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What kind of Asian are you?
May 29, 2013 11:59 AM   Subscribe


 
As if a 40ish guy from San Francisco would act that way
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:04 PM on May 29, 2013


That just made me uncomfortable.
posted by HuronBob at 12:07 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


As if a 40ish guy from San Francisco would act that way

Don't want to babysit my post, but I'll just say that I've had more or less that exact conversation (minus her response) multiple times, often with well-meaning lefty folks.
posted by kmz at 12:08 PM on May 29, 2013 [8 favorites]


I know more than a few 40ish guys from San Francisco that act so close to that way that it made me wonder if the script was based on a surreptitious recording of one of their actual conversations.
posted by The World Famous at 12:10 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I didn't make it all the way through "Where are you from? Your English is per..."
posted by DU at 12:11 PM on May 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


(Because of the cringing, I should maybe make clear.)
posted by DU at 12:12 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


This kind of question is most frequently asked by people who are enlightened enough to know that there are different kind of Asians (but not enough to be able to tell by looking / know how to ask it in a less skeezy way.) That's why it happens so much in well-meaning lefty areas.

It is not asked by people who don't know that all Asians aren't Japanese. They're too busy yelling at you, loudly, thinking that it'll make you understand English better.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 12:12 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Throwing in some comical vintage Irish stereotypes with her comical vintage English stereotypes was a nice touch. Even a "bork bork bork!" wouldn't have been out of line, really.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:14 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


This kind of question is most frequently asked by people who are enlightened enough to know that there are different kind of Asians (but not enough to be able to tell by looking / know how to ask it in a less skeezy way.) That's why it happens so much in well-meaning lefty areas.

Fundamentally, these folks are all just Americans/Canadians etc.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:16 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not to apologize for the denseness of the question, but I do think some of this curiosity stems from the weirdly American love of claiming your ancestors' birthplace as your own. I have met a whoooooooole lot of Americans who claim they're "Irish" despite never having been to the Emerald Isle. I suspect it comes from a desire for a distinct cultural identity and tradition.
posted by dubold at 12:16 PM on May 29, 2013 [17 favorites]


As a Korean, I do have to admit... I do think the British people's "fish and chips" are awesome. I really want to try the authentic kind sometime, with the "fish wrapper", which I understand is some kind of newspaper?

Also, related, and more bitter: Hari Kondabolu: "Where are you from?"
posted by qcubed at 12:17 PM on May 29, 2013 [8 favorites]


Hah, awesome.

The "Where are you really from, no, I mean your people" BS happens to me on a weekly basis even here in the SF Bay area. That along with being asked if I can read the characters on chopstick wrappers or the non-English side of the menu (I cannot but sometimes I can pick out the characters for something gross and medicinal, which I will assure you is delicious and yes, you should order them).
posted by jamaro at 12:18 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I lost it when she started doing the witches from MacBeth.

I have an Irish friend visiting right now and one of the things that makes me cringe about taking her anywhere is that people will ask, "Where are you from?" and then, when they hear the answer, go, "Oh really? I'm Irish! I love going to bluegrass festivals down in Erin!" because all Southerners think they're goddamn Irish for some reason. More than once I have stepped in to say, "No, you don't understand, she lives in Dublin," or, once my patience has worn thin and my friend is clearly struggling with the niceties, "No , you don't understand, she's really Irish, not bullshit been-here-for-300-years Irish."

On preview: JINX dubold!
posted by WidgetAlley at 12:19 PM on May 29, 2013 [14 favorites]


Matt Okine, relatedly.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 12:19 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]




Born in the Philippines, raised in America.

This scenario in one shape or another has happened to me in 6 out of 7 continents.

Just as bad, once a stranger finds out you're from the Philippines, they ask if you know XXX XXX. Right. Sure. Uh huh.
posted by HeyAllie at 12:21 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm the worst kind of Asian possible.
posted by GuyZero at 12:21 PM on May 29, 2013 [9 favorites]


Indian.

risotto voce: sadly enough a subcontinent
posted by infini at 12:22 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


American Dad summed up a certain American-style cluelessness when the dad, speaking of an acquaintance, said, "She's Chinese. Japanese to be specific."
posted by Mister_A at 12:22 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


I also claim to be Asian because my dad is from Turkey and I'm a jerk.
posted by Mister_A at 12:23 PM on May 29, 2013 [8 favorites]


Although maybe I should add in the interests of fairness that my friend who is visiting still has it nowhere near as bad as people who have lived here for ages and get asked the question because their skintone is a different color, since no one will pry if my friend doesn't open her mouth and reveal her nice Irish accent.
posted by WidgetAlley at 12:25 PM on May 29, 2013


I do think some of this curiosity stems from the weirdly American love of claiming your ancestors' birthplace as your own.

A middle-aged aunt of mine reports sitting in a cafe in Italy with her package tour group, one of them says "I'm Italian, yknow" during the course of conversation, and a young local woman at the next table says, in almost unaccented English, while barely turning her head, "no you're not, you're American". Of course the ladies were terribly offended by this.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:26 PM on May 29, 2013 [33 favorites]


There's a PBS documentary Seeking Asian Female that covers fetishization of race particularly of Chinese women. There are a lot of moments like this as the subject of the documentary, Steven, is introduced with a clip of him stating that he finds Chinese females more attractive because of their submissiveness. The filmmaker, Debbie Lum, is something like third or fourth generation Chinese and she covers a lot of what that kind of treatment feels like, especially if the underlying assumptions are sexual in nature. There are uncomfortable moments galore but it's a very compassionate film and I think it's a good watch for people who are interested in what it feels like to be an immigrant in the US and what it feels like to be American but not to be treated as such.
posted by dubusadus at 12:27 PM on May 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


Ha! I ask "What kind of Asian are you?" to Asian peeps all the time! My favorite response so far was "What an existential question!" Yes, I am ethnically part-Asian.
posted by ch3ch2oh at 12:27 PM on May 29, 2013




What kind of Asian are you? Half.

As a half breed, I sometimes get the "you're part Asian, right?" followed up by the inevitable nationality question.

However, I more often am confused with being South American or Pacific Islander than anything else.

I identify with neither my white nationality nor my Asian.

The white side of the family didn't appreciate my father's choice in a partner, nor the decidedly non-white offspring.

The Korean side of the family didn't appreciate my mother's choice in a partner, nor the decidedly non-Korean offspring.

At least bigotry knows no boundaries.... LOL (or should that be ROR)?

Yeah.. a little bit resentful here
posted by Debaser626 at 12:29 PM on May 29, 2013 [19 favorites]


I am occasionally all sorts of awkward but at least I'm not this particular type.
posted by djeo at 12:32 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Where I work, our name tags say whether we can speak a foreign language, which cuts down on this question. Although if I was curious in the past, I'd just say "Can I ask you something?" and then ask. In New York City people in general are less uncomfortable talking about ethnicity (as opposed to race) for some reason.
posted by jonmc at 12:34 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


American Dad summed up a certain American-style cluelessness when the dad, speaking of an acquaintance, said, "She's Chinese. Japanese to be specific."

Ha! So true.

I work as a Japanese translator, and I spend several months a year in Japan.

Yesterday I was pestered by a professional acquaintance I've known and worked with in various shapes and forms for ten years. Anyway, he kept sending me messages via Facebook asking me to call him, needed my help about something. I phone him, he's out of area. He pesters me via Twitter.

Finally we connect - "KokuRyu, I have a business trip to Shanghai next week and I need some PowerPoints translated. You speak Chinese, right?"
posted by KokuRyu at 12:34 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


"No, where are your people from?"

There's really only one answer to that, no matter who you are:

"Africa".
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:37 PM on May 29, 2013 [21 favorites]


Another related video. (More general.)
posted by kmz at 12:37 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


As a half breed, I sometimes get the "you're part Asian, right?" followed up by the inevitable nationality question.

We encourage our kids to identify as "Japanese" or "Canadian" or both, and not as "half", since there's, empirically speaking, absolutely no such thing as a "full-blood" Asian or "full-blood" white person or whatever.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:39 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


George_Spiggott: ""No, where are your people from?"

There's really only one answer to that, no matter who you are:

"Africa".
"

Beat me to it, but for added emphasis: "Mother Africa"
posted by wcfields at 12:41 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


[to] KokuRyu, I have a business trip to Shanghai next week and I need some PowerPoints translated. You speak Chinese, right?

"Well, plenty of nouns as well as verb and adjective roots! That's all you need, right?"
posted by zippy at 12:41 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


My family is vaguely Italian, but the dark skin and very Italian first name make some people do the whole bad Italian accent (like, "'Ey! Codacorolla, 'ow's it goin' paisan!?") and ask me if I'm in "the family" every once in a while (I've noticed it's gotten less common over the years). Putting up with that my entire life has made me aware that asking people 'where they're from' is really rude and annoying even if it's being done in good spirits. If someone wants to tell me where their extended family is from then they can, but it's a part of conversation that I've intentionally removed from my vocabulary.
posted by codacorolla at 12:42 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


"No, where are your people from?"

There's really only one answer to that, no matter who you are:

"Mother Ocean".
posted by Pecinpah at 12:43 PM on May 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


"No, where are your people from?"

There's really only one answer to that, no matter who you are:

"Big Bang".
posted by Cosine at 12:45 PM on May 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


"No, where are your people from?"

There's really only one answer to that, no matter who you are:


We are made from matter forged in the exploding heart of a super-massive star.
posted by Mister_A at 12:45 PM on May 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


God I hate you Cosine.
posted by Mister_A at 12:45 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


[sagan voice] Star Stuff. [/sagan voice]
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 12:46 PM on May 29, 2013 [14 favorites]


"Where am I from? Well, my ancestors migrated out of Africa over the Levantine corridor and Horn of Africa to Eurasia about 1.8 million years ago."
posted by zippy at 12:49 PM on May 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


Anyway, people ask me where I/my people are from all the time, and it doesn't bug me; in fact it gives me a chance to correct their almost inevitable mispronunciation of my name, and can be a conversation-starter.

On the other hand, I pretty much look like a regular white guy, so the question comes up in reaction to my name, not to my appearance, which is a horse of a different color.
posted by Mister_A at 12:49 PM on May 29, 2013


It's the half second of Morris dancing that really makes this for me.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:50 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


risotto voce

Great, now I'm hungry
posted by ook at 12:51 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


According to that IBM Genographic Study for the National Geographic that dad sent away for his cheek swabs, I'm apparently a direct descendant of Eurasian Adam.

Oh dear, Mama Africa, what now?
posted by infini at 12:52 PM on May 29, 2013


I'm apparently a direct descendant of Eurasian Adam.

Mark Twain: "Adam is the sole celebrity in my family tree."
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:55 PM on May 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


That was excruciating to watch. I only made it half way, and it is so outlandish I'm not sure what to get from it.
posted by cman at 12:58 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


My wife is half-Indian half-British, pure raised-in-the-US American. She gets the 'where are you from?' question a lot and always handles the question very gracefully though I suspect (well, I know) she might want to respond like this video.

The great thing is that everyone assumes that she must know how to make naan and has a bead on all the best Indian restaurants in town.

'Oh, what's a really authentic Indian restaurant in town?'

"I don't know I've never been," just doesn't compute so she'll just suggest her favorite Indian place and insist it's 'totally authentic.'
posted by Tevin at 1:00 PM on May 29, 2013


FWIW, in the US "I'm [nationality]" is shorthand for "I, my parents or my earlier traceable ancestors emigrated to America from [nation]", a convenient shorthand used because the vast majority of people you encounter in America are descended from immigrants and where you came from is (or was, through much of the last century) a significant social marker.

For many here it is a mark of uniqueness and pride, inasmuch as immigrants have historically set up "New X"-type environments in America and have striven to not completely forget their roots (or their parents or grandparents did, and so they do it out of exposure and habit.) Basically, "I'm not just an American, but I am also descended from [other place]" pride. Some folks just do it because modern-day US life in big cities isn't well-grounded in community, so harking back to our ancestry helps us feel like part of something (versus folks who live in small towns and such, who are much more likely to speak proudly of how "American" they are -- for them, America is deeply conflated with community.)

