Tuesday, May 27, 2008

ask asian americans where they're really from

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.


  1. I would think that Arab Americans and Latino Americans would have the same "perpetual foreigner" problem. Arab Americans are Asian Americans too, after all.

    White, black, and Native Americans don't have this problem unless they have a foreign accent (which would mean they are from somewhere else). Asian Americans (including Arab Americans) and Latino Americans have this problem even if they have no foreign accent.

    In Canada, a Chinese Canadian has a 3/4 chance of being from somewhere else, but a 1/4 chance of being from here. However, that doesn't justify it, and 1/4 is still pretty high, especially considering you're risking appearing like a white racist, and white people really don't want to appear racist.

  2. Also, most native-born Asians find the first question, "Where are you from?" annoying already, as white people would not be asked the same question in equivalent situations. However, "Where are you *really* from?" is ludicrous, because this person, usually white, basically dismisses the first answer as invalid and wants a specific answer that fits into his preconceived notions.

  3. I've been asked this question and I am African American. My family has been here for at least 250 years. What I found was a positive connotation if the person asking assumed I was from the Caribbean or Ethiiopia but a negative one once I admitted my family was from here.

    Now I just say I'm Black and leave it to the person asking to wonder.

  4. Make that Ethiopia. It's early.

  5. "Perpetual foreigner"

    "White, black, and Native Americans don't have this problem..."

    I beg to differ. All you have to do is scroll up to the next topic and reflect on the prevailing, yet unspoken idea, that America=white and white=normal.

    You can reflect on the American narrative that "we are a nation of immigrants." Now who does that leave out? The Africans ancestors of African-Americans weren't "immigrants." And what else says "perpetual foreigner" like denouncing Michelle Obama's views (let alone Rev. Wright's) as "anti-American"??

    The animosity towards Michelle Obama has everything to do with her "traditional" Black heritage (compared to Obama's "mixed" heritage) AND her college thesis paper on race. As Macon suggests in the "refuse to listen to black anger" thread, the way African-Americans view American history and their reality in the present is deemed unacceptable and, indeed, "foreign" when their (our) views don't match, word-for-word, White America's prevailing, glossy "city on a hill" narrative.

    Ahhh... The wonders of the state religion with all its purified snow Whiteness. No wonder why Jeremiah Wright was treated as if he blasphemed.

  6. Hmmm...
    I know this issue exists, and the question "where are you really from?" makes no sense and is offensive, but I don't think it should be offensive to ask what ethnicity someone is. Now, intolerant and stupid ways of phrasing it include "where are you really from" and "what are you," and those are ignorant and insulting. However, normally this question connotes interest in the person and, at the very least, in racial and genetic structures.

    One of the first questions you learn when learning Russian is "what nationality are you?" which to them means ethnicity, and while that can seem offensive, I don't know why it should offend anyone.

    I'm a mutt, and I enjoy being a mutt, so, when someone eventually works around to asking me the question, I'm happy to answer, because it's interesting. Of course, maybe my perspective is different because I look white, but with slight differences. I tend not to ask people until someone else broaches the subject, because I know it can offend, but honestly, as long as we're proud of our varied or non-varied heritage I don't see why someone would be offended when someone wants to know more about one's ethnicity.

  7. Nquest,

    Yes, it's true that African Americans are not seen as "American" as white Americans, but Asian Americans have a problem on top of that. White Americans assume that African Americans' ancestors have been in the country for a long time, but they think that Asian Americans, or rather every Asian American, has just arrived [here].

    If African Americans complain about anti-black racist "jokes" in the media, White Americans think that African Americans are biased, not objective, and oversensitive. If Asian Americans complain about anti-Asian racist "jokes" in the media, White Americans think that Asian Americans "don't get the joke" and they need to stay in America longer to understand the local culture.

    For example, Rosie O'Donnell's publicist said, “[Rosie O'Donnell is] a comedian in addition to being a talk show co-host. I certainly hope that one day [Asian Americans] will be able to grasp her humor.”

