face: 😳

      Spot on. We really should be thinking who people are. Looking at what their intentions are (good or not so good). And do they need any help, and should we be helping them. Thanks for the nice words, Amy. I still have a lot to learn ^^’

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        • Maybe it’s the older generation who ask you that question? But then again, people my age ask me that question all the time. Just last week at work, a client around my age asked me, “Whereabouts are you from? Singapore?”. He was thinking “globally” in a sense…he proceeded to chat about Singapore.

          I’m with you. I reckon majority don’t think that globally – that we can be from a certain background and can have lived in any part of the world.

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                  • I think most people are annoyed by the question is because they don’t like to be pre-judge. Perhaps, that “where are you from?” is no longer a question in our life…
                    I had the most enjoyable conversation with a single mom and her 9 yr old daughter at a Japanese restaurant last night (you sit around the table, he cooks in front you). I really think because she didn’t care “where…”, she was opened to a great conversation. A refreshing experience 🙂

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                    • Definitely agree with your sentiments there. For those of us who are not fans of the question, to us the question can be a conversation killer…

                      That is a great dinner you had. Sitting around and talking about anything but where you’re from. No judging. Just a lot of getting to know you through food and life in general 🙂

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  14. I always get offended when people ask where I’m from though I know they’re probably just curious. I and both my parents are English but my grandparents are from Barbados, people just want to know where my colour’s from.. but it is damn nosey, especially when you first meet someone!!

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    • “…people just want to know where my colour’s from.” Well said. Funny how many people still group skin colour by country when it is no secret a lot of us travel and grew up in different places. Maybe you also get offended by the question in the UK because people there tend to ask that question all the time? Maybe it has something to do with racial tension that still exists there today.

      You are right. The question is nosey. Our background is no stranger’s business.

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  15. wow your article contained so many perspectives and so many things leaving me questioning certain things. Though I have never been out of my country and honestly speaking I haven’t communicated with too many people with different nationalities or cultures or norms except here on blogging in this marvelous virtual world but I did understand where you were coming from. Just wanted you to know I read your article and it did effect me (in a good way of course) despite of the fact that I can’t provide much insight into this situation.
    Love,
    Zee ❤

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    • Ah, never been out of your own country. That means you must know your country inside out and explored many parts of it. And that you love your country a lot! Maybe someday you will travel the world and get asked that question heaps of times. And if that happens, tell me about it 🙂

      This blogosphere is indeed a marvelous virtual world. Who knows, maybe one day one of us bloggers will ask you “Where are you from?”, “Which part of your country?”. Thanks so much for your kind words, Zee. I really appreciate it.

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      • Uugh that’s another shame, I haven’t even seen my own country that much. Though my parents have seen it all. As I grew up they just got busier and busier and it gets tough to travel around a lot due to schedule and busy life.

        It was pleasure to visit here. You will see me very often 🙂 ❤

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        • I’m sure at some point you’ll get to go around your own country 🙂 I haven’t been to all states in Australia…yet. Hadn’t had the time. So true. We get busier and have more commitments when we get older. But if we really love doing something or want to do something, I’m sure we’ll make time for it – and one day we will do it 🙂

          Thanks, Zee. You are very kind. As I mentioned, I will visit your blog soon 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  16. well, i thought it depends who asking you that questions too, if you’re takling to foreigner abroad, i will answear Indonesia, if it’s with local i will answear North Sumatra or Bataknese descent
    kinda akward with stranger, but i guess it’s all occacionally stuffs

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    • Very interesting, Dedy. I suppose many people in Indonesia are familiar with the different regions in Indo which are all different, and so would want to know specifically where you’re from. A foreigner might not know that.

      So yeah, if we’re abroad we might give a general answer to the question to the people over there. And when we’re talking to locals we might mention a certain city.

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  17. A Southern gentleman would never be so vulgar as to ask a young lady “where are you from”. We try to piece it together from other questions. For example, if I met you in an Atlanta Antiques store, “Have you been collecting antiques for a long time”? would lead to the same answer without being so blunt.

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    • That is very gracious of you gentlemen. Starting a conversation off with hobby related talk is wise as there is the option of steering the conversation into less personal territory – and not coming across as nosy.

      It really isn’t hard to piece together where someone is from if you’ve been chatting for a while – as you mentioned, the answer will come up at some point. If you can’t get an answer, you might be able to narrow it down from hints that have come up in the conversation.