Considering how externally-unaware Americans can (stereotypically) be, at least it's nice to know that deep down there's some pride related to having come from somewhere else.
posted by davejay at 1:02 PM on May 29, 2013 [16 favorites]


Actually, let me amend that a bit to say that it is a shorthand for "My family emigrated to America from [nation]", in a non-generational-specific way.
posted by davejay at 1:07 PM on May 29, 2013


All Look Same
posted by backseatpilot at 1:07 PM on May 29, 2013


Some people don't want to be asked about their race or ethnicity, and just want to be treated as Americans or Canadians, which I think is reasonable. You would never ask a "white" person you had just met where they came from, so there is an element of racism at play.

When in Japan I am asked pretty much every day where I am from, which is fine, since I stick out like a sore thumb, but how grating would it be to be asked this question frequently by complete strangers in your very own country?

Highly irritating, and makes you realize the nature of the idiocracy we live in.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:07 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I only made it half way, and it is so outlandish I'm not sure what to get from it.

The second half contains that part
posted by ook at 1:08 PM on May 29, 2013 [9 favorites]


I'm OK if you ask me where I'm 'from,' but that's probably because no one ever does.
posted by zippy at 1:09 PM on May 29, 2013


You would never ask a "white" person you had just met where they came from

Oops, one of my standard just-met-a-new-person party small-talk questions is "what's your background, where you from,etc" It actually tends to work really well, I certainly can be clueless from time to time though.
posted by Cosine at 1:10 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


davejay: "FWIW, in the US "I'm [nationality]" is shorthand for "I, my parents or my earlier traceable ancestors emigrated to America from [nation]", a convenient shorthand used because the vast majority of people you encounter in America are descended from immigrants and where you came from is (or was, through much of the last century) a significant social marker."

Yes. This is a thing that people do when they self identify.

So why is it when I ask a white-looking American where they are from I get a city and state, and when I get asked as a non-white looking person where I'm from, there is a refusal to accept anything other than [overseas location]?

Could it be because my identity to the majority of people in this country is tied inextricably to my otherness?

The very basis for the question is the assumption that I don't belong here, while the asker does. That's the point.
posted by danny the boy at 1:10 PM on May 29, 2013 [40 favorites]


I have met a whoooooooole lot of Americans who claim they're "Irish" despite never having been to the Emerald Isle. I suspect it comes from a desire for a distinct cultural identity and tradition.

One of my least favorite semi-regular experiences is listening to my (non-blood) uncle whose family is Scottish somewhere back lecture my mother-in-law, who was born in Scotland and lived there until she was 9, about the Scottish experience. Yes, please loudly inform her and everyone about haggis and kilts, she just returned to her hometown in Fife to visit her cousins.

Even better, he mixes in some unthinking sexism-my father in law grew up on an Ohio farm but in the (rare) event that my uncle has a question about Scotland, he can apparently only direct it at a person with a penis.

I have idly considered getting a divorce to spare her and everyone, but I am still in love with her daughter, so.
posted by Kwine at 1:13 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


once a stranger finds out you're from the Philippines, they ask if you know XXX XXX

Europeans do that to me when I'm traveling and I say I'm from Texas or California. I think it's just a weird universal compulsion.

(Weirdly, one time I DID KNOW XXX XXX. Blew my damn mind.)
posted by Lyn Never at 1:15 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sometimes I wonder why Americans ask this of Asian Americans. Most Americans wouldn't know the difference anyway, except very superficially - 'Chinese people do kung-fu, Japanese people eat sushi, and Koreans ... they're like slightly mutated Chinese people, I think.'
posted by ChuckRamone at 1:16 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Debaser626: same background, similar experiences (right down to being interpreted as some other ethnicity entirely, though my extended family is mostly cool), this was cathartic.
posted by kagredon at 1:18 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Where are you from?" questions are fine when the asker accepts, "Oh, I'm from San Diego" as an answer. That's not what this video is describing.

I'm a white girl who has lived all over the US. When people in the US ask me where I'm from, I say "I'm from California." They might ask, "Oh, where in California?" I've NEVER been asked as a direct followup, "No, where in EUROPE are you from?"

This is direct contrast to the described experiences of my friends who are visible ethnic minorities.
posted by muddgirl at 1:18 PM on May 29, 2013 [32 favorites]


So why is it when I ask a white-looking American where they are from I get a city and state, and when I get asked as a non-white looking person where I'm from, there is a refusal to accept anything other than [overseas location]?

That's a good question, one I can't explain. When I ask or hear "where are you from" I expect/offer a reference to the state of origin, which may or may not be in another country, and I don't hang out with people socially clueless enough to ask that question and then refuse to accept a straightforward answer. It's a fair question, though.
posted by davejay at 1:19 PM on May 29, 2013


yeah, I get this all the time; when I was younger and more arrogant, I would get annoyed and either respond with a snarky comment or just internalize it.

but I realize that while the question is not in good taste, I would bet that the majority of people have the best intentions and are genuinely curious.

obviously if people were as out of touch with the guy in the video, it's one thing, but I think that in general, it's good to deal with such a social faux-pas with good humour and a bit of education.

in cases like these, i think it's all about the intention and not the delivery.

there are a whole lot of other types of people to hate - like those who know "foreign" ethnicities better than the average bear and use that knowledge as a weapon against you.
posted by bitteroldman at 1:19 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've NEVER been asked as a direct followup, "No, where in EUROPE are you from?"

I actually like to ask this of my white American friends. A lot of times they say they're "mutts" but it's still fascinating to learn exactly what kind of European(s) they are.
posted by ChuckRamone at 1:20 PM on May 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


I had a co-worker who was adopted, as an infant, by an Italian-American couple. She was born in Korea, to a Korean mother. She self-identified as Italian, as we learned in a hot tub one night after working a conference in Orlando. We were all drinking wine and talking about where we're "from" - we had a Polish (from Poland) guy, some American mutts like me, and Giuliana. "So, what's your, uh, ethnic background, Giuliana?" someone asked. "I'm Italian," Giuliana said. We drank more wine and thought about it.
posted by Mister_A at 1:20 PM on May 29, 2013 [15 favorites]


Oh, and:

The very basis for the question is the assumption that I don't belong here, while the asker does. That's the point.

Keep in mind that for many Americans, the question can be asked by someone simply wanting to learn about you, since Americans are generally proud and eager to talk about their ancestry. It's a lead-in to a conversation along the lines of "hey, where do you work?" and "so what do you like to do with your time?" and a simple answer should suffice (again, with the understanding that some people won't accept that simple answer and I don't know WTF is up with that.)
posted by davejay at 1:22 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I actually like to ask this of my white American friends.

Conversations between friends about their heritage is not what the video is showing.
posted by muddgirl at 1:23 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


OK, I'm going to be more explicit. If the second thing you ask me, a white girl, is where my family is from (ummm, America?), I'm going to think you're strange at best.
posted by muddgirl at 1:24 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Conversations between friends about their heritage is not what the video is showing.

It is probably okay if a thread evolves into a conversation between us all inspired by the FPP, rather than simply responding directly to it.

OK, I'm going to be more explicit. If the second thing you ask me, a white girl, is where my family is from (ummm, America?), I'm going to think you're strange at best.

Huh. I have a response more like ChuckRamone's friends, even if asked by a stranger. I'm told that I look like I'm from Amsterdam, so it comes up occasionally, and I just assume the person is well-traveled and sees something like that in my appearance that they're curious about.
posted by davejay at 1:27 PM on May 29, 2013


I visited New Zealand earlier this year and someone asked me if I was from California based on my accent. I was weirdly thrilled that that was what his first impression was, as opposed to asking me if I was from China/Korea/Japan/etc.
posted by imnotasquirrel at 1:28 PM on May 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


Occasionally a stronger or new acquaintance will ask if my surname is Irish or Scottish. That seems like okay small talk territory to me, though to be honest I'd probably hesitate to bring it up myself. The origin of one's surname seems like safer territory to me than asking where someone is "from."
posted by mullacc at 1:28 PM on May 29, 2013


When getting to know people, I often ask, "Are you from Minneapolis?" (or wherever we are), no matter their apparent ethnicity or accent.

They can decide from there where the conversation goes. Sometimes we cover ancestral immigration, sometimes we find out we share acquaintances from growing up in the 'burbs.
posted by MsDaniB at 1:29 PM on May 29, 2013 [15 favorites]


My friend really throws people for a spin. He's Afghani, born from Afghan parents in Afghanistan, but his family claims some Mongol descent. But the weirdest thing was when we were walking, and some dudes in a truck yelled what we swore was "Gook!"

You can confuse people further by dropping an accented word in here and there. I have some weird speech patterns it seems, because people ask me where I'm from. I'm a big white guy, born and raised in California, but people think they hear some accent, from Canadian to British, German, and a few other odd ones. I tell 'em, "I don't know what you're talking aboot."
posted by filthy light thief at 1:29 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


The majority of my ethnicities are white European, and I look it.

I think the only time a stranger has questioned me on my ethnicity in this sense, he followed up with a drunken rant against Jews. I got on the next bus, even though it wasn't the one I was waiting for.
posted by RobotHero at 1:29 PM on May 29, 2013


OK, I'm going to be more explicit. If the second thing you ask me, a white girl, is where my family is from (ummm, America?), I'm going to think you're strange at best.

If you ever come to the west side of Cincinnati and are asked this question, what they really want to know is what neighborhood in Cincinnati you grew up in. Also, what high school you attended.

Yes, it is annoying.
posted by cooker girl at 1:31 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Keep in mind that for many Americans, the question can be asked by someone simply wanting to learn about you, since Americans are generally proud and eager to talk about their ancestry.

Dude. Did you just say that to someone born and raised in the US? (Spoiler: yes you did.)
posted by asterix at 1:32 PM on May 29, 2013 [11 favorites]


I do think some of this curiosity stems from the weirdly American love of claiming your ancestors' birthplace as your own.

And some of the habit of going over ancestries sometimes seems like power plays/thingy waving/passive-aggressive class conflicts.
posted by ZeusHumms at 1:32 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Pres. Obama has a very nice way of talking about his heritage, his name, and his personal history, some of which I've incorporated into my spiel about my name.
posted by Mister_A at 1:33 PM on May 29, 2013


Margaret Cho and Asian Adjacent. Possibly [NSFW]
posted by Splunge at 1:33 PM on May 29, 2013


I do not claim to be the son of a Kenyan native, though I do try to pass myself off as a constitutional scholar.
posted by Mister_A at 1:34 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


It is probably okay if a thread evolves into a conversation between us all inspired by the FPP, rather than simply responding directly to it.

My issue is that it seems like responses like, "Oh, I ask everyone about their heritage!" are completely missing why these sorts of questions from strangers can be very alienating, especially when they occur over and over and over (and over and over) again.
posted by muddgirl at 1:35 PM on May 29, 2013 [11 favorites]


I visited New Zealand earlier this year and someone asked me if I was from California based on my accent. I was weirdly thrilled that that was what his first impression was, as opposed to asking me if I was from China/Korea/Japan/etc.
.


When we lived in New Zealand, my wife, who is Vietnamese by ethnicity but born in the USA, would always answer that she was from the US, and I don't think anyone ever followed up with anything like, "No, no. I mean which Asian country are you from." But here in the US it's not unusual for people to ask her things like "What is your ethnicity" or "Where is your family from" or "Were you born in the US?"




Odd thing about NZ was that I was almost always asked "Where are you from?" or "Are you Canadian?" rather than "Are you American?"
posted by MoonOrb at 1:38 PM on May 29, 2013


Right. And the point, and it's undeniable, is that these questions are asked, over and over and over, of people who "look Asian". Especially (or so it seems) to Asian-looking women, who are bizarrely fetishized in the US. EDIT: That was a response to muddgirl.
posted by Mister_A at 1:38 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


...ah crap.

One of my friends came to visit me from Hawaii. We took a road trip through the Southwest, and highlighted it by visiting the Grand Canyon; sat in the doorway of the van, parked near Bright Angel, eating a sandwich and planning the hike down to the inner rim.

