“Where are you from?” It’s the most dreaded question of all questions. Well, it is right after “How do you pronounce your name?” but we already discussed that topic earlier.The question is usually posed as an introduction to learn more about each other with good intentions, but it stings as much as a cutting insult. It instantly isolates you from the interviewer, who has clearly placed a barrier of differences between the two of you. In some ways, being asked this question is akin to receiving a warm embrace from a new friend, who mutters under their breath that you really don’t belong here.
Am I being too sensitive about this question? Perhaps, and it’s not an issue that I lose sleep over. I can count the number of times I’ve been asked this on a single hand, yet I still remember each instance, whether it was waiting for the swings at my elementary school playground or sitting in the chair at a hair salon in Rhode Island. I’ve answered the question differently each time, from proudly stating “JAPAN!!!” during my innocent days or “Where are you from?” after a particularly invigorating Asian American studies class to even a lazy “Los Angeles, what about you?” in my current jaded mentality.
Moustafa Bayoumi wrote an opinion piece for CNN that stated, “the question ‘Where are you from?’ may help others locate me, but it will never describe me.” Yet, as much as I agree with his idea, I still have pride over where I did come from. My paternal great grandfather gambled his way to the United States back in the early 1900’s and while my mother’s side of the family were 100% Japanese until she decided to move to Southern California–which made World War II history lessons more interesting, knowing that my family had fought on both sides of the Pacific. In some ways, my family background does help describe who I am today.
So, where are the rest of the 8Asians writers from? They took this opportunity to reveal where they’re from, their approach in dealing with the question, where people assume they’re from or their actual family history and journeys.
I grew up in Manhattan Beach, California. When I was younger, we were low-to-middle income. The racial makeup of the city is nearly 80% White, so there wasn’t too much ethnic diversity as far as that goes. It’s not really a metropolitan city either, so there wasn’t much to do as a kid except kick it at the beach, skate, or surf.
I moved to Palos Verdes when I was nine years old. From that point on, I experienced more of the suburban lifestyle. You know how it is with high society: It was all about getting a great job after receiving a high school/college education. Now I’m starting to see a lot of our conservative-minded youth pursue endeavors other than studying (music, film, sports), and although they aren’t exactly lucrative career paths, I encourage these kids who want to do alternative things in the world.
How does this all tie into where I’m from? As an Asian American growing up in a mostly White community, I definitely felt like an outsider. Throughout the years, I’ve learned to make the best out of that situation, and I’ve come out a much stronger person for it.
I was born at the Chinese General Hospital, which is technically in Manila I guess, but I’ve always claimed being from Quezon City, Philippines where I lived my first year of life before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area.
I vaguely recollect elementary school kids thinking I was Chinese. As I got older in school, everyone realized that Filipinos were very represented in student government, choir, band, and color guard. In the Philippines, people have thought I was Thai or only half -Filipino. In Cambodia, people think I’m Cambodian until they hear me speak English well, then they realize I’m Filipino.
Technically, I’m North Korean. Well, seeing as how both sets of my grandparents escaped, that would make me North Korean right? I was physically born in South Korea, Seoul to be more precise. Currently, I’m from California. Wait, if I still live here, maybe I’m not from here? Well, no, ’cause when I travel and people ask, I say I’m from Cali or Los Angeles. So yeah.
Okay, funny story about what ethnicity I get mistaken for the most. When I was in junior high and high school, people asked and guessed every other Asian ethnicity except for Korean. Weird. When I was in Seoul two years ago, I was with my Auntie at a Duty Free Mall. All of the workers, who were Korean, spoke to me in Japanese. Then, the same day, two adorable Japanese women asked me in Japanese if they could place a tray on top of a counter. I replied in Japanese it was okay. My cousin said it was probably ’cause I just don’t look that Korean.
Usually when I get asked the question I generally answer, “Toronto.” I was born, raised and my citizenship and passport are all Canadian.
