Reasons Why The Question “Where Are You From?” Is Offensive. And Not Offensive

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.

Sometimes when someone asks where we come from, we feel small | Weekly Photo Challenge: Tiny.

Sometimes when someone asks where we come from, we feel small | Weekly Photo Challenge: Tiny.

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.

When we are asked the question, we wonder where home is.

When we are asked the question, we wonder where home is.

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.

When we are asked the question, we look around and wonder who we are and whom to trust.

When we are asked the question, we look around and wonder who we are and whom to trust.

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.

Sometimes we have to look up and look out, accepting the question as part of life.

Sometimes we have to look up and look out, accepting the question as part of life.

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?

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327 thoughts on “Reasons Why The Question “Where Are You From?” Is Offensive. And Not Offensive

  1. I personally don’t take offence with questions like this one, which I personally feel is a trivial matter. But then again, I live in Malaysia and not as a migrant in somewhere else. Yet.

    The thing is, I feel people are easily offended these days. Much too easily offended. Granted, there are always racist moronic m****f****rs out there, but I’d like to believe the reasonable ones far outnumber them. So it is always better to give people the benefit of doubt.

    I still have absolute faith in globalization and that sooner or later the world will be a fully interconnected place with no race or religion differences to boot. The 2 major stumbling blocks for this to happen are the racist m****f****rs and the easily offended folks who cry discrimination at any opportunity.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Maybe you are the kind who blends in very well with others, blend in so good that you seem to be one of them. No need for them to ask where you datang from.

      You know, I agree with you and believe most of us mean well. They might not have worded what they want to say succinctly. We are all from one world, one planet, one human race. But who’s to say we can’t live our lives the way we want to, differently. We all do that, and it is time we all stop discriminating against each other.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Sometimes people make biases based on your background. I remember a caller asked me about my work location when I worked for a BPO in India long time back…he knew the answer but still wanted to confirm. The reason for him was because he wanted to show he was superior being from the west, while we did support work for them.

    I never took it heart though…I am in the US now and maybe working at his level now.

    Hearing of racial biases in Australia really made me sad…just pray those incidents are stray.

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  3. Sorry for the double comment, Mabel. I wasn’t sure if the previous comment went through successfully as there was no indication of it (and the last I remembered from my visit, you don’t moderate comments). =/

    I do find the question of ‘where are you from?’ a little intrusive at times. I’ve always answered that I’m a Malaysian, which either 1) baffles the person because s/he thinks that I look more Oriental than I do Malaysian or 2) makes the person grin because of previous experiences or visits to Malaysia. For choice #1, I honestly don’t know how a Malaysian is supposed to look to them. *shakes head* I’ll be candour; there are a couple of times when I wanted to answer that I’m from NZ or Perth, but my accent will be a dead giver. When I was in Perth, a lady from Melbourne mistook me for a Canadian – just because I was in a Malaysian-based Canadian college and speaking with a twinge of North American accent. What irks me 99% of the time, however, is ‘oh, you speak good English.’ It usually comes after the question about my home country.

    I guess it depends on the tone adopted when it’s being asked. If it’s out of genuine curiosity, then it’s alright. If it’s done on the intention of rubbing the unbalanced status quo in my face, I’ll really take serious offence in it because we’re all humans and race doesn’t define a person. I prefer it when people ask ‘which part of Asia are you from?’ or ‘are you Malaysian/Singaporean?’. IMHO, it’s less… condescending. I also agree when you write that ‘Who is one to judge and know everything about us?’. It’s not like they’re related – by marriage or blood – to us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Intrusive, yes. That is certainly the question “Where are you from?”. Such a good word to describe it. Sometimes I get the feeling some people think if you are Malaysian that you are Malay, that is follow Muslim faith, or are dark skinned. Same with Indonesian and perhaps some are surprised that you are Malaysian. Certainly many Malaysians speak good English and are fluent in it – it is just the way we enunciate and pronounce the language the way one does. Also, the idea of “good English” is always up for debate. We can speak good English no matter the accent we have.

      Haha, mistook you for a Canadian! I suppose not all of us have met everyone from a certain country in the world. Maybe the lady from Melbourne really hasn’t met many people of Asian ethnicity and was delighted to meet you 🙂

      It can be hard to interpret tone. You just never know what the other person wants to know about you and if they are actually judging you. It is why I don’t think I will ever like the question – you don’t need to be somewhere to be someone.

      Liked by 1 person

      • How I wish my peers read your post, Mabel. Your final sentence – “It is why I don’t think I will ever like the question – you don’t need to be somewhere to be someone.” – is accurate. Some of my peers tend to believe the Asian stereotype. I don’t know; I could go on and on about this.

        I guess the Canadian lady didn’t know that I was a Malaysian – hence her words, but at least she was friendly about it. =) Omg, I know right. Interpreting tone is really difficult. It can be passed off as curiosity and sarcasm at the same time.

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        • Haha, I believe the Asian stereotype too and act the Asian stereotype in many ways…nothing to be ashamed of because some times that’s the way we are.

          Throw in facial expression when you are interpreting tone, it can even be more confusing. It can be a never ending guessing game :O

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      • People tend to ask or say things when they don’t really mean to be rude or condescending. It’s just more of a lack of knowledge of someone or a place, etc. Sometimes, it can be good that they ask because that is an opportunity for us to add to their knowledge. I say this because sometimes, we could be the ones in their position.

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  4. When you develop a strong sense of well being and confidence within yourself, you will not be offended when asked where you are from. Depending on the “tone” or “situation” I can however see why you have every right to very politely and nicely say that really is not relevant to this conversation. Now IF someone is being a jerk and mean, then my hackles rise and I do yes do have a mouth on me which will tell that person exactly what they can do with that question. So to answer your question, it boils down to what the situation calls for. But I am never offended at the question but am offended if meanness or a certain “tone” is present that I recognize to be sly or cruel, I will strongly say something. I’ve learned to get along with most people yet there are those that do rub me wrong and well, I am no doormat. Nope. Not going there. Great post, dear Mabel. Your writing skills amaze me. I don’t seem able to write a long article like this. I’m much more comfortable with short and sweet. 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • You are very wise, Amy. Sounds like you know how to hold your ground and be confident, and also to give others a piece of your mind when they are not respecting you. I agree in that how we react to question has a lot to do with tone, and sometimes we can only feel and guess why someone asks that question.

      Learning to get along with others takes time, and I have really enjoyed getting to know you and your art over this last year. Always a lot of heart coming out of those photos of yours, and all over the world, no matter where we are from, we can all enjoy them ❤

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  5. Some people just ask the “Where are you from?” because they don’t know how to phrase it correctly. What they might mean to ask is “What’s your race/ethnicity?”. Some people are just ignorant not racist. Well, that’s how I see it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I have never thought of the question “Where are you from?” as being offensive. I’ve done quite a bit of traveling, and its usually one of the first question backpackers ask each other, along with “Where have you been?” and “Where are you going.” It’s good to get a different perspective, maybe I’ll start wording my question “Where do you call home?” when I meet a traveler instead.