One of the local Navajo guys walked over to Carol and began to speak to her in his language. She blinked a few times and said, "Um...I'm Japanese."

What kind of Asian is Sansei?

Bonus points for: what to call African-Americans in France.

ruffling vestigial feathers is
picking low-hanging fruit.
Our righteous anger has to be channeled correctly.
posted by mule98J at 1:39 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


"In what lands are your ancestral graves?"
posted by Apocryphon at 1:40 PM on May 29, 2013 [12 favorites]


When I lived in San Francisco - I was complimented on my English all the time and I was referred to being from Hong Kong even though I had spent only the first 3 months of my life there and then rest of the time growing up in Canada. On the other hand - a more enlightened Japanese friend of mine told me to stop referring to myself as an Oriental as I was a person not a rug.

It made living in what was supposed to be the most liberal city in America kind of fun and weird. In Vancouver - it always seems like most people practice willful ignorance. You get a quick sense of background and sexual preference - and then you proceed to ignore those differences going forward in your relationships. Not sure if it works any better - but less awkward conversations.
posted by helmutdog at 1:40 PM on May 29, 2013


Americans tend to fetishize all cultures. Just ask the Irish about St. Patrick's Day.
posted by ZeusHumms at 1:40 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


What kind of Asian are you?

If you don't look likely to do physical violence to me, probably the snarky kind.
posted by juv3nal at 1:40 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Neither of these people are even human. They are joggers.
posted by breakfast_yeti at 1:42 PM on May 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm Asian because I have some Jewish ancestry and Palestine is totally in Asia
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 1:44 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


a more enlightened Japanese friend of mine told me to stop referring to myself as an Oriental as I was a person not a rug.

And you just did what she said? Maybe she was wrong.
posted by GuyZero at 1:44 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


"In what lands are your ancestral graves?"

We throw the ashes from the funeral pyre into the sea or the Ganga, herself, if we're lucky, to swirl away and meld into the triumvirate of the Ganga, Jamuna, Saraswati, though knowledge is always unseen.
posted by infini at 1:45 PM on May 29, 2013


Maybe this a regional thing, but on the east coast people of all races seem to identify more strongly with their ethnic backgrounds ans also see themselves as 100% American. Even though I've never been to Ireland, I identify strongly as Irish-Catholic, due to my very Irish last name and the fact that my Dad and Grandparents grew up in very traditionally Irish neighborhoods. I also identify strongly as Italian-American since my mom came to the US at age 7 and my grandparents speak thickly accented and imperfect English. But I definitely see my self as American. It's not irreconcilable.
posted by jonmc at 1:45 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


On "oriental"
posted by kagredon at 1:45 PM on May 29, 2013


I should start self-identifying as "Occidental".
posted by GuyZero at 1:47 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


I have met a whoooooooole lot of Americans who claim they're "Irish" despite never having been to the Emerald Isle. I suspect it comes from a desire for a distinct cultural identity and tradition.

I think this is definitely the well-meaning part of it, but it can be equally annoying. I have had well-meaning white people engage in this "where are you from" conversation with me, and then honestly say something like, "oh I wish I had a cultural heritage like yours with all those [read: non-American, non-white] traditions!" I make some noncommittal response, but internally I'm always thinking "What, basically all of mainstream American culture isn't enough for you?" as a parade of Anglo-European holidays and traditions accepted as the American default marches through my head.

I get the desire to have some sort of specific, not generically European/American heritage with its own distinct traditions and culture, but it comes off as insensitive to go on about it to a minority who has to make room for their heritage and culture in a society that can be hostile to them. It can be a terrible catch 22 for immigrants and/or minorities to choose between being too assimilated (what, you've lost touch with your *insert ethnicity here* heritage? what a shame!) or not assimilated enough (oh, just let go of your people's traditions, you're American now!).
posted by yasaman at 1:47 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Weirdly, one time I DID KNOW XXX XXX. Blew my damn mind.

You know you're Irish when...
posted by TwoWordReview at 2:01 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have a friend who's an olive-skinned Jewish girl and also spends a shitload of time at the beach and so by the end of the summer she always ends up looking really quite racially baffling. One time we were on the subway and these two little African-American kids were staring at her and finally worked up the nerve to ask "what ARE you?" It was funny and depressing.
posted by nathancaswell at 2:03 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I encounter an interesting name (whose origins I can't determine), I will frequently ask people where the name is from, just to widen my knowledge a bit.
posted by HuronBob at 2:03 PM on May 29, 2013


Odd thing about NZ was that I was almost always asked "Where are you from?" or "Are you Canadian?" rather than "Are you American?"

That's because New Zealanders get asked if they're Australian all the time and know that may be annoying (see also for Irish people: "Are you English?")
posted by TwoWordReview at 2:04 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I like that I've got a bit of United Empire Loyalist ancestry. Some of my people are from what is now the United States and je me souviens.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:08 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, it's a running joke among Canadians that Canadians will always get indignant if they're asked if they're Americans, while Americans don't give a shit so the safe thing to do is to always ask if someone is Canadian first.
posted by GuyZero at 2:08 PM on May 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


We Americans actually prefer when we're mistaken for Canadians abroad; it means we're doing something right.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:11 PM on May 29, 2013 [13 favorites]


I will go a little bit further in this reaction and say as a naturalized American citizen that it is really alienating to have every single person I meet here in the US ask me where I am from (because of my appearance and my accent, I suppose).

People just see that only instance where they ask me that question, but they don't realize that everybody except me has this dialogue only once. I get to have it every time I meet someone new. After a while it really does make one feel lonely and like even with a naturalization certificate and no matter how many years one lives here you will never truly belong.

My advice if you ever meet a foreign looking/sounding person? Just let it flow. If you have the chance to get to know them you will find out in due time.
posted by Tarumba at 2:13 PM on May 29, 2013 [40 favorites]


That's it exactly, Tarumba.
posted by Mister_A at 2:15 PM on May 29, 2013


As an aside (and no offence is intended by this) I find the American tendency to characterise oneself as Irish American, Italian American or whatever curious. I don't think I've ever met an English person who would have a clue whether their ancestry was Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Norman, French, Scandinavian, Jamaican, or any of the other multitude of waves of immigration we've had, or care. Part of this may be because those who are self aware enough see ourselves as a mongrel nation, and part of it may be because immigration has been going on for so many eons here that people's origins are lost in the mists of time. I wonder (but only passingly) what makes many Americans hold on to a second identity. Is it simply the shorter length of time the pot has been melting?
posted by walrus at 2:16 PM on May 29, 2013


Keep in mind that in the US, the distinction between being, say, Irish or Italian or Anglo-Saxon was considered quite Serious Business only 100 years ago.
posted by kagredon at 2:18 PM on May 29, 2013 [10 favorites]


walrus, I totally get what you're saying and I agree but I suspect those of Jamaican ancestry have some suspicion vs those of Saxon, Norman or Celtic ancestry. Thankfully it is not as big a deal as it once was.
posted by GuyZero at 2:18 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Keep in mind that for many Americans, the question can be asked by someone simply wanting to learn about you, since Americans are generally proud and eager to talk about their ancestry. It's a lead-in to a conversation along the lines of "hey, where do you work?" and "so what do you like to do with your time?" and a simple answer should suffice."

This is a charitable reading, but has generally not been my experience. And I think I can claim pretty extensive experience on this. (Once to prove to my SO that this happens to Asian women constantly I kept track of how often I got asked "where are you from?" After it occurred three times in 72 hours, he was convinced.) The questioners are always strangers and I often encounter them in a space where it is not easy to excuse myself from their inquiry -- they are scanning my groceries, waiting for the same train, or are the security guard looking at the stuff in my handbag. I have been living in the three most diverse, progressive, and liberal cities in the US for the entirety of my adult life and it still occurs constantly.

At least 80% of the time the asker isn't actually interested in who I am in the context of what my ancestry means to me or my family history. The "where are you from" question is way too often loaded with sexual objectification ("I love [ethnicity] girls!" or a mangled "You are very beautiful" in an Asian language) for me to seriously think these questions are on par with "where do you work." It feels much more like either (1) a desire to conveniently pigeonhole me into a familiar category; (2) ascribe their associations with that category to me as a way of feeling like they automatically know me more intimately; and (3) a chance to score "worldliness" points. Especially annoying is (3) because I often feel like I am viewed as less a person and more as a vehicle by which someone can pat themselves on the back for being so cultured. The unspoken expectation is that the questioner's claims of loving [Asian country] food or the [Asian country] language should be met with praise and validation from me because I feel so flattered that a white American would take interest in my culture. And of course because I look Asian I must eat and like that food and speak that language. Even if not inaccurate, its the blanket assumption that's grating.

And at least two thirds of the time "I'm from [American state]" is really actually met by "No, where are you really from? You know what I mean." which does really make the think there is a power dynamic where the questioner implies that it is clear, looking at my face, I'm not really American the same way a white person is. I mean it's not like there's not a precedent for that kind of thought: historical fears about Yellow Peril were centered on the suspicion that Asians were too foreign to ever assimilate. Good old Justice Harlan, who dissented from the constitutional okay to racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, argued that black people and white people should be able to ride trains together because a "Chinaman" could ride with white people. And everyone knows that the Chinese are "a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States." Asking a white person their ancestry to find out if they are from the Netherlands just doesn't carry the same loaded cultural meaning that it does to ask me.

I have seen a lot of defensive reactions to videos like these because they are interpreted criticizing attempts learn from people about their ethnic identity and culture. That's not the case at all. The problem is that many times people aren't listening and learning or being thoughtful, but instead talking over the Asian person they're questioning.

But also, well meaning curiosity does not confer entitlement to know about someone's background either. Not everyone wants to talk to strangers about their ethnicity all the time. That kind of expectation makes it seem like you've been deemed spokesman for your race without any choice in the matter. I don't doubt that lots of people have good intentions, but excuse me if I get grouchy about this topic because when assumptions about who you are based on how you look seem inescapable, it gets old very fast.
posted by erstwhile ungulate at 2:19 PM on May 29, 2013 [72 favorites]


I don't mind the "Where are you from?" questions myself, because my thick accent and short sentences make it pretty clear that I'm not a native English speaker.

It rankles a little when I see people ask native speakers this question. Empathy with the ask-ee aside, I get ~butthurt by the implication that foreign-born English speakers in general can achieve native accent and fluency. HELL TO THE NO.

Very few born and raised outside English-speaking countries can ever achieve native fluency in English. If the person you're talking to speaks English on a native level, odds are that he/she was either born in an English-speaking country, or moved to one at such a young age that he/she probably identifies with that country more than the ~motherland.
posted by fatehunter at 2:20 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


walrus, I totally get what you're saying and I agree but I suspect those of Jamaican ancestry have some suspicion vs those of Saxon, Norman or Celtic ancestry. Thankfully it is not as big a deal as it once was.

I might never have known had I not once seen an old photograph of a black great grandad. No idea whether he was of Caribbean or African ancestry though, in retrospect.
posted by walrus at 2:21 PM on May 29, 2013


When RedBud's grandson was shipped over to Iraq on his first deployment he mentioned that the instructors were teaching them Arabic phrases: I suggested: "Don't shoot, I'm a Canadian."

Military humor, you see. Humor In Uniform. Maybe Reader's Digest wants this.
posted by mule98J at 2:21 PM on May 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


I might never have known had I not once seen an old photograph of a black great grandad.

Ah, now I much more clearly see what you mean and I am slightly dumb for not considering this possibility. Absolutely.
posted by GuyZero at 2:22 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


When someone compliments you on your English, the polite response is "Thank you. Yours is very good as well."
posted by baf at 2:23 PM on May 29, 2013 [22 favorites]


My advice if you ever meet a foreign looking/sounding person? Just let it flow. If you have the chance to get to know them you will find out in due time.

I think that's the thing for me. "Where are you from?" is a fairly inane form of small talk, IMO. It's the kind of question I'm going to ask you if I can't figure out anything more interesting to talk to you about. But maybe I feel like that because I live in the Bay Area, where I interact with so many people from so many different places, daily, that the concept of being born somewhere else has lost its intrigue.

