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.
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?”
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?
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?