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  7. Hi M – I never really found this to be offensive – but I can see how it can be that way – and you explained different aspects.
    i really enjoyed reading – and laughed at the getting picked up part – while in the middle of the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anything can be offensive really. It is just how we see it and where we are in that moment of time. Haha, I really do not like full on confrontation and do not appreciate being picked up in that sense.

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  8. also – your photos have a dreamy quality to them. the “tiny” image has that open road feel and the green is so nic. but my favorite image is the second one – “When we are asked the question, we wonder where home is.”
    is that you looking up?
    and the church feels a bit distorted and it goes into the vibe of the post –
    are you in the photos?

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  9. I don’t find the question offensive. it can be reworded to “where’s home?” perhaps for better approach but for me both questions mean the same. I’d take it that the person asking is interested in learning about other cultural heritage. now if malice is present, the person asking the question has the problem not me. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is clever to reword the question to that, or maybe give it a bit of context. I like your thought that the person has the problem if they are being judgemental. Well said. Hopefully one day all of us can be more open to learning about each other 🙂

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  10. I don’t find the question offensive but I do find it polarizing. It separates the person asking the question from the one answering it. But I do keep in mind that the person asking the question probably has good intentions so that’s why it doesn’t bother me being asked it. Usually I get asked why I have a British sounding last name yet have yellow-toned skin. I think people are curious about other people and I wouldn’t want to stop that, especially given everyone is becoming so solitary with their mobile devices 😉 Great post, as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Polarising. Such a clever way of describing how the question can feel to quite a few of us. Agree with you that the person asking the question might have the best of intentions, and really just wants to get to know you. After all, we’re all always curious. And yes, these days one-on-one interaction can be hard to come by in this distracted world 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  11. i personally don’t mind it when people ask me where i’m from. i’m always proud to say that i’m from the philippines and i guess a lot of it has to do with the fact that i’m pretty much a newbie here and spent most of my life somewhere else i consider my home country.

    must be different for those who were born or who grew up here with parents who are obviously asians or whatever. because they probably feel and act very aussie although they might not exactly look like one, based on the stereotypical standard of what australians look like (blonde, white, etc.)

    which is why i really wanna impart our own culture to my daughter. i want her to be aware of her heritage, and that she’s filipino first (and be proud of it) and maybe aussie second (if she wants to). or she can just blend both for a harmonious fit. hehe. i sure as hell don’t know how exactly i’m gonna do that but i’ll try. maybe start her on learning our language at home. one that she can speak with fluency and not just understand shallowly. i reckon her being bilingual is an advantage. language is what connects you to people and i want her to connect to both worlds.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Awww, you are very proud of your Filipino culture, and you should be! You had a first-hand feel of the culture growing up and most of your life, and it is simply a part of you. Whereas for someone like me or someone who has grown up only in Aussie, we may never really “feel” the Asian way of life as it is in Asian geographical regions.

      Haha, maybe you should have bought that Asian in Australia book from Savers for your daughter. Or read my blog :’D But I do agree on language, and maybe food as well. If we understand and feel a culture, I think we are more likely to connect with it.

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      • that’s true. food and language strongly connect us to our culture. one man’s food is another man’s diarrhea. lol.

        i think i’ll just have my kid read your blog. i reckon she’d be able to relate to you with regards to the whole growing up in australia thingie. unless we move back to the philippines, which would then be another story because she might feel weirded out to grow up here for a bit and then finish growing up over there.

        gawd, this whole culture business is pretty complex!

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        • “one man’s food is another man’s diarrhea. lol.” Omg, lol. This is such a hilarious phrase. No wonder you are a writer :’)

          Culture is so complex. Sometimes we feel one culture more than the other at different times of our lives. If you do move back to Filo land, let me know and we can catch up before you go 😀

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          • omg, that’s a great idea! almost makes me wanna move back to the philippines like, right now. hahaha.

            yeah, culture is a funny thing, hey? it’s crazy how there are even subcultures to subcultures it’s ridiculous. but it makes the world and the people living in it quite fascinating.

            i not-so-secretly have this wish to be a part of a traditional indian wedding, complete with hand henna and all. i am so down for that. also, for the food. because i ❤ curry.

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            • Subcultures within subcultures. Isn’t that true. Niches within niches. We’re really all individuals at the end of the day.

              You could always have a mock or pretend wedding and amkes your dreams come true 😉 ❤

              Liked by 1 person

  12. Personally, I do not get offended by the question except when the person asking is obviously being rude and condescending. I take it as an opportunity for conversation and understanding. I am especially glad if someone, especially a Filipino looking one, will ask me where I am from. Where I am now, it is hard to find compatriots so I welcome the chance to meet one; or people who may have a passing acquaintance with the Philippines, so I am always thrilled to meet one (except when his/her experience of my home country has been awful. The latter can be quite mortifying. Back in the home country, I do not think the question mean any ill will – it is just one way for the person to find some common ground or kinship, or sense of belonging, whatever. Besides, it is good conversation starter once persons have established such common ground. 🙂

    I am sorry I am late commenting. I have read your article days ago but my mind cannot form a coherent comment. 🙂

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    • It is lovely to hear that you have a positive take on the question, Imelda, and you try to see the best in everyone 🙂 It is a question that can certainly connect us with others from the same background or who at least look or sound like they are from a place where we have been.

      I am sure people where you are wonder where you have traveled and grew up, and if you want to share, you share kindly. I’m guessing it must be a nice time for you to chat about your past, and it brings up good memories 🙂

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  13. I don’t want to sound racist or impolite or anything (and I’m very multicultural too, remember?) but I really think that this subject is sometimes getting way too touchy for its own boots. How can we pride in living in a multicultural environment when the basics, which is admitting the multiculturalism to begin with, is seen as racist? I think that refusing to acknowledge ones roots is also a form of racism to oneself.
    Here in most places in Europe, and in Spain, asking where one is from is definitely not seen as racist. Everybody asks absolutely everybody, whether you are from oversees, a different race or culture, of if your from the same country, then people say specifically about the city or town they are from. Here it is a form of respect, and a way to broaden your knowledge about different cultures and traditions, about what the nature looks like around there, what the architecture is like, what typical foods you would recommend from that place if one were to visit…. It brings so much more richness to our knowledge and conversations!
    I take great pride in saying I’m part Indonesian, part Spanish, and Australian at the same time, because it all makes part of who I am, how I look, how I think, what I know, how I talk, etc. Even though I only lived in Indonesia til I was two, I obviously know more about the country than the typical European person. I can correct many people’s assumptions about what little they know about Indonesia (they know the existence of the island Bali, and they know its full of muslim, usually nothing else). With regards to being Australian I get (I already commented about it to you hahaha) all the: so have you seen kangaroos and koalas, but Australia is just a small island, etc etc… Its so funny when I say which region I am from in Spain, and so people get to joke about how my accent is definitely NOT from that region -they have a very cute and pronounced accent from there ,lol, and I accent Spanish is NOT cute haha.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh my gosh, you said it so well, Sofia. “which is admitting the multiculturalism to begin with, is seen as racist?” Very thought-provoking, and “Where are you from?” is indeed a multicultural question – it’s a question that gets us to admit our roots and that we are all different. And we all have to notice and admit difference when we are building multiculturalism, maybe sometimes in a harsh way, sometimes a gentler way.

