The Problem with “Where Are You From?”

Note:  I wrote up the results of the 2015 Asian American Man study on Medium.com, where it’s been read by over 70k people. National Journal, an Atlantic Media’s publication, covered the study in Asian Americans Feel Held Back at Work by Stereotypes.

Today we’re going to talk about a phrase. It’s a phrase you might use innocuously and infrequently, but one that many Asian Americans hear on a weekly if not daily basis, and can come across as unfriendly, even alienating.

That phrase is “Where are you from?”

I think most people ask this question in a spirit of genuine inquiry — as you get to know someone, you may become interested where they grew up, what their home environment was like, what their parents do, etc as a way of learning more about them. But it’s important to understand that Asian Americans find themselves frequently having to answer the question “where are you from” (WAYF). My study found that three-quarters of Asian American men can recall being asked six or more times “Where are you from?”, specifically where the asker is looking to determine their country of origin.

For Asian women, the issue is even worse, as it often gets wrapped around ideas of being “exotic”, “submissive” or other objectifying stereotypes. There’s a reason this the comedy sketch routine “What Kind of Asian Are You?” features a White guy trying to hit on an Asian woman by trying to guess at her ethnic heritage and has nearly 9M views on YouTube.

In fact, you haven’t seen it, go watch it right now. It’s only a few minutes and will provide tremendous context for what we’re about to talk about because a slightly less dramatic version of this scene plays out all the time.

What WAYF Sounds Like

My parents and little sister were visiting New York City recently, and we were getting some crepes at Crêpe Sucre at Gansevoort Market after walking the Highline. The food booth across from Crêpe Sucre (which was staffed by several White men who identified as French) was some kind of lobster bar, and the two Black men who staffing the lobster bar were joking around with the crepe guys.

  • Lobster guy: “Hey Frenchie! Can you make me a peanut butter and jelly crepe?”
  • Crepe guy: “No, we cannot because this is a French creperie and we don’t do PB&J”
  • Lobster guy: “Aw come on! PB&J is a universally loved flavor.”
  • Crepe guy: “No, it’s is an American flavor, but you wouldn’t know that because you Americans never leave your country.”
  • Lobster guy looking over at me and my family: “Hey, where are you guys from?”
  • Me: “Well, I live here and they’re visiting from Boston”
  • *Long pause as the Lobster guy just looked at me. This wasn’t the response he was expecting.*
  • Lobster guy: “I mean what nationality are you?”
  • Me: “Well, I basically grew up in the United States and we’re all American citizens. So … we’re American.”
  • Lobster guy: gets an annoyed look on his face and moves on

Was I being deliberately difficult? Perhaps.

I eventually acknowledged that my parents and I moved to the U.S. from China, though my sister literally was born in the U.S.. But I resented his question [1]. I have lived in America for 27 years, am a U.S. citizen, was part of the United States Junior National Team for men’s gymnastics, was even recruited by the White House to serve the American people as a Presidential Innovation Fellow, and yet when someone looks at me, they presume I am from “somewhere else”.

It is easy to dismiss this story as “just something that happens” or say that “there will always be rude people out there” but just because there will always be people who litter doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continually encourage people to dispose of their trash properly. [2]

Edit 3/18: My coworker Joan pointed me to her friend’s amazing/horrifying Tumblr “Where is Your Face From” which chronicles more of these kinds of stories.

The Problem with Where Are You From?

If I were to break down what makes WAYF such a frustrating and alienating experience, I would look at four elements:

  1. the implied message
  2. the frequency
  3. the timing
  4. the responses to your answer

Let’s start with that first one: when someone asks you where you are from, the implication is that you are not from here. 

But where is here? Here could be interpreted in two ways: the physical region nearby (e.g. New York City [3]), or the psychological region the asker believes him or herself to occupy (e.g. “being American”). While some well-intentioned people mean the former, Asian Americans have experienced the latter interpretation often enough that it becomes internalized as the message.