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  18. Your article always made me think 🙂 Great post! Now I realize how diverse the understanding of “where are you from” and how others perceive the question. I see it more on how we grew up..but like you said, it could be also the place where you call home. In the Netherlands it seems a common question on the first meeting, perhaps that’s how they tried start a conversation with non-Western look person. I am guessing it is because of curiosity as well. Common questions avoided in the Netherlands for the first time are age and children…

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    • Now that you mention the question of age and children, “Where are you from?” doesn’t sound as instrusive! In fact, compared to those two questions, it sounds like a very ambiguous question when someone tells it to your face (it is). Maybe there aren’t that many non-Western people in the Netherlands, and that’s why you get that question there.

      People are curious all the time. A culture(s) is always a part of us. Maybe some people are interested in our beginnings, where we first lived and how we became ourselves, achieving things along the way – and how our culture has got to do with that. 🙂

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  19. It is not so much the question that is a problem, but the intention behind it. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to guess someone’s intention at first meeting. Have you ever asked it right back to the person who asked you?

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    • Though we can guess, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what people mean when they ask “Where are you from?”. It’s already hard enough to guess the intentions of others when they randomly come up to us for a chat.

      I have asked the question back. Asians tend to respond automatically with their native country or where their parents are from. Caucasians here in Australia tend to pause, and look at me like the answer is obvious.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. This is what I tend to ask folks….after speaking them for awhile: How long have you lived in xxx city? ie. Calgary, whichever city I am living in.

    In the big Canadian cities, (meaning over 1 million) there has been tremendous migration to them over the past 2 decades…from other parts of Canada or from overseas. It is the best way to frame the question…besides people are curious to learn of any long-time residents or those who born, lived all their lives in 1 city..which is become rarer and rarer.

    The city where I live has 33,000 new residents within the last 12 months. The municipality is predicting approx. 40,000 people increase over the next decade. We live 500 km. south of the oil tar sands, 100 southeast of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

    To squash a lot of this bifurcated thinking that my Asian face still isn’t Canadian, this what I tell people: “I’ve never been to Asia yet. I don’t know what it is like”. And I haven’t visited there yet.

    Sometimes from my perspective, I have to be blunt to the person. Then drop/ignore the person.

    I don’t mind if the person asks where I’m from if already we’ve spent considerable time learning and knowing about one another.

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    • I love that response, Jean, that you’ve never been to Asia yet. Maybe I will steal that one and try it out and see how people react to it. I’m sure they’ll be super confused since my speech sounds quite Malaysian-Singaporean.

      The big cities in Canada sound like migrant cities. It also sounds like Canadians are very open to this and are welcoming migrants abroad and interstate, and genuinely wanting to know whereabouts each other have lived. Melbourne has quite a large migrant population too. Those from abroad have a tendency to settle in communities where there are locals who are of similar heritage to them. Sometimes it’s no surprise Caucasian locals ask ethnic minorities “Where are you from?”. Then again, maybe the former are ignorant about globalisation and its consequences on migrants.

      Like

  21. I should add 40,000 more people annually coming to live in our city. A big looming problem in terms of adequate infrastructure and services for people + money to support all this.

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    • Didn’t know you get the “Where are you from” question all the time. Sounds like you have stock answers up your sleeve whenever you get asked that. For me, I try to give at least some answer even though it might be vague – I really don’t want to stand there, silence between us.

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  22. If I ever guess at a person’s heritage, it is always to establish some empathy with the person and/or put them at ease – never to satisfy my personal curiosity.

    If anyone dares to ask me my heritage, I commit them to a ten-minute odyssey that explains how a Chinese man who is often mistaken for Korean is born in the USA now speaks the Queen’s English and somehow lives in Australia.

    There is a part of me that believes I’m teaching them a lesson – “that’ll teach you to ask awkward and unwelcome questions” – but the lesson is probably too subtle and I just come off looking like an idiot, which they know to avoid next time… which actually suits me just fine (massive introvert here).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe the lesson isn’t too subtle. After all, “Where are you from?” or “What is your heritage?” are personal question and it takes common sense to know that. Maybe some of us are just too thick skinned to realise that.

      I’ve been mistaken as a Korean a lot of the time. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s my fair skin or round face. If not Korean, then Japanese. Or Vietnamese. Rarely Chinese.

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  23. I have a friend who’s adopted and he gets that question all the time and he loves joking with the people who’s asking. A conversation can go like this (he even said this in a job interview and got the job):
    “Where are you from?”
    “I’m from [insert name of small local town here]”
    “Yes, but where are you really from?”
    “I’m really from [insert name of previously mentioned small local town here].”
    “OK, but you know what I mean. Like, where are your parents from?”
    “Oh, my parents? That’s what you meant? Why didn’t you say so? They are from [insert name of previously mentioned small local town here].”

