On Being Asked, 'Where Are You From?'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

During a recent discussion of wrongheaded slights that are cumulatively burdensome, I offered an example of one mistake that Americans should stop making:

Consider an 18-year-old whose great-grandparents immigrated from Japan to the United States. She enrolls at a large state university where she is constantly surrounded by strangers. A few times a week, someone asks her, “What country are you from?” Each interaction on its own is a tiny annoyance that she is inclined to ignore. But the cumulative effect of these interactions add up to a significant burden. No one likes having to answer the same question over and over and over again. And there seems to be something objectionable in the substance of this particular question––an implicit assertion that people with Asian features, or descendants of Asian immigrants, are somehow less American.

When readers sent responses to my recent articles on “microaggressions” and “victimhood culture,” two shared real stories of being asked, “Where are you from?” And one shared a story about asking the question. All are thoughtful and worth reading.

Said the first reader:

I'm a third generation Japanese American writer, and I've been confronted by questions about where I'm from all my life. I have stopped doing the "I'm from Chicago," because I know that's only going to bring the response, "No, where are you really from?" What I now do is tell them, "My grandparents came here from Japan around 1905." I say this as a way of conveying that my family has been in America for over a century, so I'm implying that the question of where I’m from is to me an affront. But my interlocutors generally don't seem to get this point.  

Of course, I don't go into the fact that my parents--US citizens by birth--and my grandparents--who were prevented by racist laws from becoming citizens--were imprisoned by the United States government during World War II because of their race and ethnicity. Instead, I'll drop in the conversation, with my Chicago accent, some fact about the Vikings' quarterback situation or the Timberwolves' draft picks, and use this as a way of somehow proving to them I'm not a recent immigrant or a non-citizen. I don't regard people who ask me where I'm from as horrible people, nor am I, at this stage in my life, terribly upset on a personal level at questions like this. But I do see these questions and other similar micro-aggressions as more than simply evidence of ignorance or an understandable misperception concerning who I am.

In such cases, I know the micro is also connected to the macro. And with the history of anti-Asian immigration laws, the internment of Japanese Americans, the anti-Japanese hysteria in the 1980's or the Chinese espionage and campaign financing controversies in the 1990's, with Jebs remark about Asian anchor babies, I know I am not an American in the ways most whites are perceived as Americans. It's not just that my body prompts questions of "Where are you from?" It's also that I know my status as a citizen and the way other Americans view me can be instantly changed by events in Asia. I also know that bodies like mine will not be represented in the media and that "yellow face" in acting is still acceptable in ways it's not with blacks or Latinos. Beyond this, I'm a writer, and I know when I'm writing about my experiences, those experiences will not be perceived as typical American or essential to an understanding of what America is. In many ways, I will always be an alien; my citizenship will be open to question as will my rights under the Constitution (the internment camp orders were never ruled un-Constitutional). I won't see myself reflected in the culture or in our politics so why wouldn't I expect to get questions which address me as if I'm a foreigner?

Do I expect there will be a day when I won't be regarded as foreign simply because of my body? I don't think so. It's not quite the same as the pessimism expressed by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book or Derrick Bell's racial realism, and certainly African American history and present are far worse than those of Asian Americans. But what I and Coates and Bell realize is that there is a racial hierarchy in this country, and that hierarchy functions on the level of seemingly minor and relatively small social interactions and on large political and economic and cultural scales. Racism functions not just on a personal level but on the level of systems, and this means it's present in a myriad of ways people may not perceive or acknowledge.

When I was younger, such questions bothered me more. I've done a great deal of personal work, psychologically and spiritually, to recover from the effects of external racism and internalized racism. The latter has been by far the greater struggle, and when I was younger, the micro-aggressions I experienced made this struggle more difficult. Today I'm less inclined to give emotional time to the ignorance, passive-aggressiveness and racism of the society around me, and in part, that means in various ways I give less credence and attention to what whites think about me when I feel they misperceive or insult me. I also understand that the greater issues involve systemic and structural critiques, even, as I've said above, the micro is a manifestation of the macro.