Some people might justify this microagression [4] on the fact that Asian people are a relatively “new” minority and it’s true that around three-quarters Asian people living in America were born abroad. But 1) that does not justify the presumption that someone who is Asian is “from” somewhere else. Perhaps they were born somewhere else, but many grew up in the United States and consider themselves part of American culture just like anyone else, and to imply otherwise is unfriendly and even alienating. And 2) that still means there are 4.5M+ Asians living in the United States who were born in the country and should have their “I’m from Dallas/Michigan/the West Coast” response completely accepted.

This leads to the second element: frequency. Receiving this implied message on monthly, weekly, and for some people, daily basis, compounds the alienation. This is the issue with microaggressions: individually they seem almost harmless, but in aggregate they can make you feel pretty bad.

Next, the negative effect of WAYF is exacerbated when the question is asked very early in an interaction. This leads to a feeling of objectification — where it becomes clear the asker isn’t interested in you as a person, but how you can be categorized by a label. A person’s ethnic background is a personal topic and just being curious about it does not give one license to ask it in the first 15 minutes of a conversation, just as being curious about a giant scar on someone’s face does not give one license to ask about it right away.

And finally, the question is often followed up with more racial stereotyping. If you indicate somewhere in the United States (e.g. “I’m from LA”), the polite folks will accept the answer and smile [5], the ruder ones will then ask, “But where were you born?” or “Where are your parents from?” etc until they finally get you to respond with your ethnic background.

Once your heritage is state, common responses include “compliments” like “You barely have an accent” or “I love _____ food!” which do little to further the conversation. I understand that these response are often an attempt to relate to the other person, but often feel forced and rely on stereotypes, increasing the sense of alienation [6]. It’s like, that there is so little that this person feels in common with me that they need to resort to my ethnic background to forge any kind of connection.

Suggestions for Improving on WAYF

Look, it’s a free country. You can generally say whatever you want to people. Just know that “Where are you from?” is not necessarily the most inclusive opening conversation question, particularly with Asian Americans. If you’re interested in trying to modify your behavior and improve the situation, here are two of my suggestions:

1) Try rephrasing the question

If you want to get to know someone, why not try a question that is less threatening and gives the other person more of a chance to own their own narrative? These following questions allow the other person to share information that they feel would better help you understand them, which presumably, is what you’re really after.

  • Have you always lived around here?
  • Where’s home for you?
  • Where did you grow up?
  • What was your childhood like?

2) Remember that something you ask once is something they hear often

Imagine you were born with a head of green hair. Of course people would be curious and you’d probably get many comments and questions about your hair — “How did your hair get green?” or “What’s it like having green hair?”. And jokes about your hair would get old super fast – “Did you eat a lot of vegetables growing up as a kid? Hah! Get it!”. You’d probably be tired of talking about your hair all the time, even if people’s curiosity was genuine and not malicious. The sheer volume of questions would still be a constant reminder you that you look different from everyone else and there’s something “off” about you.

3) Try a different line of conversation altogether

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that most people, Asian or otherwise, want to be defined by what they’re doing and thinking, and where they’re going, not where their “people” are from. Ask them their opinion on a recent news story, or about any good books they’ve read recently, or how they like to spend their time outside of work. Hell, even asking about their job, while trite, is at least a decision they had some choice in making. No one gets to decide what ethnic group they belong to – so maybe it’s best to skip this question altogether in favor of something more interesting for both parties.

At the end of the day, this issue is nowhere near as awful as being choked out on the street like Eric Garner, or being left to rot in a prison like Sandra Bland, or any other number of racial injustices happening in America or around the world. But it’s still problem. So, please, think twice the next time you find yourself wanting to ask the question “Where are you from?”

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] I’m not an angry person but every time I go over this conversation in my head, I get a little upset.

[2] Another personal story about being treated as “not from here” came when I was having dinner with my girlfriend, who is Asian, my friend Belinda who is Asian, and my friend Adam, who is White. There had been a small dispute about the fact that when we asked for a whole fish to be deboned, the skin, which someone had wanted, had been removed too. The (White) waiter said to us, “Look, these Americans, they don’t want the bones, they don’t want the skin either”. My friend Belinda actually interrupted him to say “Actually, we’re Americans too”, which he didn’t really acknowledge and she even had to repeat this when the guy basically dismissed her point. Frustrating.