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is a very funny story, thanks for sharing. I suppose if you sound confident saying anything, and hold that up for quite a while, people will believe you. Your friend certainly was persistent. It sort of feels like a competition when the “Where are you from?” question is brought up. Both people want to have the last say, and be acknowledged that they are right.

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  24. Very interesting and thought-provoking post (and very well-written too!), Mabel. I don’t mind being asked that question… in fact, having lived in places like Singapore and Hong Kong, which have a lot of foreigners, it is common to ask and be asked that question, in an attempt to get to know someone, or just to make some conversation. But as I thought about it, I can understand how it could be offensive for some (E.g. your conversation with the lady in the uni’s tax office). Funnily, I am confused in answering the question when we visit a foreign country. Where are you from? Saying Hong Kong always gets an “aaah” and a quizzical look. Then we elaborate “originally from India, but we live in HK”. That finally gets some vigorous nods. I guess maybe it is not an offensive question for people who are not from the place, where they are being asked that question. Does that make sense?

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    • Sounds like you’ve gotten used to answering “Where are you from?” and that you have a confident answer up your sleeve most of the time. Except when you’re abroad 😀 I think a lot of locals can tell who is not from their town, judging by the clothes they wear 😀

      That is a very interesting last thought. I suppose if I went to, say, India, and someone asked me where I was from, I wouldn’t mind the question as much as in Australia. After all, I would most likely feel out of place there. However, I reckon I would also feel I was being judged by the person asking the question. As Amy in the comments said, that question is very much judgemental.

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      • Hmmm… what you say is true, Mabel. There are probably some assumptions based on preconceived notions that people would immediately make when you tell them where you are from.

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        • We all make sense of the world from some point of view, so it makes sense that we have pre-conceived notions about others…and where are they from. It takes an open mind to see someone as just a person 🙂

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  25. its interesting, I am British but spend a lot of my time in New York, and although not as culturally different as what you are describing, I actually quite like being asked where I am from. Growing up in England seems to be totally different to growing up in America, and I love the cadences and irregularities of my culture against another. I guess as it doesnt feel racially rooted I feel proud to be different. Although I’m not sure if I would feel the same in the situation you find yourself in, as they are very similar in culture and the differences arent worlds apart.

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    • Sounds like you’re proud of where you’re from, and I guess that makes answering “Where are you from?” much easier. For a very long time I wasn’t proud of being Australian. Having learnt to embrace where I’ve been and my life in Australia, that question doesn’t scare and annoy me as much.

      “…proud to be different”. I wish more people would stand up and say that. I guess now that you’re in America, you see everything typically American everywhere (e.g. the flags, donuts, accents). And when you do get a sniff of something that reminds you of England, you’re instantly reminded of home and where you’re from.

      Liked by 1 person

  26. I have probably been guilty of the ‘where are you from’ question, but mostly it would apply when traveling, and everybody I meet is from someplace different. Thank you Mabel for educating us on how this question could be received, and I hadn’t realized it could be rude. Now I’m thinking (with my Sci-Fi fangirl hat on) and in our global 21st century culture, maybe a good answer would be “Earth!”

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    • Ah, Sandy. I could never see you as rude. And I think when you do ask the question, you do so with only good intentions. You are right. Everybody is from “someplace” different. We come from different families and lifestyles, and lived in different places. It’s not a crime asking “Where are you from?”…I guess some of us have bad timing sometimes and the question is taken the wrong way.

      Haha! Earth would definitely be a good answer. We are all from the same planet 🙂

      p/s: I think you look good in a Sci-Fi hat on!

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  27. When I see someone who share the same features as I am, I kind of feel excited because it will be neat to meet somebody from the same country I came from. It is always a happy time when one can find connections in this new place I now call home. However, it also takes some kind of maneuvering and feeling before I ask the question “where are you from?” That will be after getting some clear clues about the person. Sometimes, I help by dropping clues about my origins, too. 🙂 If one of us picks up the tell tale signs, then we can proceed talking about our common origins, so to speak.

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    • I bet your heart skips a beat faster when you think you’ve spotted someone from the same country as you. It happens to me when I am certain someone is from Malaysia or Singapore.

      That is very generous and honest of you, subtly sharing pieces of your roots when talking to someone. For some of us who have moved around quite a bit and found that challenging, it may not be easy to share your stories with others. Thanks for supporting as always, Imelda 🙂

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  28. It is strange, I always take the question of where are you from as asking about my hometown ~ about how I have grown up, and generally ask the same about others too, as it is always interesting. It is a question I ask only after getting to know the person a bit, as it is sharing something personal.