      You have such an interesting background and I am sure you have taught quite a few people that Bali is a part of Indonesia (some people in Australia think it’s separate…). Good to hear that the question is seen in such a positive way in Spain people are proud of where they have been and what they know. And it must turn out into good conversations when you try to answer that question 😉 And I am sure your accent is cute 😉

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      • Yes I think thats the paradox, a society that prides in being multicultural, but at the same time wanting to be so equal that admitting multiculturalness is deemed as racist.
        Anyway, yes not just in Australia but all over the world, lots of people think that Bali is just an island, as in a separate country! So ironic that Indonesia is the 4th most populated country in the world and so many people outside of it know next to nothing about it!
        I’m sure your accent is cute too 😉

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  14. This is great topic to think about. When I was a child I used to speak Russian more than Ukrainian (I was born and live in Ukraine) and some kids usually asked me where I’m from because of the language I spoke. I used to say “I’m Russian-Ukrainian” and I was pretty sure that this kind of nationality exists =)
    When I was working in the US, of course I might have accent cos I’m not a native speaker of English, so usually people asked me where I am from… Once two old ladies told me: “I’ve got your accent, are you from Britain? ” That was quite a compliment for my English =D
    I have to admit that the question “Where are you from” is not offensive at all when you are participating in International events, where hundreds of people from different countries have a chance to communicate and learn about other cultures=)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sounds like you are multi-lingual and it must be a great way to connect with so many people around the world. Language can certainly bring up the question, and so it opens up a conversation about language, culture and maybe even teaching each other the language you speak 🙂

      I am sure your English sounds good! Yes, international events – a space where the question is a great conversation starter and I am sure you always have a few friendly responses 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Hello dear Mabel 🙂 How good to read another thought-provoking article by you…and I love your photos, very clever the way you’ve positioned yourself with the different scenes, love the different skylines and perspective they give. When I lived in America, almost 20 years as you know, I was asked this question too many times to count because of my accent. Some, assuming I was from England, asked was I from London (no, there are other cities, town and villages in the UK I politely explained lol!), and now and then others asked if I was Australilan, Irish and even South African! Now, I was an ‘immigrant’, married to an American with dual citizen kids. I thought it was nice that someone took an interest in where I was from, but yes It did leave me reminded of feeling lonely for my family back in England, a reminder that I was not a US citizen, but I was never offended by it. I ask new people I meet, no matter who they are, where they are from because I’m genuinelly interested in them and their background. I would be mortified if someone took it the wrong way, it never occurred to me actually. To me, asking someone where they’re from, shows an interest which I think can start a great conversation. I like to think there are way more decent people who just want to be friendly and interested than there are racists and bullies, those who try to make everyone look bad with their small minds and bigoted thinking. Sadly, the news today would have us believe otherwise, but good news doesn’t make for good TV I guess 😉 See you soon my friend, much love and hugs to you from me and the Summerhouse, where I always welcome your beautiful smile 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m always interested in accents. Being an American, I can usually identify a Canadian. It’s sort of a standing joke since our accents are almost exactly the same. I have a lot of trouble with Great Britain since there’s a lot of class distinction in the accents. And I’m ashamed to say that I still can’t tell a New Zealand accent from an Australian accent.

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      • Yes, it’s easy for Brits to tell which part of Britain we’re from just from the accent! But some of those accents I have trouble understanding, especially as slang words and expressions differ from place to place. My ex was American and I remember how confusing it was him too! I grew up in Surrey in the south until I was 10. When we moved to Suffolk on the east coast, all the kids thought my brother and I were ‘posh’ because we spoke differently. We cured that problem by quickly picking up the local lingo much to my mother’s horror, ha! I can definitely tell the difference between American and Canadian accents, but New Zealand and Australia gets me too!

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    • “I like to think there are way more decent people who just want to be friendly and interested than there are racists and bullies”.

      You said it so well, Sherri. I too am inclined to think that and see the best in others. So polite and patient of you to explain where you lived to people in the States who asked, and I’m guessing you made a few friends out of it.

      I am sure you always asked that question very personably with a smile on your face, and you genuinely showed you meant 🙂 Also they must be enlightened to learn from you there are so many parts to Europe.

      Thank you so much for your visit, Sherri. It is always nice knowing you a bit more and thank you for the rays from your Summerhouse. We are approaching summer here but still have rather cold, winter-like weather. Hugs to you and you have a lovely smile too 🙂 ❤

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      • Ahh…dear Mabel, likewise, I so much enjoy reading you, your thoughts, your voice, learning more about you, new and shared experiences. Thank you so much for your lovely reply, I am glad to shine a few rays from the Summerhouse here, although you don’t need too many with your summer upon you! It is sunny here, in Somerset England, but cold, brrrrrrr! Not much frost to speak of yet, but it’s early days. Great chatting with you, have a wonderful weekend and more hugs right back! 🙂 ❤

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  16. When my husband moved to my hometown, he was the only Chinese there, and having grown up overseas, he had an accent. I’m sure people asked him where he was from. He was very proud of where he was from, so I don’t think he minded answering. The only time I saw him angry about being misjudged was on his first trip back to him hometown since he’d been a child. We were riding on the Xiamen-Gulangyu ferry, and since we were among the first foreigners/Overseas Chinese to be there since 1949, we were an object of interest. Some men on the ferry started loudly gossiping about us in Hokkien. They thought he was Japanese and wouldn’t understand them. It was a great insult to him that in his hometown, he was mistaken for a Japanese. I tell the whole story of that encounter in a post from 2013 called, “You Can’t Go Home Again.”
    http://nickichenwrites.com/wordpress/visiting-gulangyu/you-cant-go-home-again/

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    • I read that blog post, and so sorry to hear you and Eugene were picked on by your fellow passengers. Some are quick to judge by first impressions, but sometimes maybe they don’t know better or don’t have another impression. Good to read Eugene stood up for himself, being proud of his heritage – though he felt detached from his hometown.

      Sometimes we feel like we belong but we don’t, and we don’t feel like we belong but we do.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Interesting post, Mabel. You struck a part of me that had abhorred that question. My first, and current, work abroad is in Saudi but since the company I am working for is multicultural I have my fair share of being asked the question, ” Where are you from?”.

    The workplace is dominated by the the locals, the Westerns, and the Asian Asians (Pakistanis, Indians, Shri Lankans, Filipinos, Nepalis, etc.) as opposed to Arabs, and Africans. Needless to say, the hierarchy is in place there. You get the picture of how the culture plays.