  8. As a person of mixed race, I really relate to this. Someone asked me in a coffeeshop the other day what country I was from, and then got all confused when I answered "the U.S." and he had to actually find the appropriate terminology to ask his real question. It was at least a refreshing change from "what are you?"

  9. I really liked this entry. You haven't said a lot about Asian Americans, and since they are considered a "model minority," I feel like we often go disregarded.

    That said, though, I love your observations regarding interactions and opinions among blacks and whites. I have sort of had this extreme interest in these things ever since my English teacher in high school gave us Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

    Still, it wouldn't hurt to mention us a little more often, would it?

    Thanks much,

  10. Hi Arianna, glad you liked this entry. I do wonder too why I end up writing so much more about white interactions with blacks than with others. I think it's because I read and hear and learn so much more from black people about white people than I do from other groups. Also, "race" for white people usually means "the black problem," which is actually an ironic "white problem," and one that I guess I fall into much of the time. Also, I think the ascendancy of Obama has brought a lot of black/white tension to the foreground.

    If you know of Asian American observers of whiteness that I could learn from, or others besides African Americans, I would love to hear about them. I'm sure they're out there--Ronald Takaki, for one, has been helpful in historical terms.

  11. Thanks for the post. Check out my 3-minute youtube video and you'll see a humorous dramatization of the perpetual foreigner syndrome. Just type in "perpetual foreigner".


  12. Thanks for sharing Phil, that was great! Very clever, and of course, it makes a great, corrective point about common white perceptions of Asian Americans.

  13. This is a great commentary on such a touchy subject, yet I don't think it is a complete one (according to the phrase "If you don't have a solution, you are part of the problem"). Luckily, I can sense the offensiveness of a question like this, but as someone who is interested in Asian culture, the answer to this question is usually something I would like to know. My question is then, how do ask the question of where someone's ancestors are from without inadvertantly alienating them? Thanks

  14. Anonymous, I don't think that this post's lack of a solution to your "problem," of not knowing how to ask the question of where someone's ancestors are from without inadvertently alienating them, means that the post itself is actually "part of the problem." Your comment implies to me that you don't quite get what this blog post is saying about the common tendency of white Americans to ask Asian Americans where they're "really" from.

    The post in part asks people who not of Asian descent to ask themselves why they feel a need to ask Asian Americans such questions -- and to realize that such questions can be obnoxious. Would you ask them also of a white person? If not, then why is it more appropriate to you to ask them of a person of apparently Asian descent? If it's because, as you wrote, you're someone who's interested in "Asian culture" (of which, of course, there's far more than just one), why do you assume, based on what they look like, that they have any more connection to another land and culture than ordinary white people do?

    If you're interested in Asian culture(s), maybe you should read books, magazines, and web sites about them; or go to an Asian country and live and work there for awhile; or watch documentaries and various other cultural products; or go to events in your locale that deal with specific Asian cultures. If you meet people of Asian descent in certain contexts where they're already offering cultural information, that seems better to me (for reasons explained in the post) than asking Asian Americans, who may well be several generations removed from some former land and culture, where they're "really" from.

    Does that answer your question?

  15. I actually had this experience the other day. I was waiting for a bus home from work and the guy that I was standing in line with point blank asked me, "Where're you from?" What? "Where're you from? Why do you ask? He shrugged and turned away.

  16. Are you saying there is no proper way to find out somebody's origin? Or is there actually a way an Asian person wouldn't mind being asked about where their ancestors are from?

    Many times in this post it was mentioned how asking where people are from is a problem faced only by the Asian community as well as other minorities. This isn't true because as a Caucasian I am commonly asked about my heritage and I am very happy to share it. There is much discussion about who is of Irish descent, German, Italian, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, etc among white people. Somebody's ancestral heritage tells a lot about them, and it's something that two people who are friendly with each other would willingly share. Instead of being offended, consider that the asker really just wants to know more about you.

    I will admit there are very close minded Americans who may be very inconsiderate in the way they treat people that they are not familiar with, but these people need to be taken with a grain of salt and just ignored. It is human nature to define people by what they look like, how old they are, where they live, what their job is, what color their car is... I guess my retort is that these questions are inevitable and that somebody offended by this type of question should take their guard down just a bit. Questions with good intentions can easily be misconstrued into rude ones, kind of like the saying "you only hear what you want to hear."