    Never really thought of the question could be rude ~ unless it is inferred that you are not from “here” just because you look different…that would be wrong and quite sad. When I am traveling, I like hearing this question because it gives me the chance to give them a quick glimpse into my life ~ and I can ask them the same which gives me a quick glimpse into their life 🙂 Win-win!

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    • Where we’ve been and where we’ve grown up affects our perception of “Where are you from?”. Naturally, many of us would think of our hometown when we get asked the question at the very least where we were born. The question in a sense is symbolic of beginnings, where we started our journeys geographically and culturally in a metaphorical sense.

      You are right. The question can be a very honest question. Over the weekend I was at the beach and there were lots of tourists watching penguins. And you know what? I head “Where are you from?” being exchanged quite a few times 🙂

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  29. I never ask where someone is “from” to mean anything other than “where were you born/grew up.” I don’t personally mind hwen people ask about my ethnic background, but I refrain from asking others out of tact. One thing that baffles me is how some people can’t distinguish one Asian ethnicity from another, and can’t even figure it out based on surnames.

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    • It’s sad that there are some of us that think “Asian” is one big race – that some see someone with Asian features as “Asian” and not Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and so on. In such a globalised world this is indeed baffling. Distinguishing between one Asian ethnicity from another and last names can be tricky, but you get better at it after a while, especially if you’ve traveled and met people from different Asian countries. And you might be able to answer “Where are you from?” silently in your head.

      That is really polite of you to refrain from asking “Where are you from?”, not putting pressure on your acquaintance to come up with an answer. And you avoid any awkward pauses that come right after asking that question.

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      • I can immediately distinguish between Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos, but admittedly not so much with Southeast Asians. I’ve recently learned to recognize Taiwanese as there’s quite a few at my university.

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        • Usually the accent is a giveaway as to where someone is “from”, or where they have spent time living. Certain races tend to have certain physical features too. I’ve always found it difficult recognising Taiwanese people. Then again, I’ve only met a handful of people from Taiwan.

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  30. Ahh as someone who is adopted (Asian), I get this question a lot as well ! I do not feel like I should have to go into my whole back story to a complete stranger. My favorite line to use is –
    “where are you from ?’
    the usual response is “Australia” to which I reply
    ” You do not like aboriginal to me, so you must have come from somewhere”
    They usually leave me alone after that…. I think they release how rude it can come across when that is thrown back at them…

    Although, I will admit it is quite easy to tell when someone is generally interested in your story as opposed to someone who isn’t…

    Like

    • Hahaha! Throwing the question back at them, and then bringing up being Aboriginal. I suppose they make this face when you say that 😮 Every time I throw the question back at them, I get the impression they think I am the one being rude and a little stupid – especially when they pause as if the answer is so obvious.

      If a tourist in Australia asked you “Where are you from?”, then I suppose they are genuinely interested in our story, and want to know how we live and what goes on in Australia – and the rest of our background too. Same goes for those who talk about anything other than race with us when we first meet them.

      If someone asks the question within two minutes of meeting, I don’t think that is very polite…for a number of reasons as stated in this post. A few weeks ago at work, I was serving a guy alone at reception and less than five minutes after exchanging pleasantries he asked me, “So, whereabouts are you from? Singapore?”. It wasn’t really a question, more like an assumption right off bat seeing me.

      Like

  31. I only get a few of that question. Similar to the subject question actually.

    The exact question that I usually get from random people I meet is, “Are you Chinese? You sound like one who grew up in America.” I usually get that more often during a telephone conversation—whenever I do booking (flights or accommodations) for our big guns in the office. I must admit, hearing that is music to my ears. The awkward feeling come in late, usually. Like a delayed reaction.

    In any case, if I were to receive that question, the sound of my response would depend on the sound of the one who’s asking. If it’s delivered politely, he’ll get the same. If not, I’ll respond assertively.

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    • That is very interesting to hear, Sony. Sounds like you speak English very well, perhaps with a slight American accent. You have a right to be glad about it – you get to speak with others and connect with them. They are probably inclined to help you a bit more. It might sound like discrimination, but fair enough – if you can communicate with someone then of course they can serve you better.

      We should be careful around people who sound aggressive or aren’t polite. Who knows what they might have up their sleeve. Which is why a lot of the time I don’t like giving a direct answer to “Where are you from?”.

      Like

  32. Rrminds me of the problems in Canada, especially for my parents generation – they grew up during the 1930s and were first generation Canadians of Ukrainian-Polish background. If you had a ski/sky/chuk at the end of your name you were foreign – not Slavic or Polish or some other nationality, just foreign. It was assumed you or your parents came from somewhere else.