    You were right in saying all of us is a work in progress. No matter where your place in the hierarchy is, you will judge or ask that question one way or another. Guilty party.

    In the office, this fact is something that is being embraced eventually or when one realizes that is just culture in a working environment of different nationalities. Sometimes, I see the hierarchy as a food chain–minus being literally eaten. Figuratively it is. Having said that, the workplace is fun of course. I enjoy and learn from the dynamics of it.

    My apologies for not getting into details of my point. I am afraid I might touch things that are against the confidentiality agreement. You know what I mean.

    By the way, I so love the photos you chose to use here. Each is logically placed. And, they remind me of my recent nature trip to Nofa Farm and Resort here in Riyadh.

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    • “the hierarchy is in place” This is so true everywhere we go. There is a certain perception of what is “local” in a certain place and if you don’t fit the mould, chances are you will be perceived as from another place.

      Such a multicultural office you work in, Sony. I bet you learn so much from your colleagues and such diversity goes towards engaging team dynamics on the job. It’s a question that sometimes connects us more than it divides but at the end of the day, it does depend on context and one’s intentinos.

      No need to apologise, Sony. I am always flattered you stop by and read, and comment. And a compliment on my photos is certainly humbling coming from a photographer like you.

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  18. Great post. The question doesn’t really bother me so much. I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they are genuinely interested in me and my background. I’m a little hard to figure out anyway – I look Asian, have a somewhat American accent and live in Australia!

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  19. So fun to see it’s you in these photos, Mabel as always I really appreciate the opportunity (or prompt) to reassess a comment or question through a new perspective. I typically like the conversation that follows your leading question but must admit that comes from my personal point of view as someone who is obviously from “around here”. Thanks once again for adding more insight into the conversation.

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    • Conversation is not always pleasant, but nevertheless usually interesting and intriguing with a stranger. Thank you so much about the kinds words on my photos. I enjoyed taking every one of them – and taking photos of myself is the hardest.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. As a traveler, and now an ex-pat living in the Persian Gulf area, I get asked this question a lot. It used to be great to say: I’m American. People loved Americans. Now it’s not great to be an American traveling the world. I’m not offended by the question, but I don’t like it. When asked, I tell them I’m from Canada. I used to say I was from New Zealand, but then one guy started yapping on about Cricket. I don’t know jack about Cricket, so now I’m from Canada. It’s more about survival than being offended, even though sometimes I’m the only Westerner around. But I know what you mean, and probably someday, as the world shrinks, this might not be a question or an issue…but not soon, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. As an Austrian living in the Netherlands, I normally get the question when speaking Dutch. Of course I have an accent, but many Dutch can not place it very well. Apparently it is not the typical German accent (although we speak German in Austria, but with a different inflection). So sometimes they ask out of pure curiosity to place my accent. Also, living within the expat community, “where are you from” is a standard opener, as most of us are “foreigners”. So for me, it does not feel offensive at all, but a nice conversation opener. 😉
    I think the question becomes offensive or at least uncomfortable if you are actually feeling “I am at home here”. Because then the question implies you are not home after all. It questions your belonging.
    I sometimes feel a little bit of this, as my German sounds much more German-German than Austrian-German. So when I am in Austria, some people believe I am from Germany. Or fellow-Austrian expats don’t believe I am Austrian too. I normally just laugh about it, but sometimes there is this little sting. 😉

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    • It sounds very cozy to have “Where are you from?” as a normal in the expat community. The world would be a better place if we could all see each other with a unique story to tell, and your accent. It is always a point of connection 🙂

      You raise an interesting point, in that the question become offensive when you feel at ease where you are. Because I think in that particular moment, you feel like you’re being questioned of how you came into a culture when you have always been of felt “it” for forever or a long, long time. With the way you speak, you could pass off as both, you know 😉

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  22. You brought up the wide spectrum of a question like this and the impact it can have. So far it didn’t bother me that much. But I do have an accent and therefor it’s pretty obvious that I’m not Australian in that sense. I do think that often this kind of question simply is used as a conversation starter. It’s not really important to anyone but it’s a good way to get some kind of flow into a conversation. But of course you are right, sometimes the question is simply irrelevant and when that is obvious it irks me too.

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    • We all have an accent – it just depends on where we are and who we’re with at a particular moment in time. We’re all insiders as much as outsiders and vice-versa. Agree with you it is good to get a conversation flowing, and sometimes the question is one way to do it.

      Liked by 1 person

  23. Pingback: My Picks Of The Week #49 | A Momma's View

  24. Mabel, such a great topic that I actually have thought about. I worked with a guy who lived in Canada for 10 years and refers to himself as Canadian, not Taiwanese. That is fine. He has dual citizenship and maybe he identifies himself as being more Canadian. However, no matter how long I live in Taiwan, I will always be a foreigner and that is ok. Canada is made up of a mixture of cultures that have blended together.

    And that leads me to wondering about my son. We plan to let him study in Taiwan first [we want him to be able to read and write Chinese] and then, move to Canada. Personally, I hope he will identify himself as being a part of both cultures and nationalities as he is also a dual citizen.

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    • Thanks for sharing, Constance. Your ex-colleague there sounds like he is very comfortable with who he is. Having dual citizenship can be such a cool thing if you let it be and given that you and your husband are so open to embracing culture, I am sure your son will too. It is a privilege to be and live in different cultures – even if it means having to scratch your head to come up with an answer to the question. There is just so much to learn in that kind of sphere.

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  25. Mabel, what a wonderful post. You’ve really got me thinking.

    I often as people where they’re from because I’m a storyteller and a person who naturally links up or connects people I know. While I have white skin, I’m actually pretty much half-Irish and half German. My Mum grew up experiencing discrimination against Germans here in Australia and was part of a minority group herself.

    I’m an extrovert so put me in a waiting room and I’ll start chatting with someone unless I’m reading or writing. I now tell people that being able to talk to strangers is a gift.

    I don’t see the world as separate clumps of people or isolated islands. We’re all interconnected. I have close relatives who of German, Dutch, Philippine, Aboriginal, South America, China. So, it’s quite possible I could strike up a conversation and establish some kind of common ground by asking where someone is from. I know one word of Polish but every time I meet someone Polish and use it, it brings them great joy.

    My husband and I had an interesting discussion about our cultural identity when it came to filling out the census form. He simply filled his out as Australian. His family, like mine has been out here for many, many years. On the other hand, I filled mine out as German and Irish. I put the kids down as Australian because they’re very mixed.

    I’d also like to ask you how you feel about people asking you questions in general? Do you find it personal? Would you say that you have a fairly broad sense of personal space?
    I have a few friends who are introverts and really don’t seem to like questions all that much and take them too personally. I’d ask them how was work and they’d reply that they don’t want to talk about it. I wasn’t asking them the colour of their underwear. I was expecting a fairly generic response such as “fine” or “could be better”. It was small talk. I was simply wanting to connect.

    Anyway, there’s some more food for thought.