As to how I self-identify (as a USian born in the Midwest and living on the West Coast), well, I'm pretty much a Euromutt of all stripes, by heritage, with the occasional Native American gene thrown in there. As such, I gave up on identifying with any particular "ancestral" heritage long ago.
posted by Brak at 2:23 PM on May 29, 2013


Ah, now I much more clearly see what you mean and I am slightly dumb for not considering this possibility.

Not in the slightest. I bet quite a few people have some ancestry they're not even aware of themselves. It was a pleasant surprise to me.
posted by walrus at 2:27 PM on May 29, 2013


Besides, I'd be about ten kinds of delusional if I tried to find the extra-US cultural equivalence to explain the fact that yes, I'm partial to the occasional meal of mac and cheese and hot dogs. You can take the boy out of the Midwest....
posted by Brak at 2:29 PM on May 29, 2013


There's also this romance attached to a certain kind of immigrant story--coming over the Atlantic, against all odds, in search of a better life!--that I think also contributes to the persistence of people identifying as [EUROPEANNATION]-American, even if it's been 5 generations since anyone in their family was born there.

You will note that there is somewhat less romance associated with being driven off our land or being held as slaves, but such is America.
posted by kagredon at 2:29 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I will go a little bit further in this reaction and say as a naturalized American citizen that it is really alienating to have every single person I meet here in the US ask me where I am from (because of my appearance and my accent, I suppose). etc.

I am so sorry that you feel alienated and unwelcome when you get this question. I ask people this, not all the time, but enough that I now feel badly for doing so. It really is, for me, an ice-breaker or a way to continue the conversation. If the follow-up "how long have you been in the US" question comes up (only if they've said they've just moved here from X, or something similar), I'll ask it and I'll try to say something like, "I'm glad you're here!" or if they tell me they've become a citizen, I absolutely will congratulate them.

But I'll stop asking because I truly never considered that doing so could be construed as anything other than pleasant small talk. And I swear to whatever that I have never, ever asked anyone "what kind of Asian are you." Ick.
posted by cooker girl at 2:29 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Don't shoot, I'm a Canadian."

Canadian Forces casualties in Afghanistan. Just a reminder that over 150 Canadian soldiers have died in defence of your country in the past decade, plus over 1800 wounded.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:32 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


> "Most Americans wouldn't know the difference anyway, except very superficially - 'Chinese people do kung-fu, Japanese people eat sushi, and Koreans ... they're like slightly mutated Chinese people, I think.'"

Koreans play StarCraft.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:33 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


My Taiwanese-American husband was born in Ohio and I love watching people's faces as they struggle to remember what country "O-hai-o" is in. Sometimes they figure out he means he was, in fact, born in Cleveland. Sometimes they nod knowingly and move on, not wanting to reveal their ignorance of exotic Asian cities.
posted by town of cats at 2:40 PM on May 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


Odd thing about NZ was that I was almost always asked "Where are you from?" or "Are you Canadian?" rather than "Are you American?"

Kiwis and Canadians share a special bond, but just don't know it. It's sort of like they're Gold and Silver Age versions of the same superhero.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:41 PM on May 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


Actually, the fine-differentiation of different kinds of Caucasian is always the funniest part for me during the what's your background? conversation, because, inevitably, people always want more specifics on that and for the most part my family doesn't really know.
"My mom's Korean, and my dad's white."
"What kind of white?"
"Uh...definitely Irish and Polish, and we're pretty sure there's some Scottish and English in there somewhere?"
posted by kagredon at 2:41 PM on May 29, 2013


My Taiwanese-American husband was born in Ohio and I love watching people's faces as they struggle to remember what country "O-hai-o" is in. Sometimes they figure out he means he was, in fact, born in Cleveland. Sometimes they nod knowingly and move on, not wanting to reveal their ignorance of exotic Asian cities.

Now I'm imagining a Who's On First type conversation with somebody whose family is from Guangdong and who was born in Canton, Ohio. (We'll just assume their family emigrated long enough ago that they'd still refer to Guangdong as Canton.)
posted by kmz at 2:45 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Keep in mind that in the US, the distinction between being, say, Irish or Italian or Anglo-Saxon was considered quite Serious Business only 100 years ago.

It's been about 50 years in Canada since the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In many parts of Canada, Roman Catholics, which would have included the Irish and Quebecois, were discriminated against.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:47 PM on May 29, 2013


I am really, really astonished that this is a Thing. "Where are you from" is my go-to cab driver small talk (when it's obvious that they aren't American) and every single time cabbies have been happy to talk about their home countries (here in DC, usually Ethiopia, Eritrea, or Somalia). It helps that I know a little about Ethiopia, I guess.

I feel like a lot of folks are associating this entirely benign question with creepier phenomena like fetishization/objectification of Asian women. Which, fair, but I guess I'm just not sure what's Inherently Wrong about asking someone what their ethnic background is.
posted by downing street memo at 2:47 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Some people are also interested in the history aspect. Instead of German or Irish, imagine if people were saying "Oh I'm mostly Stark but I have a little Lannister on my mother's side." To a history buff, they basically are.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:48 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Out of curiosity, downing street memo, how do you determine that it's "obvious" someone isn't American?
posted by kagredon at 2:48 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


I was once asked "Where are you from, originally?"
It was in a phone interview for a labouring job, in Dublin.
I had been pushing the bloke, as my (Kiwi) mate said there was definitely more work, but the (Irish) bloke on the phone insisted there wasn't.

Once I made it understood that I was Australian, and not English (I'd been living in London for a few years, and was never ocker to start with), he couldn't offer me work fast enough.
posted by pompomtom at 2:49 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Out of curiosity, downing street memo, how do you determine that it's "obvious" someone isn't American?

Seriously? Thick Ethiopian accents, scripture in Ge'ez on the dashboard and sun visor, and Tilahun Gessesse coming out of the stereo are all pretty good indicators.
posted by downing street memo at 2:52 PM on May 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


My mom is an accident-prone driver. At one point, she got rear-ended by a young woman in a convertible while slooowly turning onto our little side-street. By the time I got mom's call and got to the scene, the young woman's family seemed to have assembled to comfort her. My mom stood awkwardly off to the side by her damaged car, looking rather agitated. An older man who seemed to be the young woman's father sauntered over to us and casually started in with, "So, where are you guys from? Turkey?"
posted by Nomyte at 2:55 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


As stated upthread, "Where are you from?" is a perfectly acceptable question. "I'm from San Diego" is a perfectly acceptable answer.

"What is your ancestry?" would be a far more polite way of asking what that dude was asking in the video, as opposed to "no no, I mean, where *gesture gesture* are you *points to you* froooom? *gesticulates wildly*" And I can't think of many situations where "oh yeah there's this awesome Chinese place down the street from me, thanks for the foods!" would be taken kindly by a Korean.

Context is important. The context displayed in the video is pretty clear to me—so much so that it strikes me as obvious caricature to quickly illustrate the point. That a bunch of people are glossing over it when saying "but asking where people are from is totally normal!" is baffling to me.
posted by chrominance at 2:55 PM on May 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


Seriously? Thick Ethiopian accents, scripture in Ge'ez on the dashboard and sun visor, and Tilahun Gessesse coming out of the stereo are all pretty good indicators.

I think kagredon may have meant "American" in a somewhat different sense.
posted by Nomyte at 2:56 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm really excited for my daughter to answer this question, by the way, as her answer can become almost infinitely complicated. The numeric known facts are already pretty explanation-heavy and span several continents, and then she can move on to the family rumors of secret Jewish great-great-grandparents and so forth.
posted by town of cats at 2:57 PM on May 29, 2013


It's kind of funny how one group of people is saying that it's annoying to be asked a certain question, and another group of people is saying, "No it's not, you're just being too sensitive."
posted by KokuRyu at 2:57 PM on May 29, 2013 [26 favorites]


Bonus points for: what to call African-Americans in France.

FRYLOCK: No, Meatwad, the real Jesus was African-American.
MEATWAD: Jesus was American! ALRIGHT! U-S-A! U-S-A!
FRYLOCK: No, I mean he was African-... African.
posted by DecemberBoy at 2:58 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


The inherently wrong thing about the question (when taken in the direction demonstrated by the video) is the implication that because the askee doesn't conform to the asker's mis-perception of what "American" is, any US-centric answer is dismissed as wrong, and by extension the askee is somehow not an American.
posted by CancerMan at 2:59 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


If by funny you mean infuriating.


I'm just not sure what's Inherently Wrong about asking someone what their ethnic background is

It's usually racially based, it's also based on a thick set of assumptions, and it's usually one of the first questions people ask, which is basically saying, "I want to put you in a box. In which box do you go, please?"

If you don't have this experience several times daily it's really not possible for you to understand it but to belittle it is irritating.

Here is something I wrote about it in the other thread we had on this.

And yeah, curiosity doesn't make you entitled to ask this of perfect strangers.
posted by sweetkid at 3:02 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Downing street memo,

I can't even count the amount of times I have politely and smilingly answered that question, so those taxi drivers' smiles may be more linked to their being polite or wanting a decent tip than their appreciating your curiosity.
posted by Tarumba at 3:03 PM on May 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


I always just say "American", I'm American as shit and have no connection to any other place whatsoever even though my great grandparents were immigrants. However I am white and my ancestors were Czech, German, Irish and Italian, so no one would assume otherwise.
posted by DecemberBoy at 3:03 PM on May 29, 2013



The inherently wrong thing about the question (when taken in the direction demonstrated by the video) is the implication that because the askee doesn't conform to the asker's mis-perception of what "American" is, any US-centric answer is dismissed as wrong, and by extension the askee is somehow not an American.


Yes, also this, which I forgot to include. I've been to India, and while the place is super cool, I am very very American and fish out of water there. Seriously.

I once had someone actually ask me if I needed shots when I went there. You know like the regular Americans do.
posted by sweetkid at 3:03 PM on May 29, 2013


Africa? Star stuff? Jesus Christ people, have you never heard of the garden of eden? Yeah, I'm descended from a snake.
posted by marienbad at 3:09 PM on May 29, 2013


I can't even count the amount of times I have politely and smilingly answered that question, so those taxi drivers' smiles may be more linked to their being polite or wanting a decent tip than their appreciating your curiosity.

I am going to go out on a limb here (not really) and suggest that conversations with cab drivers are not in the realm of normal conversations. These days most cab drivers I get spend the entire ride on their mobile phones talking in a language I do not understand and can not even identify. They are usually very competent cab drivers though so I don't really get upset that they're not chatty.
posted by GuyZero at 3:09 PM on May 29, 2013



I always just say "American"


I say American, and then I say Virginia, and then when they insist NO REALLY I say my parents are from India, and then I answer xteen questions about child brides and gurus and cholera and cows and why my hair is curly and eyes aren't bigger. Or how I'm not really Thai or Hispanic or Egyptian or etc etc and just lying about it. And then explain how it's not offensive to be those things, I'm just not. Yeah, I guess I could see how I look Hawaiian with my hair like this.

Or sometimes I don't do any of this and glare.

But yea hey what's the big deal?? Totally cool to do this ten times a day.
posted by sweetkid at 3:10 PM on May 29, 2013 [16 favorites]


should be met with praise and validation from me because I feel so flattered that a white American would take interest in my culture

It's kind of infuriating that upon being told that yes, I am Chinese many questioners (the rude and/or tone-deaf ones) grin proudly and say 'I KNEW IT' and then look as though I should be giving them a Congratulations On Guessing My Ethnicity Correctly cookie with a candle. And ONE TIME this guy actually said 'so do I get a prize?' while shuffling closer to me. I - really? REALLY?

