This example of a common white tendency is nothing new to Asian Americans, but white Americans (and maybe others too) need to be told about it--stop asking Asian Americans where they're from. Or rather, where they're really from.
The first question--"where are you from?"--can be a friendly question, a way of getting to know someone that Americans ask all sorts of other Americans. But if you then ask an Asian American this second question--"where are you really from?"--what you're actually asking about is their nationality, the country other than the United States that they're supposedly "from."
So here's what's wrong with that second question: since Asians have been coming to America from many countries for about two hundred years, the person you're talking to is probably "from" America, and his or her parents probably are too.
Although "Where are you from?" and then "Where are you really from?" might seem like friendly, politely curious questions, the Asian American that you're talking to probably finds them, at best, tiresome and annoying. They're another reminder that Asian Americans don't quite fit into the common perception of America, and that no matter how many generations back their American family goes, they're still stuck with the status of "perpetual foreigner."
Do European Americans ever get asked where they're from, in such a way that the questioner is really asking where their ancestors are from? (Almost never.)
Do African Americans? (Even less than almost never.)
Do Hispanic Americans? (Almost never, because they're all supposedly from Mexico.)
Do Native Americans? (Also almost never, because everyone knows that, ironically enough, Indians are the real Americans, because they're all from "here.")
Do Arab Americans? (Rarely, sometimes because they've assimilated to the point that they're taken as white, and sometimes because they haven't assimilated or because they're darker skinned, in which cases other Americans are afraid of them.)
Do European Canadians? (Never, because everyone thinks they're Americans.)
In his book Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, law professor Frank H. Wu (who is an American) explains what's wrong with this question better than I can, so I'll turn this post over to him:
"Where are you from?" is a question I like answering.
"Where are you really from?" is a question I really hate answering.
"Where are you from?" is a question we all routinely ask one another upon meeting a new person.
"Where are you really from?" is a question some of us tend to ask others of us very selectively.
For Asian Americans, the questions frequently come paired like that. Among ourselves, we can even joke nervously about how they just about define the Asian American experience. More than anything else that unifies us, everyone with an Asian face who lives in America is afflicted by the perpetual foreigners syndrome. We are figuratively and even literally returned to Asia and ejected from America.
Often the inquisitor reacts as if I am being silly if I reply, "I was born in Cleveland, and I grew up in Detroit," or bored by a detailed chronology of my many moves around the country: "Years ago, I went to college in Baltimore; I used to practice law in San Francisco; and now I live in Washington, DC."
Sometimes she reacts as if I am obstreperous if I return the question, "And where are you really from?"
People whose own American identity is assured are perplexed when they are snubbed in this manner. They deserve to know why "where are you really from?" is so upsetting. My white friends of whom I have asked the question are amused at best and befuddled at worst, even if one of their grandparents was an immigrant or all of them once were. They deserve to know why "where are you really from?" is so upsetting to Asian Americans even if it carries no offensive connotations to them.
Like many other people of color (or a few whites who have marked accents) who share memories of such encounters, I know what the question "where are you really from?" means, even if the person asking it is oblivious and regardless of whether they are aggressive about it. Once again, I have been mistaken for a foreigner or told I cannot be a real American.
The other questions that follow in the sequence make the subtext less subtle. Assuming that I must be "really from" someplace else and not here, even pausing for the preliminary "where are you really from?" some people proceed to ask me: "How long have you been in our country?" "Do you like it in our country?" "When are you going back?" and "Do you have the chance to go home often?"
I am asked these questions with decreasing frequency over time, but still too often, and I am surprised at the contexts in which they continue to pop up.
When I give a speech, every now and then a nice person will wait to chat with me and with utter sincerity and no hint of irony, start off by saying, "My, you speak English so well." I am tempted to reply, "Why, thank you; so do you."
I don't suppose that such a response would make my point to anybody but myself. I am disappointed by these tiresome episodes because strangers have zeroed in on my race and seem to be aware of nothing else. Taken together, their questions are nothing more than a roundabout means of asking what they know could not be directly said, "What race are you?"
Their comments imply that I am not one of "us" but one of "them." I do not belong as an equal. My heart must be somewhere else rather than here. I am a visitor at best, an intruder at worst. I must know my place, and it is not here. But I cannot even protest, because my complaint exposes me as an ingrate. I don't appreciate the opportunities I have been given. People who know nothing about me have an expectation of ethnicity, as if I will give up my life story as an example of exotica.
A few people, I suspect, ask where we are from out of a naivete blended with malice. If pressed about my origins, I answer that my parents came from China, lived in Taiwan, and then came here as graduate students in the 1950s. My interlocutors sometimes say, "Oh, I thought so," and end the exchange. They have placed me in their geography of race and somehow they know all they need to know. They must feel that they have gleaned an insight into me by knowing where I am "really" from and they can fit me into their racial world order.
What makes the incidents comical is that the person waiting in line, the clerk behind the counter, the stranger on the street, and whoever else turns around, leans over, or pulls me aside to ask "where are you really from?" does so as if they are asking me something I have not been asked before. They do not know that they are reenacting a hackneyed scenario. . . .
The question "where are you really from?" shows that we interact with others around us with a sense of race even if we are not mindful of it. Being asked "where are you really from?" likely will not result in my being denied an apartment or a job, except in isolated instances. I wonder what people are thinking, though: when I was interviewing for a position as a law professor only seven years ago, I was told by a senior faculty member at one school (in California no less), "How appropriate that we have the Asian candidate today"--he was referring to December 7, Pearl Harbor Day.
I believe the question is a signal, along a spectrum of invidious color-consciousness that starts with speculation but leads to worse. To be met with it so quickly and so often reminds me, over and over, that I am being treated differently than I would be if I were white.