One of the questions I get asked frequently from strangers or meeting someone new is Where are you from? What’s your background? Where are your parents from? or What’s your ethnicity? It’s understandable, because it’s tricky to tell what my ethnicity is, especially when no one has ever guessed Taiwanese. I commonly hear Malaysian, Thailand and Japanese. It’s natural to feel curious about a person’s ethnicity. I was working yesterday, and a customer asked me out of the blue “Where are your parents from?” and I replied “Taiwan.” It would of been fine, but that was the only thing they asked before walking off.
I’ve talked about the question Where are you from? and how it can be innocently disrespectful at times, as it imposes the idea that you’re not from where you currently live. On the other hand, asking someones ethnicity, is often out of curiosity, but sometimes it can be quite strange to suddenly open a conversation first thing by asking someones background. It can be invasive in asking someones racial makeup, before having a good conversation. When I watched the video What kind of Asian are you? here, it allows others to have awareness of how you ask certain kinds of questions.
There’s nothing wrong with asking someones background, but it’s having that layer of sensitivity and letting go of any assumptions. It’s asking the question in a way that’s respectful and polite. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve gotten offered to join an international group or how many homeless men say “Konichiwa” to me on the street. I still remember when someone asked me if I was from the Philippines. As soon as I said I wasn’t, they stopped talking to me. It sort of makes me smile thinking back to it, but it makes you realise how some people do feel more comfortable speaking to those who have the same cultural background as them.
There was a moment at a sushi store several weeks ago, where the checkout person asked me if I’m from Thailand. I told her no, but that I hear it quite often. She told me “You look like our people!”Most people may be curious, because they often say “I’m wondering what your background is, you have quite a strong Kiwi accent.” I don’t mind, because I’m used to being asked. The only thing I find is that sometimes asking someones ethnicity, can bring about certain stereotypes. There are aspects of my backgrounds culture, that I can’t relate to. For example, I was born and raised in New Zealand, and feel more Kiwi in many ways. It’s harder for me to be able to truly connect with a lot of aspects of Taiwanese and Chinese culture.
We’re all visual creatures, and when we see someone we may become intrigued by their features, appearances and the way they speak. Those are all the external aspects we can see and hear. Especially when you’re living in a multicultural society, it’s common that these curiosities will happen frequently, and you will have others ask you, or you may ask others about their background. It’s natural that we want to know, but it’s important to think before you ask, why you want to know. Sometimes we might be interested to know what other languages they might speak. Every individuals story is different.