The Macbeth bit in the skit was pretty stellar, actually. Must remember that for the future.
posted by zennish at 3:13 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sometimes people, confident I am Hispanic, will ask me accusatorily why I don't know Spanish, and I'll go along with it for a while - "yeah, I don't know, I just don't." "That's so STRANGE!" "Yeah, I know right?"
posted by sweetkid at 3:15 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


If I approached a lone female jogger stranger in the Bay Area and attempted to converse with them I expect they would reach down and grab their ankle bracelet mace can and mace me right in the face.
posted by bukvich at 3:16 PM on May 29, 2013


I'm really a bubba
posted by maggieb at 3:16 PM on May 29, 2013


More than once, people have wanted to know where in Ireland we've traced my dad's family to, but no one, to date, has asked me which of the Eight Provinces my mother's family is from (not that I could tell them that either), though I've had a few ask if she's from South or North Korea (or, in one case, "Good or Bad Korea?")
posted by kagredon at 3:19 PM on May 29, 2013


Leslie Knope: You're not from here, right?
Tom Haverford: No, I'm from South Carolina.
Leslie Knope: But you moved to South Carolina from where?
Tom Haverford: My mother's uterus.
Leslie Knope: But you were conceived in Libya, right?
Tom Haverford: Wow. No. I was conceived in America. My parents are Indian.
posted by elsietheeel at 3:21 PM on May 29, 2013 [14 favorites]



Tom Haverford: Wow. No. I was conceived in America. My parents are Indian.


YEAH!!!
posted by sweetkid at 3:22 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sometimes people, confident I am Hispanic, will ask me accusatorily why I don't know Spanish, and I'll go along with it for a while - "yeah, I don't know, I just don't." "That's so STRANGE!" "Yeah, I know right?"

This has happened to me! Only once, but it was so weird. The person - a co-worker - actually accused me of being ashamed of my heritage. Fortunately, we didn't work in the same department and I basically never had to see her.

I have also bee asked if I am *sure* I'm not Israeli, or Italian, or Spanish.
posted by rtha at 3:23 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


The problem is not with asking where someone is from, but in declining to accept their stated hometown as a valid answer
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 3:25 PM on May 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


I have also bee asked if I am *sure* I'm not Israeli, or Italian, or Spanish.

Yes, am I sure I am not Egyptian, Israeli, Colombian, Palestinian, Iranian, Pakistani, Brazilian, Bangladeshi, from Afghanistan or Mauritius, Dominican, Hawaiian, Thai, Chinese, Mexican, MAKE IT STOP.

Then I tell people my grandmother was part English and also a bit French and there's a big OH and I'm off the hook.
posted by sweetkid at 3:28 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


When someone compliments you on your English, the polite response is "Thank you. Yours is very good as well."

I have replied in this way, though perhaps a bit more short, due to my quick tongue and genuine surprise. In my case, it did happen in San Francisco as well. Not once did I get any variation of the sort in my time here in the UK.
posted by cendawanita at 3:28 PM on May 29, 2013


(hilariously, the asker was African-American.)
posted by cendawanita at 3:30 PM on May 29, 2013


Sometimes people, confident I am Hispanic, will ask me accusatorily why I don't know Spanish, and I'll go along with it for a while - "yeah, I don't know, I just don't." "That's so STRANGE!" "Yeah, I know right?"

A considerable number of my friends have one or both parents that are 1st generation Mexican immigrants, and I speak better Spanish than almost all of them.
posted by DecemberBoy at 3:33 PM on May 29, 2013


Oh wow sweetkid I thought it was just me!

I am Hispanic, but I have been informed about my possibly being Iraqi, Italian, Nepali and many more!
posted by Tarumba at 3:34 PM on May 29, 2013


Others have hit on this, but context matters. You can generally judge people's intent when asking the question. Most times, they don't mean any ill will. Sometimes, they're just being dicks.

I'm American. Monolingual and everything. My parents immigrated from the Philippines. In Japan, they expected someone taller, fatter, whiter, and with a Southern accent.

In France, I was greeted in Japanese and Chinese before finally letting the guy off the hook by telling him I live in California. He immediately switched into the voice used by Crush, the turtle in Finding Nemo, and countered with "what up, dude."

In the US, I needed to pick up a tuxedo from the local mall near the farm at which my friend was getting married. The lady behind the counter just assumed I was (totally making up an obviously Asian sounding name here) "David Chang" - one of the other groomsman - who had yet to pick up his tuxedo and was six inches shorter than me. It was horrifically embarrassing for everyone involved, but she meant well.

What's really awesome is when this kind of questioning carries plenty of ill will, but is part of the local culture. In Hawaii, they'll assume I'm local and ask what high school I attended (as that will tell them all they need to know about the socioeconomic status of me and my family for several generations). When I counter with I married a local girl, the inevitable response is "Oh - what high school she went?"
posted by NoRelationToLea at 3:35 PM on May 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


It's funny because I have a Mexican American friend who lives in Australia, and people think she is Indian, while I am Indian American in the US and people think I am Mexican.

It's often a case of just going with the most-expected Brown person type.
posted by sweetkid at 3:35 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]



Sometimes people, confident I am Hispanic, will ask me accusatorily why I don't know Spanish, and I'll go along with it for a while - "yeah, I don't know, I just don't." "That's so STRANGE!" "Yeah, I know right?"

A considerable number of my friends have one or both parents that are 1st generation Mexican immigrants, and I speak better Spanish than almost all of them.


Yes but I'm not Hispanic at all so it's even weirder.
posted by sweetkid at 3:36 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


As somebody biracial, I've had to put up with this since infancy. "Where are you from?" "America." "Where are you parents from?" "What's your heritage?" etc, etc. "My mother's side has been here since the early 19th C. (long before Ellis Island, when the bulk of non-Pilgrim Europeans immigrated), and my father's side since slavery times. How about you?" Usually shuts 'em up (esp. if they're descended from that Ellis Island immigrant population). And if it doesn't, I list the places in our great Union where I've lived, making sure to emphasize that I was born pretty goddamn near to the geographical center of the Continental United States and it don't get much more American than that DO YOU DISAGREE RECENT IMMIGRANT? And if they are Mayflower Pilgrim folk, then I have my Seminole and Choctaw heritage as a trump. Did you come to this country legally, paleface?

Thanks, but no thanks, white people. I don't exist to assuage your guilty feelings around cultural sensitivity.
posted by Eideteker at 3:38 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Funnily enough, this question came up on quora recently and the vast majority of responses said its not a racist question, its an honest effort to talk about the askees fascinating cultural heritage! If anyone uses quora they might be able to add to the conversation: https://www.quora.com/Racism/Is-it-racist-for-someone-to-ask-where-are-you-from-originally
posted by jacalata at 3:41 PM on May 29, 2013


Oh, and Persian! Forgot about that one.

The funny thing is about the "how long has your family been in the US" question is that the Czech side has been here since the late 19th century. The Hawaiian side....well, I guess it hasn't been "in the US" quite as long, though that was not anything they could have done anything about, what with the coup by the business tycoons and all.
posted by rtha at 3:43 PM on May 29, 2013


My ethnicity is 100% Indian (as far as I know) and I was born/raised in NZ. I don't actually mind people asking where I am from - but on the odd occasion when I've been asked pretty much the same followup question as in the video, I have felt the twinge of both irritation and amusement.
posted by piyushnz at 3:44 PM on May 29, 2013


Well at least the Quora thread is more pollyanna that whatever it would have been on Hacker News.
posted by GuyZero at 3:46 PM on May 29, 2013


kmz: "What kind of Asian are you? "

Not take-out, obviously, because you ain't taking me out.
posted by chavenet at 3:56 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


In honor of New Tokyo a.k.a. Manhattan, henceforth I'll tell people I'm from New Taiwan a.k.a. Burnaby.
posted by fatehunter at 3:57 PM on May 29, 2013


Funnily enough, this question came up on quora recently and the vast majority of responses said its not a racist question, its an honest effort to talk about the askees fascinating cultural heritage! If anyone uses quora they might be able to add to the conversation: https://www.quora.com/Racism/Is-it-racist-for-someone-to-ask-where-are-you-from-originally

I would tend to think that

(1) if we were to conceive of a spectrum of offensiveness, questions like 'where are you from?' fall closer to the more offensive side of that spectrum than questions like 'what is your ethnicity?', with questions like 'where are you from?' coupled with behavior such as that in the FPP video being the most offensive; and

(2) even if it's true that people don't intend for the question to be offensive (however it's phrased), it's important to note that it could nevertheless offend, and rather than take the approach of 'Well I was just trying to make conversation, lighten up, Geez!', people should perhaps consider recognize that even well-meaning conversation can sometimes be offensive.
posted by MoonOrb at 3:59 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


The "where are you really from?" question comes up for me a lot in my line of work and I have a lot of more intellectual/radical responses to this topic (as Aziz Rana has pointed out, we Americans are the heirs of a settler empire, which--as in Australia and South Africa--is about identifying who are the non-settlers to be excluded from the colonizing project), but I thought I'd just add a story that I told to Angry Asian Man:

Where are you from?
This question is, of course, a rite of passage for many Asian Americans. A funny story: one time I was walking down the street and a guy walked by and, in a voice that seemed to emanate the vibrations of a gong, said "Ni Hao Ma!?" I walked on for another block but got so infuriated that I walk back and asked him why he said that. It was his way of making friends, he said, adding that he hoped I could introduce him to hot Asian chicks. I asked him why he'd even assume I'd know Chinese -- to which he asked the magical question: "Where are you from?" After I told him I was born in San Diego, he said, "No, where are you really from?" I turned it around and asked him where he was from. He said, "I'm from here. I grew up here." Feeling like I had the perfect set-up, I reeled in for the kill and said: "No, where are you really from? Where are your parents from?" He looked at me. "I don't know," he said. "I'm an orphan."
posted by johnasdf at 4:21 PM on May 29, 2013 [23 favorites]


My husband recently had a weird experience at an out-of-state clay shooting competition which illustrates how badly some people need to be able to box up who you are.

Fellow shooter: Where you from?
Mr Jamaro: San Jose
Fellow shooter: I mean, where are your folks originally from?
Mr Jamaro: Mexico.
Fellow shooter: But your name is Italian.
Mr Jamaro: My name is, as far as I know, a Mexican name. Given to me by my Mexican parents.
Fellow shooter: Oh hey, you should meet Tony over there, he speaks Italian. ::drags Tony over::
Fellow shooter: Tony, meet Mr Jamaro, he speaks Italian too!
Tony: Wait, I don't speak Italian, my grandparents are from New York.
Mr Jamaro: ... Hola.
posted by jamaro at 4:24 PM on May 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


Yes, am I sure I am not Egyptian, Israeli, Colombian, Palestinian, Iranian, Pakistani, Brazilian, Bangladeshi, from Afghanistan or Mauritius, Dominican, Hawaiian, Thai, Chinese, Mexican, MAKE IT STOP.

QFT. I never ask where anyone's ancestors are from unless the other person brings up something about it.

In New York City, as a mixed-race person of some African/Euro/Indigenous ancestry, most strangers automatically assume that I'm from a Spanish-speaking country in the Caribbean. I get spoken to in Spanish almost daily, but I was born in Buffalo and raised in Milwaukee. Then I open my mouth, and the remnants of my Upper Midwestern accent freaks them out, since they expect me to speak Spanish. I have also been mistaken for other ethnicities, mainly South Asian, which I don't get, because I don't look remotely South Asian.

A few years ago I was stopped on the street by an older gentleman near the synagogue around Lincoln Center and exhorted to get to temple as it was almost sundown. "Thanks, but I'm not Jewish." "You're not Jewish?" "No, sir." " Huh. I was sure you were Jewish. You're not from Yemen?" "Nope!" "Huh! Well, I'm sorry to have bothered you." So, yeah, I guess, I'm in the sweet spot of racial confusion for some people.
posted by droplet at 4:39 PM on May 29, 2013


A funny story: one time I was walking down the street and a guy walked by and, in a voice that seemed to emanate the vibrations of a gong, said "Ni Hao Ma!?"

Man, just today I had a similar experience while getting lunch. Everything was going normally until the employee behind the counter randomly blurted out, "Anyong! ...Or is it ni hao?" My response was less than gracious; I just shook my head irritably and rolled my eyes.

