Being Asked The Question ‘Where Are You From?’

la vie design studio_2Curiosity is often one of the main reasons one asks about a person’s ethnicity. ‘Where are you from?’ is one of the most common questions that many cultural minorities are asked. When I was younger, I would always respond with ‘I’m from Auckland.’ As I got older, I began to respond with ‘I’m from New Zealand, but my parents are from Taiwan.” As it saved time with questions such as, ‘Where are your parents from?’ ‘Are you an immigrant?’ ‘What are you?’ and ‘Were you born in New Zealand?’ I remember writing about how it is better to phrase the words ‘What is your ethnicity?’ if you are truly curious to know someone’s background and ancestry. Auckland is a multicultural city, and there are many individuals who were born here, moved here or have been here for several generations.

I have a friend who is Chinese and has been in New Zealand for three generations. Where are you from, can in a way, also be asking where do you belong, what is your history, what is your culture, where do you connect with, where do you call home, why do you look the way you do and an endless array of questions that can really go deeper in ones background. Stereotypes, assumptions, and generalizations are sadly often drawn from a race. I was recently asked ‘Where are you from?’ and when I mentioned Taiwan, I often hear ‘I’ve traveled to Taiwan!’ which is exciting and great. However, when I’m asked a lot of questions about Taiwan, I cannot always answer them, as I didn’t grow up there, acquire an education there and have not lived there.

In a post here sharing about Helene Wong’s book Being Chinese, I said how when the nineties arrived, there was an increase in immigration. Wong talks about how during this time, she really became ‘Asian’. She talks about the media stories in 1989 about immigrants, which used the phrase ‘Asian Invasion.’ She writes that “White New Zealanders were suddenly seeing more Chinese faces on the street…They did not say the same of the South Africans who were also arriving in the country under the same immigration policy. Chinese were too different – in looks, speech, behaviour.” She continues to write that “The Sinophobia also came from longstanding beliefs in the West that Chinese were inferior.” When people deny this, they roll everything under the carpet to keep it quiet.

When the question is asked, although most of the time it is a harmless curiosity, it can be asked in a way that makes one feel they are being defined. I’ve had mostly older white men say ‘Ni Hao’ to me once they’ve asked me enough questions to say ‘What language do you speak?’ or ‘It’s hard to tell what sort of Asian you are’. However, where are you from? is also asking where is home? Taiwan is home to me as well, but New Zealand is my natural response since I spent my whole life here. I think it’s absolutely okay to ask someone’s ethnicity if you are simply curious, but try not to ask it as a first question when you meet someone for the first time. I’ve had customers ask me up front when I worked in hospitality and retail, and frankly, it can be quite rude.

Where are you from also asks us to share how we identify ourselves. If I say I’m a Kiwi, it’s because I was born here and call New Zealand my home. Growing up, I’m grateful to have been brought up in a home where Chinese culture was a significant part of my life, and so I was able to stay in touch with that part of my culture. I was reading Mabel’s post here and she writes 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”. There often leads to a lot of questions for example in my experience ‘Why did your parents move here?’ and ‘Do they speak Taiwanese in Taiwan?’ and other questions.

Mabel writes 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. I’ve been ‘hit on’ by white men before, but when it’s been those around my age, it’s mostly harmless, but unfortunately, when it’s been from old white men, I feel this huge sense of discomfort, ‘othering’ and being placed in a box of what an Asian woman is ‘stereotyped’ to be.

Where are you from also asks one ‘where did you grow up?’ and naturally, the response will be where you spent most of your life. There are many people who are surprised when I say that I grew up in the countryside, as I didn’t grow up in an environment where there were many Asians, and most of my friends growing up were Caucasian. We all have our own experiences, and everyone has an interesting journey. I think that it’s important to have sensitivity when we ask these questions, as they can run deeper than one may realise. In The Guardian it states ‘People move an average of 12 times during their life. The notion of a ‘hometown’ or culture can be complex.’ It can be a personal question, that sometimes we may want to share more with those we feel close with, or once we’ve opened up and had deeper conversations.

This is why sometimes being asked upfront, can seem quite direct, which is why we can ask different questions when we are getting to know someone. Sometimes I feel that there is so much more I could share about my own life experience, but it can be limited from being asked about my race in the first question. The article says ‘We seem to want to put people in boxes, to size them up quickly.’ When we are asked the question predominantly because of the way we appear, it can make one wonder about the intentions behind the question. Perhaps, if you ever want to know someone’s ethnicity, ask once you have talked to them more, share about your own background and be sensitive, curious and interested.

Photography by Sun Jun

11 thoughts on “Being Asked The Question ‘Where Are You From?’

  1. As an American Asian expat in Asia, I have to say that the question does not go away. In fact, that is probably the most common question asked here to any foreigner regardless of race. So, in other words, I have not been able to “run away” from the question! Hahahhahahaa.

