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.

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Why We Eat Together At Home. And The Importance Of It

Eating together at home as a family. It’s important to a lot of us. A tradition. Saying no to having meals together at home, especially dinner, is usually hard.

When I was a kid, my parents insisted my dependent younger brother and I all ate dinner together most nights, which we naturally did. These days it’s a different story. Some days when I finish work, I eat dinner in the city and then make my way home. Later on in the evening when I’m engrossed in touching up photos to share on Instagram in my room, mum or dad usually come in and quietly ask, “Are you eating dinner with us at home tomorrow?”

Eating at home with family, expect more food than you can eat | Weekly Photo Challenge: Scale.

Eating at home with family, expect more food than you can eat | Weekly Photo Challenge: Scale.

Family dinners are still quite the norm in Australia. According to a survey in 2012, 77% of Australian families eat dinner together at home five or six times a week, albeit a proportion of this in front of the TV. There’s certainly something significant about eating with family at the dining table. It’s more than just a habit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Going, Or Staying, “Home”

Every year when December rolls around, I get on a plane and fly to Malaysia with my parents for a couple of weeks. They insist. This trip has sort of become an annual pilgrimage to my parents’ homeland, an occasion where we spend time with one another and rush around making the most of the time we have here visiting relatives, shopping and eating.

Shot of the skies and clouds stretching over Melbourne, taken on a plane ride back from Malaysia earlier this year. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Shot of the skies and clouds stretching over Melbourne, taken on a plane ride back from Malaysia earlier this year. Photo: Mabel Kwong

I always feel agitated a few weeks before each trip because going overseas during this time of the year means missing out on a number of things in Melbourne for me: New Year festivities with my friends, turning down that hard-to-come-by office summer job I was offered, quietly reading the book I want to finish and so on.

This year, for a number of reasons work and health related, I won’t be making the yearly trip back to Malaysia. And you know what? I feel sad.

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How To Answer “Where Are You From?”

As an Asian Australian who speaks with a slightly tinged Singaporean-Malaysian accent, quite often here in Melbourne people ask me when we’re mid-conversation, “Where are you from?”.

This question is an ambiguous one. As Melissa Loh has discussed, it can mean: Which city I live in? Which country I was born in? Where I grew up? Which planet? Where my ancestors come from? Which languages I speak?

Each pair of shoes travels far and wide. Where are you from? Photo: Mabel Kwong

Each pair of shoes travels far and wide. Where are you from? Photo: Mabel Kwong

Pretty sure a lot of the time, many who ask me this question want to know where I call home and expect a simple, straightforward answer. Also, they are those whom I’ve met not too long ago and perceive as strangers.

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