By contrast, this past weekend I was at the movies and, while waiting in line, struck up a conversation with the people in front of me. At some point we introduced ourselves, and the following exchange ensued:

Bob: By the way, I'm Bob, this is Rosie, and this is Gary.
Me: My name is [insert distinctly Asian name here].
Gary: Oh, is that a Korean name?
Me: Yes. I'm impressed, most people seem to think it's Chinese.
Gary: Oh, well, I used to study Korean. [says Korean phrase]
Me: LOL, that's pretty good.

That exchange didn't bother me at all because it was just the way the conversation naturally flowed after we had been talking to each other for a while.
posted by imnotasquirrel at 4:41 PM on May 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


After nearly two decades in Korea, I've started initially answering the inevitable 'where are you from?' question from Korean folks I meet with 'Gwangyang' (the smallish Korean city where I've lived for the last 10 years), just for shits and giggles. I am clearly not ethnically Korean.

I enjoy watching the temporary brainlock it creates in people, and if they take it in good spirits, as the joke that it is, then I feel pretty sure we'll be able to get along, so it's useful that way, too.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:43 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


For the people wondering what's so offensive about this, try imagining being a white guy, or other non-Japanese ethnic, who's lived in Japan for 15, 20, or even more years. You speak the language perfectly. You have a job, a family, etc. Yet, every day you still get told "You're Japanese is really good!" Or you get asked, "Can you use chopsticks?" Or when you go to a restaurant, they talk to you in English, even though you greeted them in Japanese. Imagine that scenario. I've read lots of testimonials from expats in Japan or other Asian countries who've complained about this. It's not that dissimilar to being Asian or another ethnicity in America and constantly being asked where you're from, or told that you're English is good, or whatever.
posted by ChuckRamone at 4:43 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I feel like a lot of folks are associating this entirely benign question with creepier phenomena like fetishization/objectification of Asian women.

Not for no reason. Anecdata, but the majority of the time I encounter this as an Asian male that does a lot of domestic US travel, I'm not terribly offended. I'd say 9/10 times I'm asked this, the person doing the asking is generally well-meaning and will want to talk about Chinese/Japanese/Korean food, or maybe a vacation to Asia, or some Chinese friend they had that I remind them of (all look same!), etc.

I find it difficult to blame people that aren't being willfully ignorant or racist for not immediately perceiving how they're coming off, and none of the topics they inevitably bring up really offend me, so I generally try and give the questioner the benefit of the doubt when I'm handling these exchanges.

On the other hand, my Asian girlfriend gets asked this question 4-5 times as often as I do, and something like 80% of the people asking her are guys that want to get in her pants, want to tell her that they think asian girls are hot, or are the type to try "me love you long time" as a hilarious pickup line.
posted by hot soup at 4:44 PM on May 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'll take Where are you from? over What kind of Asian are you? any day of the week. The latter really rubs me the wrong way while the former is just making conversation, if I squint hard enough.

I also found this too cringe-inducing to make it all the way through.
posted by fragmede at 4:45 PM on May 29, 2013


Or you get asked, "Can you use chopsticks?"

Heh. I don't get annoyed by it much, any more. The one I usually get is something like 'do you know [insert blindingly common everyday Korean food here]' even after someone knows I've lived here since forever. All good, though.

Younger (and even some older) Korean folks these days are way more globally aware than they were 10 or 15 years ago. Based on some of my experiences back in Canada on my occasional visits (and the kind of thing this video pokes fun at), possibly more so than many of their counterparts there.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:48 PM on May 29, 2013


Come to think of it, while chatting with someone on a bus in San Francisco, I was asked where I was from. I found it amusing, given that my Indian accent thus far was presumably so self-evident, I leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, "You'll never guess!" The lady didn't miss a beat, and replied, "Don't worry honey, I'm from Australia as well"
posted by the cydonian at 5:12 PM on May 29, 2013 [9 favorites]


A considerable number of my friends have one or both parents that are 1st generation Mexican immigrants, and I speak better Spanish than almost all of them.

Yes but I'm not Hispanic at all so it's even weirder.


I have an acquaintance who apparently thinks that she is an expert on what language someone speaks based on their looks, and will do this to complete strangers. She has addressed folks in Japanese and has been asked "What the fuck is wrong with you? I'm from Indiana!". She once decided to thank a cab driver in Arabic. The torrent of incredibly angry Persian that issued forth was nothing short of terrifying! But the best was the Party House Incident...

Our gang rents a house in Chicago every year for a large party. One year, we ended up with what I swear was a haunted house. If any house was capable of saying "I don't want you here", it was that one. In the house was a 100 gallon aquarium, and the filter pump decided to die in the middle of the night. The property management, when we called them to tell them that there were about to be a dozen large, dead fish, sent over one of the cleaning ladies.

In comes this teeny tiny little old lady of indeterminate ethnicity. The first thing she said was "No English." So my acquaintance speaks some Spanish at her, and she looks back quizzically and repeats "No English". My acquaintance pressed on with Spanish, thoroughly agitating this little old lady. "NO ENGLISH!" My acquaintance stomped off. I tried to figure out what she spoke, hoping for a language in common with at least one of the 30 people there so we could get those poor fish saved. Polska? No. Deutsch? No. Francais? No. Turkish? Russian? No. I pulled out my phone to find my translator app, to see if she could point out her homeland's flag, but she said "I call son. Son American!" Hot damn, we were in business! I didn't recognize the language she was speaking into the phone at all, but the tone was one of relief. A few minutes later, in walks her son, and he begins to speak to her.

My acquaintance wandered in, and remarked snottily " I KNEW she was only PRETENDING not to speak Spanish!" to one of my friends. The fella turned around and snapped "She doesn't speak Spanish, you idiot. She's CROATIAN! What kind of an asshole are you?"

She's gonna get herself killed one of these days.
posted by MissySedai at 5:17 PM on May 29, 2013 [15 favorites]


I don't get annoyed by it much, any more.

Yeah, it depends a lot on the person. Some people don't care. Others get fed up and it drives them insane.
posted by ChuckRamone at 5:18 PM on May 29, 2013


When someone says they're Australian I always ask "Oh, what were your great-grandparents convicted of?"

Note: No I don't.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:21 PM on May 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


There's really only one answer to that, no matter who you are:

"Mother Ocean".




"Oh, where are my people from?

Father Dagon."
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:31 PM on May 29, 2013


I enjoy watching the temporary brainlock it creates in people

It's also fun to wave and say something pleasant to them on the way out, in the local language, after they've been talking about you, sure you couldn't understand a word.
posted by ctmf at 6:05 PM on May 29, 2013


When someone says they're Australian I always ask "Oh, what were your great-grandparents convicted of?"

If they knew the answer to that, they'd likely be delighted you asked.
posted by pompomtom at 6:07 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh shit it's by THAT Ken Tanaka. His schtick has always been lame.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:15 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't understand why you'd come into a thread and make a comment like that. Nobody here has talked about that guy, or his lameness or lack of it.
posted by rtha at 6:26 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I made that comment because this video is a production by Ken "Tanaka" who runs through the frame at the start of the film, just after the titles "Ken Tanaka Presents." This work needs to be put in context of his earlier work which is incredibly racist.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:35 PM on May 29, 2013


Basically it's best that we regard this Ken Tanaka matter as being like having a fairly involved and nuanced conversation about politics, as reasonable adults, with an extended family member who just happens to hate "the Jews," and we just sort of avoid that topic because it will not help anything, especially when things are going so well conversationally.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:46 PM on May 29, 2013


For the people wondering what's so offensive about this, try imagining being a white guy, or other non-Japanese ethnic, who's lived in Japan for 15, 20, or even more years. You speak the language perfectly. You have a job, a family, etc. Yet, every day you still get told "You're Japanese is really good!" Or you get asked, "Can you use chopsticks?" Or when you go to a restaurant, they talk to you in English, even though you greeted them in Japanese.

I can see why that gets to be a drag, but I don't really see why it's "offensive." It simply reflects a statistical reality: although there are numerous foreigners in Japan who speak good Japanese, they still represent a very tiny percentage of the population and a pretty small fraction of "visible foreigners in Japan." Most Japanese people have good reason to be surprised if they see a person visibly of European descent who also speaks excellent Japanese.

It's quite different for someone meeting someone of Asian descent in San Francisco or San Diego or Los Angeles or what have you. You will constantly meet people of Asian descent who are clearly mother-tongue speakers of English. That's the part of this video that's most absurd, where the guy complements her on the quality of her English; he would have to have just fallen out of the sky to be surprised by the fact that he's encountered an Asian person who speaks English well.

The part that I find more ambiguous and difficult to figure out is the "asking about someone's ethnic background." I mean, I can see why a general "what kind of Asian are you" or a "where are you from" question is potentially insulting in that it suggests that you're somehow not really "American." But on the other hand being interested in someone's cultural heritage is, surely, the opposite of narrow-mindedness or bigotry. As a white person I can attest to the fact that I have frequently had conversations with other white people about their and my ancestors and I don't think I have a single close friend I haven't at some time had that discussion with. It's going to be part of the inheritance that has shaped them and be a part of their identity. So while I can see that there's bad ways of asking someone the question, I really can't see that there's anything offensive in wanting to know if someone is of Chinese or Japanese or Korean or Vietnamese (etc.) descent.
posted by yoink at 6:47 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sometimes you just don't want to have to explain yourself to anybody.
posted by cazoo at 6:58 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


This work needs to be put in context of his earlier work which is incredibly racist.

Okay. Is this video racist? Do you think we need to discuss that, rather than what we were already discussing? I have no particular objection to a change in conversational direction, but I found it striking how you walked in to an ongoing discussion about A and said yeah, so anyway, speaking of Z....

But if you think Z is an important or useful or interesting thing to discuss, then maybe say that, and in what ways.
posted by rtha at 7:03 PM on May 29, 2013


I can see why that gets to be a drag, but I don't really see why it's "offensive."

For my part, I don't think it is, although I admit 'offensive' is a word that seems to be expanding its semantic footprint in recent years.

It's just an outgrowth of the way people everywhere tend to be, which is quicker to see someone, at first at least, as a member of one or more predefined groups they have mentally constructed to simplify things than they are to see them as an individual.

Human nature, in other words, but a behaviour that can be reprogrammed.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:05 PM on May 29, 2013


Sometimes you just don't want to have to explain yourself to anybody.

Well, sure. And if you persist in a question when it's been made clear to you that it's unwelcome, or if you ask it rudely I can see that that's offensive; I do not see that the desire to know or acting on that desire in a polite way can be offensive in itself, however.
posted by yoink at 7:06 PM on May 29, 2013


I may have been guilty of telling a couple in San Diego who recognised my English accent and hailed from the "old country", that they should pack sea sickness pills for the ferry between England and Scotland.
posted by arcticseal at 7:06 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Asking a total stranger about their ethnicity is at best kind of gross. Imagine going up to a light-skinned black person and asking straight out of the blue about their ethnic heritage and you'll get the idea. "Asianness" may not carry precisely the same cultural freight but it's still a creepy and objectifying way to behave, and it's inappropriate with someone you don't know at all.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:09 PM on May 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


Human nature, in other words, but a behaviour that can be reprogrammed.

But why should it be? If you know that somebody's ancestors were German Jews, say, it would seem perverse to say "I will refuse ever to ask about that background or to think about their attitudes and opinions in the light of that history because everyone is a unique special snowflake who starts out life as a tabula rasa and invents themselves from scratch!" Where we come from is always complicatedly and interestingly tangled up with who we are and how we define ourselves, and if we're interested in each other as human beings we should be interested in the "predefined groups" we belong to as well as being interested in the ways we've shaped ourselves without particular reference to those groups.
posted by yoink at 7:13 PM on May 29, 2013


But on the other hand being interested in someone's cultural heritage is, surely, the opposite of narrow-mindedness or bigotry. As a white person I can attest to the fact that I have frequently had conversations with other white people about their and my ancestors and I don't think I have a single close friend I haven't at some time had that discussion with. It's going to be part of the inheritance that has shaped them and be a part of their identity. So while I can see that there's bad ways of asking someone the question, I really can't see that there's anything offensive in wanting to know if someone is of Chinese or Japanese or Korean or Vietnamese (etc.) descent.

