For a growing swath of Americans, “Where are you from?” is a loaded question. It might seem innocuous enough — why shouldn’t someone be curious about your story?
But to those among us who’ve grown up in America and have every single credential aside from the way our eyes look or how we pronounce our “r’s,” it’s a question that insinuates that we don’t belong. And it’s not just once in a blue moon that that question comes our way. It’s one out of every few strangers we talk to. It’s constant.
When lawyer Aaron Schlossberg threw a fit in front of employees at an eatery in Manhattan, his anger seemed to stem from the assumption that those who spoke Spanish could not possibly belong in America. If you’re of Asian descent, you may have experienced this in a different way: You've heard “Go back to China!” multiple times a year, no matter your heritage. While these examples are extreme, “Where are you from?” seems like the polite person’s way of getting to the same point: That to be American is to look and speak a certain way, and you're just not that.
For those who hear it often, it’s a question with no easy answer. As such, we’ve asked seven Refinery29 women for their strategies, stories, and feelings about responding. Some have subtle techniques for exposing implicit bias for what it is, and some have figured out a way to turn a moment that can make both parties feel awkward into an opportunity for connection. Regardless, there’s a variety of tactics that’ll help you preserve your zen until that question, hopefully, loses its bite.
And for what it's worth, to all those people who can't figure out a way to ask about a person's background without insinuating something else, a much better way to phrase it is, "Did you grow up in [city that you're currently both in]?"
“My favorite tactic is to break it down in plain terms: ‘Are you asking where I grew up, or where my ancestors are from?’ It forces them to take a beat and understand how ludicrous it sounds, even though that’s what they’re really asking. If — and this only happens rarely! — it’s a Caucasian person asking about my ancestors, I’ll respond with ‘I’ll tell you, but you go first.’ It allows me to answer in the same kind of arm’s-length, objectively reverent way that white people talk about their own ancestry. It levels the playing field, but makes it absurd.” — Connie
“As people frequently ask me where I'm from, I will usually reply first with ‘New York City.’ But inevitably, people follow up with "But where are you froOoOom?’ I assume that they don’t have any other conversational topics apart from what my identity is? I usually reply with ‘I just told you, NYC.’ that usually ends the conversation.” — Caroline
“While I’m American, I only started living in the U.S. as an adult, so the question isn't as loaded for me. I don't mind being implied that I'm not from here, because I'm not in a sense. But sometimes, I feel like people are asking that question just so they can place you and tell you some story about how they've travelled to your homeland. Ninety-percent of those stories are so boring. I especially don't like when the question's intent is to find out that I'm Chinese so the person can speak some broken Chinese to me. My answer to that is usually, ‘I have no idea what you just said.’” — Bourree
“I usually say Taiwan, because it usually gives me an opportunity to talk a bit about Taiwan, since even educated Americans don’t seem to know much about the country. But, sometimes people will say something along the lines of ‘Oh, I love pad thai’….which means they probably need that information more urgently than others!” — Rachel
“I've learned to interpret the question as ‘What ethnic group are you because you look kind of maybe Irish but I can't quite pinpoint what you are? WHAT ARE YOU?!’ I moved to the U.S. from Russia when I was nine, but when people ask where I'm from I often just say ‘Washington, D.C.,’ since that's where I primarily grew up. Since that's often followed up with quizzical looks, and I often find myself explaining that I'm originally from Russia. Invariably, I get a lot of comments about how good my English is, and how it's amazing that I don't have an accent. These comments might be meant as a compliment, but I find them really insensitive because not everyone who has origins in another country has an accent. It also makes me feel uncomfortable and defensive of people who immigrate here and don't speak English as well, or at all.” — Natalie
“When I’m in a cab or at the grocery store and the driver or clerk (usually Asian) and asks me where I'm from, I always answer wholeheartedly, because I know that the reason they're asking is to see if we have shared experiences or languages. To be honest, I think that’s the point of some non-Asians, too. A few years ago while upstate in my boyfriend's predominantly white, conservative hometown, an older white man called at me from across the room and gestured for me to come over: ‘Where are you from?’ I cut to the chase and said I'm Chinese. He proceeded to say, ‘Well I was in 'Nam’ and continued to talk to me about that for the next five minutes until I said: ‘Well, I'm not Vietnamese but it was nice to meet you,’ and walked out. It was confusing and sad.” — Mianne
“I’ve been asked this a lot, and no matter how many times it happens…I still feel the brunt of the perpetual foreigner experience. There’s usually a sense of othering, the idea that you’re not “from here” and seem exotic. A lot of folks have such a surface level understanding of the Asian diaspora, so the access point of 'Where are you REALLY from' feels like I can never be American. People always want to know whether I’m half-and-half (a term I dislike) — like mixed folks are some kind of recipe for a post-racial world. One time, I was in shared car and was having a nice conversation with the other passenger, and then halfway through they signaled to my face and said ‘I could tell you're... Asian.’ I've been working towards not responding to people who I owe nothing to. ” — Maria
Welcome to MyIdentity. The road to owning your identity is rarely easy. In this yearlong program, we will celebrate that journey and explore how the choices we make on the outside reflect what we’re feeling on the inside — and the important role fashion and beauty play in helping people find and express who they are.