    Great discussion topic, Mabel.

    xx Rowena

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    • “because I’m a storyteller…we’re all connected” It sounds like you were meant to share your stories, and want to, which is a good thing. I admire you for being able to chat with most people whenever you are, even complete strangers. Maybe you draw on similarities when you do so, as you said at the end of the comment you people about work – such a general topic.

      It sounds like such a multicultural family you come from. When you all come together, I suppose there are endless stories to share, compare and realise there are simliarities there too.

      I like my personal space and am very much an introvert. I am sure many people out there mean well when they try to strike up a conversation, but sometimes talking just drains me 😀

      Thank you so much for your spirited comment, Rowena. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wish someone explained the different energies between introverts and extroverts to me years ago. It never used to occur to me that people chose to be alone. Have some time to themselves or indeed, quite a lot of time to themselves. A friend once described me as “never alone, never at home.” That’s changed but I’ve also come to appreciate that not everyone wants to talk, open up etc. Give them space. My daughter is an introvert and is also quite shy. I take my lead from her and she largely has predictable patterns of when she’s chatty and when she’s in her room. I don’t take it personally. I used to find such withdrawal quite difficult and took it personally. For an extrovert, introverts can be very intriguing but also cold and aloof. However, once you understand the dynamic between introverts and extroverts better, you have more realistic expectations.
        BTW, I once was given the analogy of the rock and the kite for relationships but I think it particularly describes the interaction between introverts and extroverts well.
        The rock is naturally inclined to sink and be overly introspective where the kite is naturally inclined to be flighty, lack direction and get all excited about things. Together, the rock grounds the kite and brings it back down to earth and the kite uplifts the rock and brings it out of its shell.
        What do you think?
        I’ve taken you along way off topic but that’s what happens with a thought-provoking piece of writing!
        xx Rowena

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        • “never alone, never at home.” Your friend put it in such a thoughtful way, and I love your analogy of the rock and kite, introvert vs extrovert. Very distinct. Good to hear that you connect your daughter on a deeper level now. Two different personalities take time to click, and it’s important to respect each other the way they are – it is just natural how we all are when it comes to our character in many ways.

          Opposites can certainly attract, and each side can lift the other up as you so beautifully illustrated with the rock and kite. Sometimes it doesn’t matter where we are from that makes us click, but it is a matter of accepting each other for who they are in a moment of time.

          Liked by 2 people

          • That’s so true, Mabel. My grandfather always used to say: “The geese go barefoot everywhere.” He was a Pastor in a Church which had something like 33 different nationalities under one roof and some of them had been fighting against each other during WWII. I think this is particularly important for our world at the moment. Live and let live. I’m also a great fan of the Golden Rule…treat other people as you would like to be treated.
            Hope you have a great weekend.
            xx Rowena

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            • “treat other people as you would like to be treated”. Agreed, and it is a phrase that I live by and I try to see the best in others no matter where we have been. A conversation can lead us to places, and your grandfather must have many great conversations in that church. Wishing you well for the week ahead, Rowena 🙂

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  26. I’m just thinking, what if he just sounded like a white Australian when all the while, he was Asian…?

    Well, I’ve never been out of the country ever and our clients always know where we are so, so far, I haven’t had to deal with that on a professional level. But I did encounter a similar bias once with a market vendor who laughed at my supposed mispronunciation of a word and asked maliciously if I was from a certain part of a country. I gave him a piece of my mind.

    (This is from my post Service Tips from the Customer’s POV)

    “I once was buying something from the market when the vendor asked me what it was I was carrying with me. I told him it was pansit (a noodle dish that has its roots from the Chinese). He then chuckled and asked if I was Visayan because I pronounced it as “pan-seat,” that last syllable sounding like a chair. Many Visayans tend to mispronounce their vowels, mixing up I and E, O and U…I looked him straight in the eye. “No, I’m not Visayan, and even if I were, and so what? And how do you say it, pan-set? Why, how do you spell it?”

    I did not mind being mistaken for a Visayan. I was mad because he laughed at Visayans like it made him better than them and because he laughed at me. No customer likes being laughed at, especially to his/her face.”

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    • That is such a good thought. Pretty sure he was not of Asian descent, but sometimes you never really know. To be honest, I have very few Asians in Australia ask me where I’m from, or I ask them that. After some chatting and maybe even get to know each other, we just sort of…pick up where each of us are from. A bit like a six sense.

      That is rather hilarious and sad story you shared at the same time. Funny because it is such a random moment and who would have known he noticed your pansit dish. Sad because as you mentioned, he sort of stereotyped Visayans in a mocking kind of way. It sounded like you were mad for the rest of the day.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t remember if I was, bu I hate it when people act all-superior. Honestly, there was nothing about him that I could think he that he should have been particularly proud of. But did I judge him? I was more peeved by the way he made fun of Visayans, plus the fact that it is spelled P-A-N-S-I-T so what was so funny about pronouncing it correctly?

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  27. Mabel, a nice write up on an important issue, as this question is so common here. And as you say, at times we feel it’s ok to be asked about our roots, a simple curiosity. But as a new migrant we sometimes get offended esp. if the question is asked in a derogatory way. We get used to it later on.
    I mentioned in one of my articles written on India’s Independence day, that we are always asked, “Where are you from?”, which means we remain an essential part of where ever we are from. Therefore it is important for us that our native country is free and well respected in the world, we too gain because we are known by our birth country.
    https://alkagirdhar.com/2015/08/15/freedom-is-everyones-birthright/

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    • I like how you say it in your post, “Our skin, our eyes and our hair leak out the secret.”. That is so true. How we look and sound carries some stories that we have lived and maybe are still living. Also agree that some of us do get used to the question too and come to accept it as part of our every day life.

      A part of where we’ve been usually sticks with us one way or another. Good to hear you are proud of your Indian heritage and you showcase it so warmly through your two blogs.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mabel, are you talking about two blog posts, or my two blogs?

        India as well as Indian-Australian migration issues have always been at the back of my mind. They never leave me. I’ll disclose something now. My first ever blog/site was on Indian-Australians, and the first post I wrote for it “What Christmas means to Indian-Australians?” That came out well but it was December, I got busy with some guests and didn’t post it. Later I wrote drafts about many other Indian-Australian issues, one being Indian stereotypes in Australia…then culture…marriages..but the posts are sitting in a folder, some have become irrelevant now.

        This was more than three years ago. Later I started Magnanimous Word to have general creative and inspirational work. For long, I always had my first blog in my mind but never got around to get it going. Somehow felt…what if I move back to India one day and then all the efforts would be useless.
        After that I came across your blog and I felt I could relate to it…it sounded similar though still quite different, as we all have our unique style and of course your native country is different so that too makes it very different. But I still stopped short of renewing my own. So many times I wanted to mention all this to you but hesitated as you might have felt I’m emulating which I was not. Coincidence plus we think alike, which again could be due to the fact that we two are migrants from Asia and to Australia, obviously some common issues do run in our minds anyway. It’s good to see you focused and passionate about it. Wish you all the best in your efforts!