Hm, another analogy for you: your friend is pregnant. The two of you talk about whether she's going to avoid cheese, or fish, or perfume, or whatever, and that's normal and ok. That doesn't make it normal and ok for a stranger to walk up to her and say 'oh you look pregnant! How is life now that you've stopped eating cheese and fish!' It's even less ok when it turns out your friend is just pregnant-shaped-fat and when she says she isn't pregnant they say 'are you sure!?', or when people make this comment all the time, and when told they shouldn't make assumptions about other people they say 'geez I was just trying to be social, I think being pregnant is so interesting, it must be so important in your life right now I just assumed you'd love to talk about it!'
posted by jacalata at 7:16 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


ITT: people who don't get that the issue isn't about asking someone where they are from, but rather that the question "where are you from" often really means "what flavor of foreigner are you" and is thus offensive to non-foreign locals, especially in a country supposedly constituted by immigrants.
posted by suedehead at 7:17 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think being pregnant is so interesting, it must be so important in your life right now I just assumed you'd love to talk about it!'

No, the analogy is more like asking a stranger on the street "when are you expecting" because you thought she was pregnant. Which is offensive because to you "rotund = pregnant because normal non-pregnant people are not rotund".
posted by suedehead at 7:20 PM on May 29, 2013


Okay. Is this video racist?

In context of Ken "Tanaka," absolutely yes. This guy isn't participating in a "a fairly involved and nuanced conversation" as others seem to have asserted. He's a cringeworthy racist internet kook and he's been a deliberate provocateur for a long time. It's nice that people can have a civilized discussion, but responding to this guy's work in any serious manner is a big mistake.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:26 PM on May 29, 2013


But why should it be?

Perhaps you misunderstand me (or perhaps not, I'm not sure). I think that it is lazy (but normal) when meeting someone to immediately toss them into our own predefined mental buckets, and then proceed to ask them about themselves based on those preconceptions. Certainly it's the easiest thing to do, and we all do it to some extent, but I think that it takes a worthwhile effort of will to approach getting to know someone as an individual first, and eschew our bucketing, at least for a while.

That sounds like a simpleminded platitude, I admit, but so it goes.

If you know that somebody's ancestors were German Jews, say, it would seem perverse to say "I will refuse ever to ask about that background or to think about their attitudes and opinions in the light of that history because everyone is a unique special snowflake who starts out life as a tabula rasa and invents themselves from scratch!"

I'm suggesting no such thing, and I find it puzzling that you would get that from what I said. Again, all I mean is that our impulses often tend to be to tribalize, and to categorize other people, and holding off on that as long as possible when we first encounter a new person is a laudable effort to make, I reckon.

I mostly try to avoid being prescriptive, these days, and prefer to speak about what I personally know (or think I know) and do (or try to do). I personally find it makes for much better relationships with people when I interact with them first as individuals and only later (a little or a lot later), if at all, in terms of their membership in the various notional groups to which I might assign them. Understanding better where they 'fit in' to those groups certainly may inform my understanding of them as people and shed light on our relationship, but I don't think it's a very productive place to start.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:31 PM on May 29, 2013


It's crazy how prevalent this kind of shit is;

A few years ago, I dated a lady of Korean descent, but that didn't factor into it at all: she was cute and we were into the same stuff. I told her she was pretty, and she asked me "Why, do you have a thing for Asian chicks?" I told her "I have a thing for hot chicks." Turns out, this was the correct response. I was just being honest.

Anyway, it didn't work out; we had a few arguments and stopped seeing each other, nothing major. I was talking to a friend I told about it, the first thing she said was "Oh, was this the Asian? That's why."

*facepalm*
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 7:34 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Most people get a free look at this question by asking me where my (rather unusual) name is from. I don't mind talking about my ethnic background - I'm happy to satisfy people's curiosity, even though they usually forget what I said. Not their fault half the time, my ethnic background is so convoluted I can't even remember which ethnicity I've quoted to which person.

I get annoyed at "where are you really from", though I have to admit I haven't gotten that one in a long time. "What is your nationality" I was asked relatively recently, at a job interview here in NYC what's more, but I just attribute that to people not knowing what the word "nationality" means - I mean with my English you'd have to be really clueless to think I wasn't a native speaker. I don't doubt for a moment that Asian women get this all the time from dudes hitting on them.

But now I'm thinking, as a guy, hmm, maybe I wouldn't mind if women asked ME that more often...
posted by pravit at 7:37 PM on May 29, 2013


If you know that somebody's ancestors were German Jews, say, it would seem perverse to say "I will refuse ever to ask about that background or to think about their attitudes and opinions in the light of that history

It would be, totally! If that was what anyone in this thread wanted. It is not though, I'm reasonably sure. You are not actually understanding the problem, and if you have some respect for most of the people who've spoken up in here, who seem to speak practically as one about something that clearly bothers them and experiences that they clearly have in common, you would at least bear the possibility that you're not understanding the problem in mind and be a little less strident about something you can't possibly have experienced yourself.


if we're interested in each other as human beings we should be interested in the "predefined groups" we belong to as well as being interested in the ways we've shaped ourselves without particular reference to those groups.

This whole thread has been people telling you how these "predefined groups" impact them, you can start with that if you are really interested. And if you are, I would like to tell you a story that I hope will help make clear why this matters. If you are interested.
posted by catchingsignals at 7:49 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


For what it's worth, I think the caucasian-guy-chatting-up-asian-woman thing in this video is a distractor from the point that it's trying to make about dumb ethnicity-based social interactions. If indeed that's the point that it's trying to make.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:50 PM on May 29, 2013


Asking a total stranger about their ethnicity is at best kind of gross. Imagine going up to a light-skinned black person and asking straight out of the blue about their ethnic heritage and you'll get the idea.

It occurred to me the whole deal of asking Asians where they're "really from" is just a little less offensive than asking a black dude "oh, I see you're black, where were your ancestors enslaved from though?".
posted by DecemberBoy at 7:57 PM on May 29, 2013


But on the other hand being interested in someone's cultural heritage is, surely, the opposite of narrow-mindedness or bigotry.

it's not proof of anything except the asker's own level of curiosity. as has already been brought up in many comments, other reasons include fetishization which is exactly bigotry. and if someone is flashing a gigantic DON'T GO THERE in your face and you ignore it in order to get your answer, then you're being rude to boot.

and as erstwhile ungulate said up top "well meaning curiosity does not confer entitlement to know about someone's background either. Not everyone wants to talk to strangers about their ethnicity all the time."

As a white person I can attest to the fact that I have frequently had conversations with other white people

i don't think the experience of white folks comfortably shooting the shit about how ethnic they really are is the same thing. it's kind of like when men are like "yeah i'd totally love it if women hit on me 24/7, what's the problem?" the problem is other white people haven't conditioned you to be paranoid (even self-hating) about your own ethnicity through decades of racism (unless they have in which case, my bad). context man.

I do not see that the desire to know or acting on that desire in a polite way can be offensive in itself

what catchingsignals just said. i wish everyone could react to these types of admittedly mild issues like cooker girl did. "oh really? huh. sorry, i'll stop." i get that it's not a huge thing and it would be bad to get in a screaming fight over it. but it chafes and if you like getting along with as many different types of folks as possible, consider doing it differently. why not bring up your own ethnic background and see if your conversation partner follows suit or deftly avoids mirroring? why not wait a few weeks and see if this conversation partner would be amenable to bringing it up with someone who has proven they're not the type of person to bring it up within the first 5 min, standing at the checkout counter?

"I don't know," he said. "I'm an orphan."

past couple years i've idly wondered whether i can insert that response into the rotation but i just don't have the guts for that kind of lying. also i think i'd cut someone if they were like WOW TELL ME ABOUT YOUR ORPHAN JOURNEY.
posted by twist my arm at 7:59 PM on May 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


I can see why that gets to be a drag, but I don't really see why it's "offensive."

I shouldn't have used that word, except maybe in the sense that sometimes a smell can be described as "offensive." I should have said irritating, annoying, etc. And I didn't mean to imply that getting peeved or even angry is necessarily a rational or justified response to these types of questions, but more of a reflex that develops after years and years. Like, ugh, this again, I'm not in the mood for this conversation.

Here's a link to an article that describes what the expat experience is like for many in Japan: He describes these everyday interactions as microaggressions that "grind" you down. I think that's a good way of putting it. I don't necessarily agree with everything he says here, but you can catch a glimpse of what I mean. I think there are similar dynamics at play in America, but on a lesser scale than Japan.
posted by ChuckRamone at 8:26 PM on May 29, 2013


As a white person I can attest to the fact that I have frequently had conversations with other white people about their and my ancestors and I don't think I have a single close friend I haven't at some time had that discussion with.

Er...it's one thing to have these sorts of conversations with your close friends, and totally another to get all up in a stranger's business. And yet another still to get up in a stranger's business because they look different from you.
posted by MissySedai at 8:32 PM on May 29, 2013 [10 favorites]


I was also thinking the conflation of white=American is really a worldwide thing (though of course that doesn't make it any less wrong when Americans do it). This has basically come up in every country I've been to. Swedes and Germans would generally accept "the US" as a response to "where are you from", but usually follow up with asking which Asian country my parents/ancestors originated from. People in China/Japan/Korea are well acquainted with the idea of Asian immigrants to America, but most still wanted to know what country/part of China my ancestors were from. People in Turkey usually thought I was joking when I said I was American, unless I framed it as me being an immigrant to the US. The only country where it never came up a single time was Iceland, but I chalk that up to people minding their own business.

I sometimes wonder if in fifty years it will be no more unusual to be Asian than it is to be Black in the US - I mean Asian immigration to the US really only started in earnest in the 1960's, and I would imagine 1st generation immigrants and temporary residents still make up a huge proportion of the Asian population. I've realized that even as an Asian myself, when I see another Asian person on the street in New York I usually assume they're foreign-born. In fact, sometimes if I catch a reflection of myself at a weird angle I think it's a foreign-born Asian. And I see that foreignness and think how weird it is that's how most other people in this country see me.
posted by pravit at 8:33 PM on May 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


We encourage our kids to identify as "Japanese" or "Canadian" or both, and not as "half", since there's, empirically speaking, absolutely no such thing as a "full-blood" Asian or "full-blood" white person or whatever.

As a halfie myself, I think this is pretty messed up. Mixed kids of all races have something in common for being *mixed* and to deny your kids that understanding ... Well I'm glad my parents didn't do that. Besides, how else are we going to get more people celebrating Loving Day?
posted by dame at 8:39 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


The whole idea of race is messed up, when you come down to it, and I think I very much understand the impetus behind encouraging kids to get beyond thinking of themselves as half of anything. It think it doesn't matter how you get there, if the end result is the kids have a positive (and hopefully totally independent of ideas about 'race') self-image.

Thank jeebus that I don't have and won't be having kids, though, because fuck me if I have any idea how I would navigate that whole thing as a parent.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:02 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


*asking a black dude "oh, I see you're black, where were your ancestors enslaved from though?".*

Generally a lot of the darker skinned people I know are recent African immigrants, Caribbean immigrants, from Nova Scotia, or might be part (or currently also) American. In any of these cases, I'm more recently European than any of those people are "African".

But I'd never ask an acquaintance where he or she was from because even if they were immigrants, all the ones I know have made so many hops on their way to the country I happened to be born into that it would be- "well, Syrian, but my family was originally from Central Asia, but we spent some time in Lebanon and..."

Now me, having a father living in China, enjoy baking people's brains when I get asked where my family is living and then the tremulous question gets asked if I am Chinese, with a lot of speculative squinting at my very Caucasian looking features.
posted by Phalene at 9:23 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


While it's true that white people ask each other about their ethnicity sometimes, too, it is virtually never the first thing a white person will ask another white person, short of less than fluent English or an unusual name.