    I assume we must agree to disagree on this subject. I will keep this in mind now and try not to ask any careless questions. And I suggest that next time somebody is asked a question they find to be offensive, to take it into perspective a little bit and consider the asker's intentions.

    Life is to short to waste time hating other people.

  17. Anonymous, first of all, none of this is about hating people. Second, I'm quite willing to answer your question, but this is awkward for me, because I feel that I as a white person am perilously close to speaking for Asian American people, and that's not my place.

    That said, you don't seem to be getting the point made by many Asian Americans, and by this blog post, and by some of its commenters, that asking Asian Americans where they're from, and then where they're REALLY from, is alienating. Can you see how that could suggest that you as a white person don't see that person as a full American? As someone who's as fully as American as the white people you would never ask such a pair of questions?

    Do you know what "perpetual foreigner" means in regards to Asian Americans? If not, you should Google it.

    I mean, so far I gather that you don't get these things, especially because you wrote this:

    Many times in this post it was mentioned how asking where people are from is a problem faced only by the Asian community as well as other minorities. This isn't true because as a Caucasian I am commonly asked about my heritage and I am very happy to share it.

    It's great that you're happy to share it, but as a white person, you're probably happy to do so because such questions are NOT a problem for you, in the sense that they are for Asian Americans.

    Yes, there probably are contexts in which finding out an Asian Americans origins in a nice way is possible, but it seems best to me in most cases to leave it up to them to somehow volunteer such information.

    Does that help? I'm not so sure we just "disagree" . . .

  18. Hey, just wanted say something about how "perpetual foreigner" only applies to people of Asian descent. I think that's somewhat dismissive, considering that other groups encounter these questions all the time.

    As Americans (in general) become more aware of Spanish speaking countries (aside from Mexico), they tend to ask these questions.
    I'm an American of Hispanic origin, I face this question daily and, yeah, it's pretty frustrating. Oddly enough, white people aren't the only ones asking. I get this from "American" white AND black.

    I've been known to answer "I'm American".

    Of course, there's the "No, where are you *really* from." I generally answer "I was born in New York. That's where I'm *really* from."

    Now, here's the problem. People will assume I'm being difficult, or a smartass, or both. Some may sigh with exasperation and follow up with "No, what's your nationality?" and I'll answer "Well, since I was born in the states, technically my *nationality* would be American, no?"

    And that's where the arguments begin. At this point, I feel that people are being far too nosy and intrusive. Do they really expect me to list my ancestry in order to satisfy their curiosity? Yes, I am aware that it's asked in order to "get to know me better", but how is the country that my family originated from relevant in general conversation? How does it have any (for a lack of a better word. Totally having a brain fart here) influence on the the things I have to say?

    I find that many people in this country will complain about how we refuse to assimilate, and how we simply do not want to be a real part of this country. What they fail to realize is that these sorts of questions point out to us just how non-American they see us. It doesn't matter how fluent and un-accented our English is, it doesn't matter that we grew up on MTV and McDonalds, it doesn't matter that this country is the only life we know. All that matters is that they see a brown or yellow face and feel a need to stamp a foreign country on that forehead in order to somehow organize their world.

    The media says "Why can't they be more American?" and my only answer to them is "Why can't you LET us be more American?"

    I can't offer any solutions to this particular dilemma, since I can't see a realistic way of asking such questions without alienating people. I think the only way to satisfy such a curiosity would be to get to know the person, and eventually they'll casually mention whatever country their family comes from. Otherwise, it's far too personal a question to ask of a complete stranger.

  19. 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.