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        • I was actually referring to your two blogs, your current blog Magnanimous Word and your blog with the HIndi poems. Your very first blog on Indian-Australians sounds fascinating, and I am sure those posts tucked away somewhere do have interesting observations about Indian culture in Australia.

          Culture is always changing, just as life is always changing. What we feel in a moment in time, we may not feel tomorrow. So I completely understand when you say some of those thoughts are now irrelevant.

          Thank you for your support, Alka. A lot of the time too I wonder what will happen to my blog if I move and up and go to another country. Well, I suppose “Multiculturalism” in my blog’s title will cover it. We all have similarities too, and if you did express similar thoughts I would not have minded at all. Rather, I think I would like to learn more from you 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  28. I personally don’t find being asked the question offensive, Mabel. I have a Welsh accent and I often get asked where I’m from. I see it more of an interest rather than offensive. However, if I get asked “Are you Gay?” I sometimes think ‘why are you asking that question and why should it matter?’ Sometimes, when asked that question and replying ‘yes’ the person asking the question will then go on to tell me some information about a gay-themed play or movie, or about some gay friends they have. It can be useful information that may interest me. What I don’t particularly like is when the person asking the question remains silent or becomes very uneasy after answering their question.

    You’ve touched on yet another great subject and I can see from the sheer volume of comments that you’ve got a lot of people talking about it.

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    • Thanks, Hugh. I like how you linked this question to a question about our sexuality. The way a person responds to either question can say quite a bit about them and their attitude towards us. Good to hear you have made some connections with the gay community through the question you posed – some people really do have the best intentions. There are nice people out there.

      Thank you so much for your support. Honestly, a lot of the time it’s hard to keep up, but you know as a fellow blogger, blogging is fun.

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      • Exactly, Mabel. Blogging is meant to be all about fun. It’s certainly one of the reasons why I first came here. And you’re so right about there being nice people out there. They outnumber the not so nice and that’s a comfort we can take joy from (see, I even got a bit of Christmassy talk in there). 🎅

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        • It is hard to escape the Christmas spirit, Hugh. There is niceness in all of us, and that really is evident here in the blog world. It has been amazing connecting with you and reading your stories from the UK. Always entertaining.

          Liked by 1 person

  29. Great topic Mabel !! Most careers are now global and it’s a treat to be able to mix with professionals from many cultures but you are right it is difficult to know when it is appropriate to give in to curiosity and find out more about someone’s native country without causing offence. I guess we are all truly global citizens!

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    • Global citizens. I like that term. We are all people of the world. One people, one world. It can be hard discerning when “When are you from?” is offensive or not, and sometimes we just have to judge by the context and use common sense to figure it out.

      Liked by 1 person

  30. Hallo Mabel!

    Great article and thinking, again.

    “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.”
    I think this a very strong content statement and it describes the main problem with the question. Does it matter where one was born, grew up, where their parents were born/grew up, of which nationalities and ethnicities they are and, oh damn no, what race (hello, Singapore) one is, religion… and if does then how much each part matters. What if doesn’t?

    “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.”
    We truly are. I’d prefer people talk about the present and stop trying connect me with the past which may be or may be not part of the preset, depends how good are we in solving problems and living in now or is it a preference at allo. If you want to know me ask me a question about myself. I cannot be a country, neither can I be a nation or religion, ethnicity. I can be part of it if I will. What if don’t? Ask me my opinion on some interesting topic to you maybe? As you said, we’re all work in progress. So why not talking about the progress. What’s with all that obsession with everything static and dead?

    I really think you nailed it with your answer at the end. It draws a complete picture and as well gives a bit of confusion and blurs the categorisation.

    I have a colleague who asked me in private something about my heritage where I started mumbling something as it sometimes happens because I’m still struggling with this question. And after that, she told about her heritage as follows: “I was born in Malaysia, my father is Chinese, my mother is Japanese, my sister lives in Australia, I lived in New Zealand, and now I’m living in Singapore.” Or something like that, I don’t even remember if I placed all the labels and names correct because it stretches the perspective soooo much. After reading your post I decided to ask other colleagues if they know where that girl is from. They started to think… then after a careful consideration they spit it out – “Malaysia”… then they started thinking again… and ended up saying “I’m not sure how to categorise her”. Even though her story is not the most complicated one.

    So I’m gonna use that answer from now on! Thank you!

    There’s still some crack holes to be filled (for my case). The answer is great for personal casual conversation. For me, it doesn’t work for cases like:
    – Networking event, casual meetup, first work day or any other group first time meeting whereas lots of people that are often also being formed into different groups and I cannot answer all the time with a few sentences because i) it takes a lot of time ii) it sucks other people’s time which is especially awkward when you cut in some conversation to introduce yourself and acquaint with others iii) it may drag some unnecessary awkward attention to me
    – Quick interaction with a stranger such as a taxi driver, cashier, barista, bartender etc. Because it’s more of that sort of question similar to “How was your day” or “Today is surely hot, isn’t it?”. And when you give a more profound “philosophical” answer the oddness appears and usually a friendly throwing words stops. One time recently a taxi driver asked me where I am from right after I landed on the seat. I told him about countries I lived and the genealogy of my relatives that I’m aware of. After that his tone of friendliness changed to something emberassing… he took a pause, after that brought some knowledge about my born-in-country, and I gave him some extra knowledge on that even though it was beyond my interest and probably finished my jar of “homecountry knowledge”.

    My variant of answer based on your article goes like this:
    I was born in [Country-01], I grew up in [Country-02]. My family is [Ethnicity-01], [Ethnicity-02], [Ethnicity-03], [Ethnicity-04], [Ethnicity-05], [Ethnicity-06]. They have [Religion-01], [Religion-02], [Religion-03]. But I’m not related to anything above. I lived in [Country-03], [Country-04], [Country-05], and now living in [Country-06]. I shaped my culture in my traveling, living in different places, and I was influenced by various spiritual and philosophical thinkers.

    The complete version would be:
    I was born in [Country-01], I grew up in [Country-02] (because that country-1 doesn’t exist anymore). My grandma was born in [SAR-Country-03] which is no longer a SAR and is a part of [Country-04], her parents were mixed of at least [Ethnicity-01] and [Ethnicity-02]. My grandpa’s family were born in [Country-05] and they were of at least [Ethnicity-03] and [Ethnicity-04], they moved to an area that eventually became [Country-01], others moved to a [Country-06]. I lived in [Country-07], [Country-08], [Country-09] and now living in [Country-10]. My home country is not where I was born nor the one I grew up in. My home country is [Country-09] and I feel local and close to a few countries I haven’t lived in. I don’t belong to any organised religion. I do share around a dozen of concepts. I can but don’t speak my “mother tongue”, It’s my mother’s language, not mine. BTW soon it won’t be even hers haha, she’s also moving.

