Time and time again, some of us get the question, “Where are you from?” We might dislike this question, or we might not. It’s a matter of perspective, or rather how we’re feeling in a moment in time that we decide if we like or hate the question there and then.
Chances are if we’re migrants, immigrants, refugees, third culture kids, expats or find ourselves part of a cultural minority community (think an Asian Australian in Australia, an Asian American in the States, we’re much more likely to hear the question. So too if we’re some place where our skin colour, accent or hair style sticks out from the rest.
A while back I wrote a blog post on the different answers to this question. It’s a question carrying quite a few assumptions, a question I’ve been asked all my life as an Australian-born Chinese living in different countries such as Australia, Singapore and Malaysia. Sometimes it rubs me the wrong way. Sometimes it amuses me.
No matter how polite the conversation, when we get asked, “Where are you from?”, often there comes a case of mistaken identity, a case of “othering” in the sense of “Us” and “Them”. We might have spent a lot of time or most of our lives in a certain place, and when faced with that question we feel like outsiders, feel like we’re not local enough and don’t belong there: perhaps others look at us differently compared to them, wondering what we are doing around this territory, wondering why we look the way we look or act the way we act or speak the way we speak.
While at university in Melbourne, I had a casual job on-campus helping students with their tax returns. During one appointment, a client asked that question the moment she sat down. “Where are you from? Where are you really from? What nationality are you? Where did you grow up? Where are your parents from?” – she asked in that order. “Australia” was what I said each time until the last question where I said, “Malaysia”. She then triumphantly claimed that I “am Malaysian”. Sometimes hearing this question, we feel as if our history – where we have been, what we’ve done and what we’ve learnt – is erased in the eyes of another.
Who is one to judge and know everything about us? None of us owe anyone to belong anywhere. We are entitled be who we want to be wherever we are.
Often the question carries hierarchical connotations and racial undertones, and we feel not only on the sidelines but also second-classed and the victim of casual racism. That is, we might feel no more than an object of exoticness to be observed or taken pity on or watched or avoided. As scholar Rachel Kuo said, this question invalidates the every day life of cultural minorities and in the face of this question comes racial micro-aggression – we don’t feel normal but “forced one into one identity”.
Some time ago I was window shopping in the city. A white (presumably Australian) guy who looked around my age approached and striked up a conversation. It was pretty evident he was trying to pick me up as I wrote in this blog post. “So, where are you from?” he asked barely five minutes into the conversation before trying to invite himself back to my place. I was not amused. Don’t see myself as purely someone’s toy of affection. It’s a question that at times brings to the surface disconcerting patriarchal, gender stereotypes.
Some of us find “Where are you from?” offensive because home is a touchy subject for us, and the past brings up memories we’d rather forget. Maybe we came from a difficult family growing up, or maybe we moved around a lot and feel a sense of indifference towards places where we’ve lived throughout the years. Moving from city to city and country to country for most part of my younger years, today I feel a sense of connection to Singapore and Malaysia as much as to Australia.
And so home can be an ambiguous concept to us, a subject we don’t want to get too personal about. A single answer or a few words in response to the question isn’t the entire truth of where we’ve been and what we know – and deep down the politically correct among us don’t want to mislead the other person about our persona.
Sometimes we dislike the question for the sense of distrust that it builds up between one other, and we are made to wonder who we really are. Not only do we don’t belong in another’s eyes and are seen as an object of exoticness, but we might feel we don’t have the opportunity to show how similar we are. When we sense distrust the air, each of us usually put our guards up. A recent study suggests human brains are predisposed to be more aware of negative stereotypes, and that we respond more strongly towards unfavourably portrayed groups which can lead to racial bias.
When we get caught off-guard with that question and are tongue-tied for a response, we momentarily lose our voice. We ponder this question blankly, trying to come up with an answer, trying to think of our true self…maybe we don’t even know. After all, we’re all a work in progress.
All of us are more than a moment’s judgement. We’re a puzzle of different places we’ve walked, people we’ve connected with and experiences we’ve experienced.
The timing of “Where are you from?” can make a difference as to whether we like or dislike the question in a moment of time, so does the person asking it. If it’s coming from a stranger whom we’ve just met, we might feel miffed especially if we’re the private kind of person. Or we might feel guilty for not knowing more about our heritage and we’ve been meaning to learn more about it at some point, but not yet. Coming from someone whom we’ve known for a while, we might feel completely comfortable.
Consequently, it’s a question that isn’t always and isn’t always intended to be offensive. For one, we’re all born with or develop a certain bias as we grow. It’s a legitimate question. Professor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton’s research and book Are We Born Racist? explores how human beings have natural instincts to survive, a heart to trust certain people and not others. In other words, every single one of us judge one way or another.
Today, this is why I try not to bristle no matter how accusatory “Where are you from?” sounds towards me. The other day at my corporate workplace, I was explaining legal terminology to a client over the phone. He sounded like the average white Aussie, and the conversation between us flowed along just fine. When it came to the end of the call, I said, “No worries. Did you have any other questions?”
There hardly a pause. “Now. That accent. Where are you from?” he asked.
“That is completely irrelevant,” I shot back matter-of-factly. This was a professional conversation after all. But part of me sighed inside because throughout the call, he didn’t give me grief for the way I sounded. Or how I did my job.
“Where are you from?” he tried again, nonchalantly.
I held my ground and spoke louder. “That is completely irrelevant to this conversation. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
The man on the phone sounded nice. The way we act and sound often rubs off on where we have been, so sometimes we fit the stereotype whether we know it or not. There is every chance others are interested in us in a non-creepy way, and feel connected to the values that we may very well have. Academic Raymond Williams proposed the notion of “structures of feelings“, suggesting we often find comfort in sharing affective, conscious, distinct relationships at the same emotional level.
Had the question come from a fellow Asian Australian, I don’t think I would’ve minded. When it comes from a stranger who is visibly of the same race, same look, same speech pattern, therein lies a certain understanding about the question and between one another. But regardless of who asks “Where are you from?”, as mentioned, we’re all a work in progress, always finding ourselves in the process of bettering ourselves. As poet and playwright William Shakespeare said:
“We know what we are, but not what we may be.”
Eager to end the conversation, I cracked it. “I was born in Australia! My parents are from Malaysia!”.
“Right! Right!” the caller said eagerly. “You know, I was only just wondering…” He thanked me and hung up. Perhaps he sensed my indignance.
We’re all from somewhere at the end of the day. We all have stories to tell.
We do want to tell stories and answer “Where are you from?” – when we feel like it. And to those whom we trust. To those whom are genuine. And when we see the best them.
Do you find “Where are you from?” offensive?