At the same time, I think of an 18 year old person of color, out from their home for the first time, and such a person may be trying to deal with the ways racism crops up in casual conversations and in their social interactions. In various ways, little in the culture or that young person's education will help that younger person understand or contextualize these micro-aggressions or find a way to minimalize them in their psyche. So I have compassion for that 18 year old person of color in a way a white writer probably would not since I have been that 18 year old.  Personally, I too have some problems with the way the Latino student at Oberlin wrote to the white student.  At the same time, I wonder if there’s a whole other story there about that student and that student’s exchanges with white students that the Latino student has not expressed.

While I agree that how we're to deal with the term and phenomena of micro-aggressions is a valid topic, I feel there's a certain disingenuous streak to some critiques. In so many ways, all discourse on race, up until recently, was controlled and policed by rules created by whites for how we all should go about discussing race (Barack Obama follows those rules every day). That doesn't mean that everything people of color think about race or how we should discuss race is right or valid. But I do think more white critics should look deep into themselves and think about whether or not they also simply have problems with people of color creating and enforcing their own rules concerning discourse. Or as the black blogger Miki Kendall has remarked to white feminists, “Feminism has a mammy problem, and mammy doesn’t live here anymore. I know The Help told you you was smart, you was important, you was special. The Help lied. You’re going to have to deal with anger, you’re going to have to deal with hurt.” Even a decade ago, a black blogger like Kendall would have had to have gone through white gatekeepers to even be heard.

What we are dealing with now in this country concerning race is partly a result of people of color asserting power and taking advantage of opportunities to express themselves in ways that they did not possess before. Given how often Americans of color have been historically silenced, perhaps more listening--real listening-- on the part of whites would also be useful.

I’m hugely grateful for the long, insightful note. With regard to the final portion, I agree with the reader that some white people are simply uncomfortable listening to black, Asian and Hispanic people expressing themselves on racism, and that they need to get over it. I’d add, for anyone trying to really listen to Americans of color, that debates like the one around “microaggressions” and “victimhood culture” very quickly reveals that there are many people of all races on both sides of the issues.

The next reader writes:

I am an American of German/Danish & Indian/Pakistani descent.  Because the South Asian side of me is more physically prominent than the European side, throughout my life, I have been asked "Where are you from?"

When when I reply "America", the question inevitably becomes "No, but where are you really from?"  Only recently, with the 'microaggression' movement, I have been informed that these sorts of questions are to be fought against, and the more publicly and vituperatively the better.  

I'm not sure I agree.

While this current movement differs from the PC movement of the early '90s in some ways, one feature they have in common is that both advocated the disuse of certain terms or phrases. It seems like this is what the people who want to do away with questions like "Where are you really from?" ultimately seek. It is true that these questions, cumulatively, can be annoying. But I believe that one of the benefits of free speech is the opportunity to get all ideas out into the marketplace of ideas and see which ones triumph. So I think it is better to get such questions out in the open and openly discuss them than have people hide such questions and secretly wonder where I'm really from.  To do the latter would simply perpetuate their notion that I am somehow different or non-American, without giving me the chance to disabuse them of that notion.

I think that by prohibiting, either by social pressure or by regulations, these sorts of questions, people would not stop wondering about my background or 'otherness'.  (I also think 90% of the people who ask these questions do so with good intentions, which is why I don't understand some of the current kerfluffle.)  I prefer that they voice these questions, in spite of their slightly grating nature, and give me a chance to politely let them know about me and my American background.  This approach seems to be a far cry from the Hispanic Oberlin student who flew off the handle when a fellow teammate used the term 'futbol' instead of soccer.  But I've found my approach makes my life much easier than if I became livid at every slight, real or perceived.