    I think living in Singapore this semi-problem is getting some interesting shape. People here talk about race and races all the time and they categorise people by race, religion, color etc. But in a carrying and “nice” way to keep the balance, cultural differentiation, clans, peace and so on and so forth. They think that Chinese, Malaysian and Indian are races even though these terms were never part of any race concept. Not to mention that race concept is not being supported by any official scientific group and UNESCO doesn’t recognise race as a scientific term. I might be terribly wrong on these ones though, I’m not really good with official things. I think Singaporeans are one of a few peoples in the world who talk about race so much. I hope I didn’t offend anyone with this, if I did please forgive me, I didn’t mean to.

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    • Thank you so much for the insightful, warm response, Ing. It could even be a post or article in itself with so many relevant tangents of thoughts to the question.

      “I’d prefer people talk about the present and stop trying connect me with the past which may be or may be not part of the preset” A lot of times I feel this way too. Today some of us simply don’t connect with the values we were brought up with or the values we were surrounded with at a certain point in our life. Maybe one’s history matters to some people as they perhaps like to find a starting point of our character and see how we have changed, or perhaps more so see the people who supported us from the beginning – but that is assuming that we still maintain ties with those people in the past. As the saying goes (something like this, I think), we are the company with keep.

      But I also like to think that we are also not the company that we keep. In life, as we journey on we will meet certain people and their values that we don’t feel a sense of connection with. So as you so succinctly questions, why not focus on the progress and the recent years. Our character and what we know is always changing, and our life story will never get shorter or simpler.

      Your interaction with the taxi driver was interesting to read. It sounded like he was trying to find common ground with you. Maybe that is how some of us feel we can connect to each other – that by sharing common knowledge, finding similarity, that there will be comfortable ground and conversation. But in your case, it didn’t seem so. You could have said you were from another other country, even a country that you haven’t been too and the taxi driver would have probably believed you at the drop of a hat. To some genuine people out there, they do mean good when they are asking the question.

      I like your closing point on the concept a race and no offense taken at all. Now the subject of race is a can of worms in itself (and so is the phrase mother tongue in itself), and I think there is some truth to what you are mentioning there. Race can be thought of a social construct, just as the question of where we are from is a social construct too. We can live in so many places and mingle with so many different people that we will never feel at home or connected to a place – but simply comfortable in our own skin.

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  31. People asking me this question happens on a weekly basis. I don’t mind when it comes naturally in the conversation, after 10 minutes of talking because it sounds like a genuine interest. B ut what I hate is when I start talking, then the person to whom I talk cut me in the middle of a sentence to ask me where I’m from. I find it simply so rude !!

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  32. same here, I have been asked many times while travelling…. sometimes I ask them to “guess” where I am from.. and if I say im from Philippines, they will say I am lucky to travel by myself. its far from home.

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  33. Hi Mabel, have been missing these profound thoughts and conversations which are so vital to our enrichment. Last year I just couldn’t manage my time nor could I motivate myself to come to these wonderful space of blogging on more frequent manner and read such profound posts and so much thought provoking.

    The question “where are we from?” sound simple but carries with it so much complexity, and it is not the content of the question but the context with which the question is asked and the intent with which is presented. There is latent negativity and prejudices embedded in the question. It apparently divides the mankind, the developed vs. the developing, the color, the place, the race and the physical presence all adds up to question our origin. How does it matter where we are from, what should matter is what we know, what we work on, what we do and how we do, the knowledge, the skill, the attitude that matters. If we have the basic human traits in place the place we are from has no significance. Life is much more than these petty divides of language, the way we speak and the way we look, life is so much in the way we share, care and converse and engage to make the existence more meaningful and contribution the community we live much more purposeful. With digital revolution taking strong ground and breaking the barriers of physical boundaries we creating a new community and new society on the virtual place where it just doesn’t matter where we are from and what is that we do and how we look and what language we speak…all that matters is the idea, the thought and the exchange of ideas and thoughts that makes the conversations so enriching and inspiring…

    It is not just about between countries it so much within each country, take the case of my country India, with so many states and with so many different religions, castes and communities and places so far off and with different terrain, there are so much dissimilarities but we all co-exists…in this silent harmony comes the challenge of rich vs. poor, urban vs. rural, upper caste vs. lower caste…this disparaging differences has its own spectrum, and deep within this spectrum comes the question “where are you from” and “you belong to” and we are upset and upset the apple cart of a good communication. Never easy to sideline such blunt and demeaning question which otherwise is irrelevant to the context of discussion and appears was intentional…it is the intent if it is good rest is history but if is bad, human relationship cannot build and bridge the bond of love and affection.

    Always been a pleasure engaging in an insightful debate with you Mabel and it’s been long…good that now I could refocus back where I loved to be…
    Looking forward to our deeply meaningful conversation, missed the large part of 2016..
    take care!!!
    😀

    Like

    • “Life is much more than these petty divides of language, the way we speak and the way we look, life is so much in the way we share, care and converse and engage to make the existence more meaningful and contribution the community we live much more purposeful.” You said it so well, Nihar. As you mention, with the digital age, these days it can be hard to discern for ourselves where we “come from” and more so if we are always on the move. With technology and the blog world, we travel and learn and maybe take up what we learn from the online world into reality. In a sense, the online world can be our home too.

      “all that matters is the idea, the thought and the exchange of ideas” Without this, the world will be a very dull place. So long as we keep moving or keep learning and seeing places around us, then there will always be ideas circulating and to be reflected upon. Also, each country is always changing when it comes to technology and the way we use it – and so that throws another complexity when we talk of where we are from. What we were previously comfortable with when we were younger may no longer feel the same anymore to us these days.

      Always a pleasure engaging in discussion with you, Nihar. Never a dull moment and wishing you well for the year ahead. You take care too 😀

      Like

  34. Hi Mabel,
    I think this is a very important post and the number of comments reflect that. It is also why your blog is invaluable commentary on multiculturalism. I have read all the comments ( took ages!!) and been mulling over my response. I agree with you and some of the many comments in that firstly, it is offensive to ask,” Where are you from?,” of a stranger and also agree, that often the reason is, that people are curious. Yet, I think, is curiosity a good enough reason for being nosy about someone’s background? I am curious about a lot of things others’ do, but that would not be enough for me to ask them something this personal. So I wonder what is behind their curiosity? Could it be well-intentioned or suspicious? And then, will how will it be perceived?

    Recently a work friend and I visited a Scandinavian club and another friend, at the club, greeted me and then leaned over to my friend, asking, “Are you Norwegian too?” She laughed and responded with, “Do I look Norwegian” – because it happens that the work friend is Malaysian by heritage (and ethnicity),and I have been wondering whether this was a better way to approach the question, or not? What do you think?

    I am very often asked about my heritage at the various Scandinavian clubs, in Australia, So are you Danish? Are you Norwegian, Swedish etc etc. I don’t always like to tell them my heritage as responses will vary, when I do! I have Swedish friends who are questioned on their Swedish-ness simply because they don’t have blonde hair and blue eyes! Ridiculous! When travelling in other countries, as a tourist, I am asked, ‘so, where are you from?’, but I only have to open my mouth for them to guess that I come from Australia. Although there was a few occasions where I have been regarded/treated as British/American!!! People all over the world might do this, it seems?

