Curiosity 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.