    Growing up in 1960s, we had a neighbour, Mr. Smith. His Ukrainian accent was much more pronounced than my parents. He changed his name so he could become a foreman in the factory. You needed an English name to get promoted – hide in plain sight. I shudder to think how people with visible ethnic physical differences were treated – changing their name would not do it.

    When I became a secondary school teacher late 70s, the staff was diverse mix of people with their own last names and backgrounds, serving a diverse population of students. Times change, but there is always work to do.

    Like

    • Never knew that bit of history about Canada. Thanks for sharing. Seems as if where a person is from was defined by their accent and colour of their skin back in the day in Canada. Glad that the times have changed over there now – I’ve met a few Canadians here in Melbourne who proudly claimed their city is one of the most multicultural in the world.

      “Times change, but there is always work to do.” Love your last sentence. It is so true. No matter how multicultural we admit our cities are, there is always something to learn about the people around us. If not from the people around us, then from the past, as always.

      Like

  33. Hi Mabel,

    I really love your blog and can totally relate! I was born and raised in Canada but I am of Arab, Lebanese heritage and thus all too familiar with the “where are you from?”question. An encounter similar to one that you had in the office (and which I’ve pasted above for reference, hope that’s ok) recently happened to me at the salon. My stylist (who actually fit the description of the woman you describe at the office) was of East Indian Fijian descent and asked me “where are you from?”. I responded by saying, “I was born here. To which she then asked “where’s your family from?” I then answered, “Lebanon.” And then asked her what her background was. ( I said background instead of where are you from because she had no accent, and I just feel that asking someone where they’re from is presumptuous seeing as how they (and/or their families) could have been in the country for generations! She then, said something like, “oh yeah, you have a slightly different look , didn’t really think you were a white girl. ( uh yeah, cause maybe well, I’m not! Wow, what a revelation?!) I know some people say it’s different and somehow more acceptable when minorities/people of color/non-whites ask other minorities/people of color/non-whites where they’re from as opposed to whites asking the same question, and I think it really depends on the context. However, I know the last few times I’ve had someone who is also non-white like me inquire about my origins it felt like I was being othered and also felt intrusive, and annoying. I just think that these individuals have most likely been asked the same inane questions and should know better and have a little more empathy and consideration. Maybe they have some self-hate going and are doing some projecting? I don’t really know. But I was just curious if you ever feel the same way?

    Like

    • Hello! Thanks for sharing your “Where are you from?” story. It must be frustrating for you since you grew up in Canada all your life and yet some people don’t want to recognise that. I’ve met quite a few Western Canadians in Melbourne. They all seem to be very outgoing and very friendly and do not hesitate to mix with someone of a different race than them – and they claim Canada is a very multicultural country, much more than Melbourne. Which I find it easy to believe since they are so very friendly and easy-going.

      I’ve had a lot of non-Westerns asking me that question too. Many of them are international students from Asia who tend to assume that I’m like “one of them” and so feel that like I’m approachable. Maybe to them, “Where are you from” is a normal question they are used too. I can understand where they are coming from (and it’s a good way to make a friend), but I do feel like I’m being judged on the way I look and the way I speak. I also get the suspicion some may talk behind my back based on this judgement. There really are just some days where I really want to keep to myself and not have to talk about my whole life story. So you are not alone.

      Thank you for stopping by, reading and commenting. I really appreciate it 🙂

      Like

  34. Hi again Mabel! (and I’m sorry for the late response, just been a really busy last few months!) My pleasure to stop by:)Yes, it can be frustrating when some people don’t want to recognize what you are and consider yourself to be.I think you’re right about how some people from the same background may think that those who are “one of them” are approachable, and also that they’re used to the “Where are you from question” and assume others who they perceive as similar to them might be too. When you put it that way, I guess I can see where they may be coming from too (and how it can be a good way to make a friend.)

    However, also like yourself, I sometimes feel that I may be judged or gossiped about too based on this judgement of being “one of them” and it can be quite frustrating and disheartening to say the least.But I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit and I notice that when I feel good, proud, and confident about myself and my background and how I self-identify, other people (of all backgrounds) seem to be more inclined to see me in the same way, which is good. Btw, the hairdresser lady I talked about in my last post actually turned out to be pretty cool and did an awesome job with my hair! But unfortunately, she changed salons. Ah, first world probs heh? Ha ha.

    Like

    • Thanks for stopping by again, I really appreciate it. Such a good point you bring up: when we feel confident about ourselves, others are likely to warm towards such a personality as opposed to our background. Personally I do think for many, many of us, we think about background first before personality… Then again, it really is our personality as opposed to “where we are from” that will help us get along with others.

      I hope you find a good hairdresser soon! I really despise it too when a good hairdresser moves away!

      Like

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