    Perhaps it is simply bad manners to ask such a direct personal question as to someone’s origin, ethnicity, heritage, especially when you first meet, even if the person asking is curious. It should be the person themselves, first and foremost, one finds interesting, and the person themselves, one engages with in a conversation: their qualities, interests, aspirations, opinions, hobbies, not WHAT they are or were. Things about their background will most likely, come out in a natural way during a conversation and if it doesn’t – does it really make such a difference to the conversation or the way people feel about each other?

    When we speak to a person who happens to be in a wheelchair, we try to engage the person, themselves, not ask them, “So why are you in a wheelchair?” (Even if you are really curious). Everyone I meet, is interesting and everyone, potentially, has a story to tell.

    It is disappointing to hear that people have been so rudely persistent in their questioning of you, Mabel. Even though Australia is, from what I can see, egalitarian, we still have a way to go in judging people we meet/engage with, based on their background. Otherwise, why would their ethnicity be relevant?

    As the world becomes more global, and mobile, I am hopeful this attitude and labelling will diminish. May I re-blog this post, Mabel?

    Like

    • Your example of your friend of Malaysian heritage is an interesting one. It does sound like she did not expect to be asked if she was Norwegian. But for all you could have known, she could have had a Norwegian background. Personally, I am leaning towards the side of not favouring the question – but I don’t judge the person for asking. When they ask the question even after a bit of casual non-background related conversation and a conversation with good humour, it is not a question I welcome.

      Maybe some reckon the British and Australian are similar, and so that’s why when you are abroad you get mistaken as British. As people guessing you are American, I’m not sure if I can guess why. Maybe it’s because you look like one, lol. You never know.

      As you mentioned, “it should be the person themselves, first and foremost” and not who we were or what we are. Then again, our past shapes who we are today and who we are today influences our perception of the cultures that we are and the cultures around us. The person ourselves are a product of where we’ve been and set foot. But of course, maybe not always – think of moments where we have to think on our own two feet based on a split second moment. Then again…aren’t all our choices influenced by the past… Feels like I’m going in circles with my argument.

      That is such a good analogy with the wheelchair example. It puts things into perspective, and helps us realise no matter how we look, we are all just another person living in this same world. Simple as that.

      Thank you for such a spirited comment and the kind words, Amanda. Yes, you may reblog this post if you like. Thank you for reading the comments too, and if any of the commenters read you comment, I am sure they would feel very appreciated 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I like how you often challenge me and the other commenters in a kind and non threatening way. The person being the product of the past, our perceptions of culture and the choices we have. All good viewpoints that make me think deeper on this topic. I think this is also a great discussion that has to fit somewhere in our book!!

        Like

        • That is very kind of you to say. And yes, it would great to slot into into our book (I’ve been thinking about it…).

          I was planning on saying this in a future blog post I’m writing but I think I’ll say it here: when you speak two sides of a situation, you can be called a hypocrite. That is, you say one thing, and then say something else completely different and you can be attacked for being two-faced. In reality, both sides are right.

          I think this thought applies very much to the question posed in the post.

          Like

          • Hmmm. Once again you have challenged me to think. At first, I would have said most people would either think the question is appropriate enough and a mostly innocent question, stemming from curiosity, whilst other people might feel the question is inappropriate because they feel there may have been a hidden agenda for asking. I was sure I was on the latter side, but then- if someone asks ME that question, I am certainly reluctant to answer in too much detail, (as it seems personal and I am not someone to give out personal details especially to a stranger), and yet, I would not be offended by the question, even though I find it bad manners. Is this what you were referring to when you mentioned hypocrite? I do feel like a bit of an imposter, commenting here as I am Caucasian living in Australia, and so can not totally relate to the experience of others, who live here in Australia. I hope I am not a hypocrite so perhaps as you say, both sides are right. That is a very astute observation you have made, Mabel! [I think you should definitely add that into a future blog post!]

            Like

            • Exactly. Hyprocrite in the sense that I really don’t want to share my life with a stranger, but at the same time you can feel they are genuine in the way they word the question and you…don’t mind them asking. Hypocrite also in the sense that you can be talking about any topic and have two constrasting opinions you believe in.

              Don’t think you are an imposter, Amanda. The more we voice our opinion and the more opinions we dare speak, the more we can all realise there is so much difference in this world.

              Liked by 1 person

  35. This question does bug me from time to time. Where I am in Canada, being black, Caucasian usually ask where you’re from with an expectation that you’re going to mention an African or Caribbean nation (many years ago, the assumption was that you’d be from an American inner city ghetto). They are often shocked to hear that I am born in England, and that my family moved to Canada when I was almost 3.

    At some point, they let slip the expression “real Canadian” — which to them means white, and then backtrack the next second after realizing that they’re showing their ignorance. After all, the non-white natives who’s ancestors have been here long before any of the Europeans would make up the “real Canadian”. A circumstance perhaps not unlike what occurs between white Australians and the Aborigines.

    https://mabelkwong.com/2013/11/14/the-struggle-to-answer-where-are-you-from/

    In recent years, it’s gotten worse. As Asians may not look their age:

    https://mabelkwong.com/2013/07/04/why-do-asians-look-so-young-sometimes-or-most-of-the-time/

    Blacks often don’t always look as old as we may actually be. I’ve gotten young Afro-Canadians approaching and asking me where I’m from. In certain circumstances, this is code used by stupid young black kids who want to emulate the African-American gangbangers that they see on BET, and lousy gangster rap videos. It’s code for what gang are you affiliated with? This, frankly, pisses me off to no end when I consider the struggles that these kid’s parents, grandparents and ancestor went through to create a more noble and fair life for us. It is insulting to me, and must be to our progenitors, for these young punks to disregard such sacrifices so that they can get involved in thug-life and crime.

    To me, getting asked where I’m from in such circumstances is worse than when some Caucasian who doesn’t think that I’m a “real Canadian” for the colour of my skin asks the same question.

    Like

    • Thanks for sharing something so personal, Allan. Being questioned if you are a ‘real local’ does come across as ignorant since this world is so diverse today, but it does sound even more so if the question is referring to which ‘subculture’ you hail from. Maybe they do want to come across as superior to you and others around them, but getting the upperhand over someone in terms of status can only get one so far.

      Maybe it is just this generation. Or maybe it is the choices they are making that leads them to say and think what they think. Maybe it really is ignorance.

      Like

  36. Very interesting post. I have to admit that normally when I ask ‘where are you from’ I mean which state do you hail from. Either the state you currently live in or were born in. When I know that, I can strike up a conversation with a stranger about traveling or weather. I never thought I might offend someone so I’ll be more aware. Thank you.

    Like

    • Thanks, Judy. Sounds like you ask the question with good intention 🙂 The topics of travel and weather are universal, and not intrusive subjects at all – and I hope you’ve gotten some interesting conversations this way.

      Like

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