[3] Granted in a city with a large transient population like New York City, it can be common for people to discuss where they lived before they moved to NYC, but frequently this is not the case, and regardless, there are better ways to ask this question.

[4] “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” –  Derald Wing Sue via Wikipedia

[5] Sometimes they’re actually fine with the answer, other times they will have a frustrated look on their face as if to say “that’s not what I meant / what I really wanted to know”

[6] In the video cited earlier, “What Kind of Asian Are You”, the White man, upon hearing that the Asian woman’s grandparents are from Seoul, makes a comment guessing that the woman was either Japanese or Korean, cites a Teriyaki BBQ place near his apartment and mentions “actually liking kimchi”.)

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  1. triketora I hate the follow up, where the person asking questions that I was really born in California, like it can’t possibly be true.

  2. triketora JasonShen I assume the real question is “why are you brown?” when people ask me

  3. JasonShen great post. While there has been a wave of new immigration recently, Asians are not a “new” minority in this country.

  4. JasonShen My ancestors helped build the railroads in the 19th century but 5 generations later “I’m from NY” still doesn’t work.

  5. triketora incidentally everyone in Austin gets asked this way, because hardly anyone is actually from here… :)

  6. jorge_selva triketora yeah the problem isn’t the phrasing of the question, it’s that this shouldn’t be the first thing you want to know

  7. True story … I’d just finished giving an hour-long presentation in front of 100 people based on a book I’d spent years writing. The host of the conference comes to the stage and says, “Great talk! Thank you!. But the question on everyone’s mind is, “What’s with your name?” <queue sad trombone music>
    Jason – thanks for writing this article. I think what makes this sort of questioning so grating is that it assumes one’s ethnicity is what the person being asked wants to talk about. 
    Sure, I’m Israeli my birth but I left when I was 3 years old and see myself as an American first and foremost. It’s sad to me that someone would assume that the thing they are most likely to connect with me over is where I was born instead of all the other things that are much more important to me like my work, hobbies, and values.
    If I could add an additional suggestion to your list it would be to ask the person about something that’s really important to them — chances are, where their grandma was born won’t be top of the list.

  8. vaidehijoshi of course! It’s one of my first foray’s into personal writing about race so felt a little awkward. Glad it resonated with you!

  9. JasonShen no. I just meant that white people have similar reactions when I ask them about their religion.

  10. triketora selfishcrab the issue is about why total strangers are so interested in knowing where someone’s family is “originally from”

  11. JasonShen i think it’s a stranger’s way of trying to put someone in a box, boxes defined by their preexisting notions about diff groups

  12. pgbovine JasonShen the other version I encounter: “which part of India are you from?” followed by “but you look like you are from India”.

  13. freialobo JasonShen U0001f615 reminds me of a recent John Oliver ep where he takes on the Oscars and calls out movies for having…

  14. freialobo JasonShen “Egyptians played by Scottish guys,” etc. & even that bothered me bc what he should’ve meant was *white* Scottish guys

  15. Hey Nir – thank you for sharing what sounded like an incredibly frustrating experience. I think it’s important to bring awareness to behavior that a lot of people do habitually and interrupt the pattern of thinking so we can replace it with something better. Will definitely take your suggestion to add a point about how it’s better to ask a person about something that matters to them rather than just wear their family is from.

  16. I have this problem in Japan (lived in Sendai the longest I’ve been in one place -16 years and counting).
    I alternate between amused, annoyed, and resigned.
    Doubt it will ever go away.

  17. pgbovine JasonShen Have you ever seen the movie “Short Circuit”? Relevant joke in there early on…

  18. third world problems. Rolling eyes. Whining about the ignorance of America’s dumbed down general public if you don’t like them (the dumbed down masses) why do you play them?

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