As for physical appearance, people usually guess Korean or Chinese, though I got Japanese one time in a Korean mart. I remember having a random conversation with a lady at the bus stop who wondered where I was from based on my accent. She guessed somewhere in Europe. When I told her I had never been there, she asked if I did a lot of traveling or knew a lot of languages. I told her technically no, but yes. My accent, apparently, is really what throws people off, but apparently they do like the sound of it. I dunno, listen to my podcast and let me know.
Both sides of my family are from the Fuzhou area of the Fujian province of China. Most of my mom’s side has been in Taiwan for many generations, and consider themselves Taiwanese. My dad’s family is split between Taiwan and China (my dad didn’t see his brother for over 40 years because of the Communist divide).
When asked where I’m originally from, I usually tell people I’m from NY, but living in California now (although I was born in Taiwan). I’m usually mistaken for either Korean or Japanese from my looks.
I usually throw it back at them — what are you implying? Are you saying that I’m not American?
I use it as a teaching point on the rare occasions that I’m asked that question–that when (white) people are asking that, they’re making this implication that people of Asian descent can’t possibly be American/Canadian and exposing the covert racism behind the question. Usually white people are the only people who ask me that–I’m usually asked by other people of color where I was born, where my family’s from, where I grew up, but never where I’m from.
That being said, I tell people that I was born in Santa Clara, CA (near San Jose) and my parents came here from the Philippines in the 1970s.
I was born and raised in Southern California — grew up in Orange County (not “The OC”) and then lived in Los Angeles for almost my entire adult life. My parents and their families are from Taiwan, both sides going back many generations there. Neither side has had any ties to what is now known as mainland China for hundreds of years. Neither side has any affiliation or association with either the Communists nor the KMT. If it means anything to anyone, I consider myself 3/4 Hakka Taiwanese and 1/4 Hoklo (based on how my grandparents identified themselves).
I usually racial profile the people who ask me this question. If the persons in question are Black/Hispanic or “urban/hiphoppy” (whatever that may mean) I just say “I’m from Brooklyn”. Being from Brooklyn usually allows more “opening up” at the earliest moments of human interaction with certain types of people. For me, the whole “I’m from Brooklyn” can be an answer to a lot of other questions too, besides just “Where are you from?”
If the persons in question are Asian, then I usually reply “I’m from Seoul, but I’m immigrated to NYC when I was 5.” I think among Asians, it is less offensive to assume that when the whole “where are you from?” question is asked, that the nation of origin is assumed. Again just for me personally.
If the person seems to be asking in an awkward (yall know what I mean) way then I just reply “I’m from NYC” and do my best “what I look asian?” impression. But if the person seems genuinely curious I will usually respond as if they were Asian.
I absolutely hate this question, but I agree with the previous person who said it’s less offensive when a fellow Asian asks. Then again, 90% of fellow Asians have the courtesy to not even ask. Besides, we just know.
I’ve gotten asked it so many times, I don’t even bother waiting for it anymore. As soon as the other person starts to get that look in their eyes, or that tone in their voice, and I know it’s coming, I try to head off the inevitable: “Oh, by the way, where did you grow up?” I say I grew up in Chinatown. That usually takes care of it.
I once struck up a conversation with a rabbi at my school’s Chabad House. At the end of our conversation, he asked me, “You’re Japanese, aren’t you?” “No.” “Are you Korean?” “No.” “Vietnamese?” “No.” “Well, I know you couldn’t possibly be Chinese…”
I was born and raised in Western Massachusetts, in a suburb of Springfield, Massachusetts – 90 miles West of Boston. There are not a lot of Asians in Western Massachusetts. I then tell people I moved out to California after business school during the dot com boom in August of 1999. I’m Taiwanese American.
When I started my first job out of college in Connecticut, I was working in a department of maybe 50 to 75 people of mechanical engineers and draftsman – all male, all white, except for me, and this female engineer (white) who had also just graduated. Within my first week, I was asked by an older gentleman (in his mid-to-late 50s), where was I from? I said Springfield, MA. Then he asked me, “No, where are you really from?” I said my parents are originally from Taiwan. That was kind of a shock to me – especially since I had lived in the International Living Center all 4 of my years in college – so my dorm mates were pretty cosmopolitan.
So, readers. Where are you from? No, really. Where are you really from?