    I think, in addition to what Prof. Frank Wu stated above, part of it, sometimes, is the racist belief that POC are sneaky - trying to "pass" themselves off as something they're "not" - and that WP are "clever" enough to "catch" them in the "lie." POC all neatly fit into their respective stereotypes and if they say something counter to the always-true, one-size-fits-all stereotype, WP will ask this question to expose the POC and show, after all, that the POC really is the stereotype. There's no variety for POC (variety is the exclusive province of WP). The implicit questioning of a POC's integrity is part of what rankles (for me, anyway) when having one's nationality -which, apparently, is the same as ethnicity/"race"- dismissed.

    Notably, whether the POC is assumed to be foreign (Middle Eastern/Asian American) or American (NA/BA), it maintains a narrative that minimizes POC: ME/AA = not inferior but not one of "us"; NA/BA = one of "us" but colonized/enslaved (vanquished = "proof" of inferiority)...which goes back to Prof. Wu's comment about racial world order.

  20. The reason I came to this blog was to determine exactly how/if I should ask this question of a girl whom I've just met. But the reasons why listed above are not the reasons I want to know where her family originated from. She has a very difficult time with English and I would like to know which languages she speaks so that I can attempt to learn basic language skills so that she doesn't feel so uncomfortable communicating with me. This way, we are both struggling. Does that make sense? Anyway, any assistance would really be appreciated.

  21. I've never encountered a case in which someone who's actually foreign (as is the case with the girl you met who struggles with English), get offended by the question, "Where are you from?" The fact is, this individual IS personally from another country. If you're reasonably sure that she (not just her ancestors) immigrated from another country, the best way is to simply ask where she's from.

    I think some of the people here are saying that this blog doesn't answer their question of "How do you ask Asian Americans about their ethnicity without offending them?" But the fact that this question is still lingering in their minds shows they didn't understand the point of this post. Even if you phrase the question in the most PC manner, the fact that you need to find out an Asian American's ethnicity is in itself somewhat offensive. You're treating someone differently because of his/her race (unless you equally often ask white/black/Latino people about their ethnicity). One commenter mentioned that he/she is not offended when people ask about his/her Caucasian heritage. The question itself is not offensive. But when that question becomes the rule rather than the exception when you meet people, including from random strangers coming up to you just to ask about your ethnicity, then it will cause you to feel like you are perceived as a foreigner by your own country, and THAT is what we find offensive. If we Asian Americans only get asked that question as often as white Americans get asked, then this would not be an issue. It's not because we want to hide our ethnicity or that we're not proud of it. We just see it as a double standard that we're expected to label ourselves with an ethnicity while White Americans are not. And if the question is out of genuine interest in getting to know someone, does that imply you're not interested in getting to know people of other races to whom you don't ask the question?

    That being said, most Asian Americans I know don't truly get offended by the question. We just usually find it annoying (considering you might be like the 10th person that week that we just met who felt the need to ask us that), and we may get a first impression of you as ignorant, even if we realize you were well-intentioned.

  22. But since many of you are still looking for an answer to your question, here's a trick you can try. First of all, never just go up to a random Asian American you don't know to ask about their ethnicity. If you don't even know this person, it would be false to claim that your question is out of genuine interest in them. But if you do know them or met them through a natural social context, talk about other things first. Find out their interests, their points of view on certain topics, anything that shows that their ethnicity was not the first thing you wondered about when you met them. After all, if you want to get to know someone, beliefs/interests tell much more about the person than ethnic origin. When you've established that you are genuinely interested in getting to know them, create a context in which YOUR ethnicity gets mentioned naturally in conversation (like if you're talking about beer, you could joke "Yeah, I do enjoy a good Guinness. Can't help my Irish genes.") When someone happens to mention his/her ethnicity first, it helps me feel less like the topic of ethnicity came up because of my Asian face. And it also lets me know that the person is aware that we're talking purely about ethnicity, and not making assumptions about nationality or cultural upbringing. After all, if another American recognizes he/she has an ethnic origin outside of America, then I won't feel like I'm being perceived as not American when I mention my ethnicity. Because it IS offensive when we realize a white American has the mentality, "Oh, I'm just American, but what are you?" So make it clear that you realize this person is as American as you are but that you both have ethnic origins outside of the US. However, if this person still does not want to share his/her ethnic origin, don't push it. Hope that helps!


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