    As a result, my Thai “small talk” is decent because I’ve had to explain many many times that I’m American (really), I was born in Hawaii (really), and it’s part of America (really), but my mom is Thai and my father’s Chinese. Whew!

    And since I grew up in Hawaii (which is quite diverse) being asked “What are you?” is a very common question. Folks will guess, and it’s considered normal. When I went to the Mainland for college, I carried the tradition and asked anybody “what they were” – and received many interesting answers from “I don’t know” to “a little bit of this and that”. I’m also very proud that I can spot a “mixed raced” person. It’s opened up some doors that have enjoyed.

    I happily discovered who was half-Peruvian, half-Malay, half-Indonesian, half-Mexican, part-Native American when previously they had gone “unnoticed” for years, but after it was out, they spoke proudly of their heritage and I got to learn some family history!

    But yeah, I have many stories of being asked “Where are you from?” while I was living in predominately white America, too. So, I understand. At first, it is weird and surprising because you forget you look any different! Or you become super self-conscious, but given my background, I’ve often asked the question back. ;)

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Lani. I’m always interested to hear your stories/personal experience. So true, where are you from is very often asked in Asia as well, especially to a lot of foreigners, even if they have lived in the country for many years. That’s so great, and it allows people to share about their heritage and spread knowledge. It can be so interesting!

  2. Hi Katie! Great post.

    I agree that this question can be so rude. I’ve only been asked it once in my life, if I remember correctly. My husband’s friend first asked me before even saying hello, “WHAT ARE YOU?”
    The problem with it was that she said it the most ugly way someone could say it. lol
    She literally said ” WHAT ARE YOU?!!?” like I was some weird specimen and i was left speechless.
    I was mostly shocked because she wasn’t fully white herself, she’s half korean.
    Since it was my boyfriends friends, i didnt want to leave a gross impression so i said with a smile “ahh what do mean? haha” and another friend said “she just means what ethnicity are you?”

    Obviously I knew what she meant i just didn’t expect to hear that ever in my life, especially from someone who doesn’t look 100% korean or 100% white.
    Anyway my husband doesn’t talk to his friends much anymore cause they’re all kind of jerks and I helped him realize that lol

    I also agree it’s not rude to ask after a few other questions. But if you’re trying to flirt or if it’s the first thing you ask someone, it can be quite a mood killer.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I <3 reading these kind of posts

    ― Kiki

    1. thanks so much for your comment! I so agree with Mabel, it is quite possibly the most direct way. I feel it would catch me off guard! I think the way we express things are important, and there is always a way to ask a question in a sensitive manner.

  3. An in-depth post about being asked where are you from, and thank you for mentioning two articles of mine on the subject. I found the point where people are surprised that you grew up in the countryside surprising, but highly believable. On one hand, many people associate many of Asian background in Asian countries to be fairly well-off and make the assumption you are from a metropolis in Asia. On the other hand, there are still quite a number of under-developed regions in Asia and there is also the perceptions some of Asian backgrounds reside in Western countries (not in the countryside) so as to live a better life. Like you, I also find the question limiting about what I could share about my life and what I want (and don’t want) to share. Then again, while I feel where I am ‘from’ does not wholly define me, it also matters a lot to me as my culture matters to me.

    1. Your blog is really great Mabel. There are so many posts I really relate to. Very true, and in Auckland, there are indeed many Asians that live near the city areas which may be why it seems surprising to hear an Asian who grew up in the countryside. I understand, I feel like our roots and culture are very important aspects of how we identify ourselves, but as you say, it does not wholly define who we are as an individual.

  4. Its strange that someone like a Chinese can be in a foreign country already for 3 generation, because that means that you came in a new culture and just stayed in your old own. It is well more naturally that someone from China comes to a different culture and mixed into the one he/she choose. Or if a pair “escape” from china and get kids in a new culture, so they kids would mix into the culture of they parents choose place. How strange must it be if, ‘for example’ a chinese who moves to the netherlands and live a life where they was the only chinese in the area the life, in his/her class, maybe even school and then have a relationship with a other chinese and marriage? Sorry, but that is somehow like incest to me.
    Sorry for my english, its just my 3th language and I am still learning. Also I grow up in Europe, maybe New Zealand is completely different in culture thinking but yes, that my opinion for this thema.

    1. Thanks for your comment :) It’s actually quite common to have few generations grow up here as it means their great grandparents moved here and raised a family in NZ. Your English is pretty good!

  5. Hi Katie, thank you for this great post! In the future, can you write about how to deal with racism as an Asian living abroad? Sorry if this sounds demanding, it’s just that I really enjoy your entries about this whole ethnicity and Asian/Caucasian thing, so I wish I could hear your opinion on this matter.

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