FWIW, I also think the people who focus on microaggressions are also looking at the cup as half empty.  It is true that my looks have put me at a disadvantage in certain situations.  It is possible that some potential dates have turned me down because of the way I look, and that I am viewed as "The Other" by certain people.  I also know that there are women who like the unique way I look and that plenty of people accept me for who I am.  My appearance is also a major bonus when interacting with certain groups.  Living in the Southwest I have been mistaken for both American Indian and Mexican.  And it's a huge advantage when travelling abroad, where I have been mistaken for a native in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Mexico.  My appearance allows me to experience life and meet other people in a way that I might not if my German/Danish roots were more prominent.

So while it is somewhat annoying to have people ask these sorts of questions, instead of telling them that it's impolite or bad to ask them, I think a greater good is attained by having them voice those questions, and allowing me to inform them.  And instead of viewing my appearance as a sort of intolerable burden that I have to constantly fight about when they clash with other peoples' perceptions, I tend to focus on the good side of those appearances.  It makes my life more peaceful and, hopefully, helps to make a more accepting populace in general.

Said the third reader, who has asked, “Where are you from?”:

Not everyone, despite a perceived group background, shares the same experience, and therefore comments perceived as coming from a group often have individual origins.  For instance, I recently came back to the USA after a long period traveling, particularly throughout Eastern Europe, where I met a lot of other travelers from all over the world. That particular microaggression cited in the Oberlin example, and one I've heard used a lot, is "Where are you from?" which I very much see could be a condescending question that someone would be fed up with over time. However, as a traveler, it's basically the first question you ask people when you meet them, along with where they were before you met, what they've seen, and where they're going. Names are basically the last thing you ever learn about someone, and that's generally when you're parting. So, for instance, I was in a van in Bosnia & Herzegovina with a couple from Austria and another from Singapore, and we all talked about these things, our backgrounds, where we'd gone before, etc etc. I don't think I ever learned their names, or they mine.

Since coming back to the US, however, I've had to stop myself repeatedly from asking people I meet this question (well, outside of my professional context as a local reporter), which is a behavior I've been weaning myself off of, much like ordering things by pointing at them on the menu or using my fingers to count numbers, all of which I picked up traveling through places where my local language comprehension was spotty at best. But ordering in a restaurant, these are not exactly polite behaviors, and same with buying a train ticket, so I've been working on consciously reducing them.

I could see how someone might be annoyed, even offended by some of these behaviors depending on their personality, background, etc. And I could not possibly expect them to know where I picked these things up just by my doing them. But they would still be wrong about what my actions meant, something which doesn't really matter in this new parlance of social justice, "victimhood culture" to use the term from that paper. But this speaks to the inherent limits of a microaggression framework, which assumes a shared relationship of power between aggressor and aggrieved, and therefore a shared knowledge of meaning. It is not that I don't mean to offend someone by wondering where they immigrated from, which is the assumption of "where are you from?" as an example; rather, I simply got used to that as a conversational aid in an international context. I'm not going to act like I'm a victim here, I'm not. Only that it makes me question the whole endeavor.

A final reader has a suggestion for how the question could be rephrased and made less offensive:

White American: So, where are you from?
Asian-American: Boston. Can't you tell from my accent?
White American: No, but where are you from?
Asian-American: GAAAH !!!

White Americans like this usually mean well, of course. The problem is
that they've never thought of, and no one has taught them, the right
words for what exactly they're asking. Those words are, "What's your
ethnic background?"

White American: So, where are you from?
Asian-American: Boston. Can't you tell from my accent?
White American: No, but where are you from?
Asian-American: You mean, what's my ethnic background?
White American: Yeah, yeah  - that.
Asian-American: Japanese-American. My great-grandparents immigrated to Hawaii around 1930. What's yours?

Chances are the white American will remember "What's your ethnic
background?" the next time she wants to ask the question - and if she
doesn't, she'll remember it after being corrected like that for a
second or third time. And while Asian-Americans may get tired of being asked about their ethnic background, at least there's no implication that they don't belong here.