I've certainly run down the shopping list of European ancestry with friends, but that felt distinctly different than the occasions in my childhood and adolescence when I was asked "Where are you from?" in my redneck hometown when it occurred to the questioner that my very Anglo name seemed at odds with my appearance and demeanour (Italian). The question was clearly "Hey, you seem white, but maybe not the kind of white I was thinking." (And, actually, through a quirk of time and place, we didn't really identify as white. Not in the usual race-blind way, but in that my mother, brother and I identified as Italian in opposition to my mangia cake white father. It wasn't really until I left that cultural backwater that I realized, hey, Italian IS white.)

But that is worlds away from the questions I get about my mixed-race daughter. It's hard to put into words, exactly, but there is something distinctly policing about it. Because she's light-skinned and it's not immediately (or ever, for some people) apparent, the questions usually have a flavour of "she is not what she appeared to be and what she is is different from me." People don't ask where she's from, because I'm clearly "from here" but they do ask where her (absent) father is from. And then it's often followed by "oh I knew it, mixed kids are so beautiful" which is a whole other can of worms.
posted by looli at 11:09 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm pretty convinced that if I went back far enough, I could find some Catholic relatives on one side who beat or killed some Jewish relatives on the other side, all in the area now known as Poland. And I enjoy when people ask me if I'm Italian or Irish.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 11:19 PM on May 29, 2013


The annoying thing is that I always get caught out by, "But where were you, like, born?" because I actually WAS born in Korea. But my parents moved when I was a baby, I am a US citizen, and I really identify as an American. I admit I have often lied just to spite the asker and then dig my heels in with ratcheting up my Californian accent.

When I get this question it seems that people aren't really interested in where I'm from, it's really all about them. They want an opportunity to show off how cultured they are, but it usually backfires and instad exposes their ignorance.

I have friends who have Latin or Spanish backgrounds who have also dealt with similar experiences.
posted by like_neon at 2:05 AM on May 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


Recently I was mistaken for an adopted Indian in Europe... cos you couldn't possibly have had your education btw of your poor indian parents right?
posted by infini at 2:42 AM on May 30, 2013


Recently, in the process of leaving a pub (in England), I said goodbye to the landlord and was heading for the door when suddenly I heard, in a strong US accent - "Oh. My. God. Are you Irish?" from a woman at a nearby table.

When I told her I was, she responded with "Wow. I love your accent so much." She had only heard me say maybe 5 words. It was absolutely bizarre, and I spent most of my time walking home reflecting on the privilege of not having total strangers give me 'compliments' totally out of the blue every day.
posted by knapah at 2:50 AM on May 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


They want an opportunity to show off how cultured they are

Instead they get an opportunity to be educated, if you're up for it.
posted by walrus at 4:58 AM on May 30, 2013


I'm thinking of writing a blogpost with a snappy URL that I can just add to my business cards which, of course, are yet to printed. I think I'll just do chaos again.
posted by infini at 5:34 AM on May 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I adore the Kondabolu bit and all variants. I was born & raised in the US, and it would be so great if strangers would just stop being surprised at that.

When I worked phone customer support, using my legal name (Sumana), US customers often experienced cognitive dissonance upon learning that someone with an Indian name and US accent was helping them, on the phone, from San Francisco. Not Bangalore. Not Chennai. Not Mumbai. Right in the U S of A.

When asked where my name was from, I often truthfully answered, then asked them right back where names like "Robin" and "Lee" and "Jamie" were from, and what they meant. This gave me a little pleasure.

One person, upon hearing of my ancestry, said that she had loved "Monsoon Wedding." Another heard my name and told me that her sister had a Sri Lankan maid named Sumana. Another told me that her sister had adopted an orphan named Sumana. MAYBE IT'S ME? MAYBE SHE ADOPTED ME! CALLOOH CALLAY!

I am generally a truthful person, but I am thinking of beginning to lie or pull obnoxious stunts when people do the "where are you really from" followup:

* I am from the moon.
* I was immaculately conceived by an omnipresent god of no specific ethnicity.
* I will tell you if you tell me how much money you make.
posted by brainwane at 7:29 AM on May 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm incredulous by how many people see this simply as a desire to learn about someone else's culture (some of these comments require an almost prejudicial obtuseness--heritage? really?), which seems not just out-of-touch but requires ignoring what all the people of color themselves actually say. But, I also disagree with the comments explaining why the question is offensive.

The question isn't offensive specifically because it's an invasion of privacy or that it brings up the taboo of ethnicity--it's offensive because it's implies that certain non-white subjects are automatically foreigners. The subtext of the question is basically: "From visual observation, I'm trying to perform racial phrenology on you, because being unable to categorize you in the American racial hierarchy makes me uncomfortable--just as uncomfortable as I would feel if I could not see your gender (an analogy suggested by Walter Blatt). I've noted that you are someone who was not born here, someone who is obviously an immigrant, and someone who does not belong here and will never be the main character of this country, the subject of its nationalistic songs or a lead in a blockbuster movie--this is itself dehumanizing, but I would like to show even further mastery of you by deftly explaining to you your specific racial phenotype, forcing you to engage with my crude biological essentialism of race. And despite more obvious ways to connect to you as a human (for example, we most likely live in the same geographic area and come from the same class and profession), I would also like to culturally essentialize you: I need to find out your national origin, so I can align you with my preconceptions about a place neither of us have ever been. Also did I mention I like anime?"

I say this as someone who actually isn't that offended by this question that much--in fact, I get bored about the perennial outraged responses to this question and think that they can be somewhat regressive and obscure racial inequities that are less about etiquette than power. The reason why the question seems so potent with meaning for so many people is that it's a personal, habitual way to experience the overall Othering of Asian Americans: think of the way that Berkeley Chancellor Tien was profiled by the FBI despite being a well-regarded physicist or how Wen Ho Lee was accused of handing over nuclear secrets to the Chinese despite there being so little evidence that the FBI had to eventually offer an apology. Both of these people were well-educated, respected, white-collar technical professionals who were automatically assumed to be anti-American on the basis of ethnicity.

Obviously, it is not common practice for a white American (excepting ethnic whites, perhaps) to ask another white American their country of origin upon first meeting them. Most white Americans assume they do not posses a heritage: they would self-describe themselves as "whitebread" neutral almost raceless default subjects, unlike say Asian Americans who are connected to an exotic, authentic heritage. And it doesn't need talking about since their heritage is obvious: they're members of the American project. As I mentioned, Aziz Rana has done a lot of great work summarizing the American account of freedom as "internal liberty and external subordination":

At least through 1900, says Rana, American history is best represented as the history of a settler society sustained by relentless territorial expansion, indigenous displacement, and forced and unforced immigration. Characterized by an ideology of "republican freedom" (p. 12), internal (settler) liberty depends on the space gained from, and the subordination projected outward onto, those that settlers displaced. But though American empire is real enough in itself--figured first continentally and then oceanically--"internal" and "external" reference far more than territorially bounded conditions: they stand too for social and civic divides--what Barbara Young Welke has called "borders of belonging."[5] In Rana's analysis, indeed, what distinguishes American freedom is the intricate political and constitutional relationship between territorial conquest and social/civic identity.


Which is to say that those who are seen as part of the American settler project are given a republic account of democratic participation, but this freedom required excluding other subjects (black enslavement, indigenous genocide). White non-citizen immigrants are given voting rights and federal land, while Asians are explicitly barred from entering the country by the Chinese exclusion act. Thus Asian Americans are always seen as visitors, anomalous subjects, those who like Obama in the mind of the tea partiers are not "real Americans"--hence the subtitle of Peter Kwong's book about Chinatown: the oldest new community.

I'm personally more interested in the subterranean pre-1965 history of Asian Americans rather than just venting over the more cliched sentiments expressed in the video. My organization published an awesome story recently of the South Asian immigrants who landed in Harlem in the early 20th century and essentially became part of the black/Puerto Rican community--it's the basis of a new book called Bengali Harlem by Vivek Bald. Here's the piece. A more accurate history would show an America that contained these hidden histories--an America where, for example, where Filipino sailers arrived in the US in 1587, where Asians made up to 40% of the labor force in many states in the 19th century, etc.
posted by johnasdf at 7:35 AM on May 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


OMG you guys last night this guy just did everything we have been talking about in this thread. First "I'm really good at telling what kind of Asian people are, I'm going to get it right with you." That was the very first thing he said to me. He was friends with the friends I went to meet and it was his bar. And that was the first thing out of his mouth when introduced to me.

I was like, er well, most people don't even guess that I'm Asian so that's a good start? Then "Phillippines? Somewhere near Korea. You're a mix. Not even a little Hawaiian? You're definitely a mix." Then he went away and kept coming back and "Chinese? Sure?" I was like, you know, I have naturally curly hair (wearing it straight last night) so if you saw it regular curly you'd be really thrown (even though this is ridiculous, there is NO LAW that says Asian people can't have curly hair I swear if I hear that one more -- ) He was like "Well you ARE a mix" I was like, "Um...." (thanks for just declaring that? Still had given him no ethnicity "clues"

Then he offered my friend $20 if she would tell him. And asked her if I was Puerto Rican. So not even in Asia anymore, probably because of the Curly Hair law.

I mean at no time did I tell him my actual ethnicity (none of the above!!!) or point out that even if I am in some minor ways a "mix" it's a "mix" of a few European ethnicities he probably shares with me, being a regular ole white guy American.

I didn't really want to humor him at all, I just wanted to shut it down, but I was like with 10 friends and it was his bar and I didn't want to throw a "dude you're being really racist right now" bomb in the conversation.

But for those of you who STILL think this is no big deal - at no point did this dude make ANY other conversation with me. All the white people I was with, he asked them about their lives, work, TV shows, whatever, all I was was a walking talking museum piece that he just had to fit in the right box. And then he never even straight up ASKED me 'what kind of Asian are you?' which sucky as that whole line of questioning truly is, at least was slightly better than the absurd guessing game and screaming "You're a MIX" at me.

If you don't think this is tiring and super super offensive I just don't know. I mean I'm sorry but you're wrong. There's no other side. That guy doesn't get a side or deserve to have his "perspective" understood, even if he's "just curious."
posted by sweetkid at 9:01 AM on May 30, 2013 [23 favorites]


Yeah, the other day some folks from the UK thought I was one of those who followed them home.
posted by infini at 9:02 AM on May 30, 2013


And asked her if I was Puerto Rican. So not even in Asia anymore, probably because of the Curly Hair law.

I almost spit coffee all over my keyboard.

I'm also dismayed at how common it seems to be for (many) Americans of European descent to think of themselves as somehow not having a heritage - I guess because if you're some mix of English/French/Irish that's not "exotic", or something? I don't think of my Czech heritage as "exotic" (neither is my Hawaiian/Chinese/English side), but it's full of interesting stuff - history and food and stories and traditions. I like the food parts best, myself.
posted by rtha at 9:13 AM on May 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


yeah that's kind of my reaction when people are like "why can't we have white pride hmmm?" Well, because that's gross and racist, and black pride started specifically because of the massive social pressure for them to be ashamed of it so it's not really the same - but English/French/Irish pride is a pretty cool thing, totally. By all means, let's celebrate Bastille Day and talk about the Blarney Stone, whyever not.

For the record, I'm proud of being Indian American but have no 'brown pride' or 'not a white person pride' or even 'Asian pride' so I don't get why there would need to be solidarity in whiteness. But being proud of European heritage is a totally different thing.
posted by sweetkid at 9:19 AM on May 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also just to add to my anecdote from last night because I guess I have more to say - about the guy saying, "I'm really good at telling what kind of Asian people are, I'm going to get it right with you."

I mean, the audacity of that sort of thing - it's like I came into the bar wearing a Halloween costume, like actively wanting people to 'guess," like something intentional I'm doing on purpose.

I just - this is just what I look like man.
posted by sweetkid at 10:02 AM on May 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


Hollywood Upstairs Medical College: who are enlightened enough to know that there are different kind of Asians (but not enough to be able to tell by looking
What data I've seen suggests that no one can tell by looking. Cultural prejudices make us believe elsewise. Given 18 Asian pics of 3 nationalities, the average seems to be getting about 1/3 correct - which is no better than random guessing. (There used to be a website started by an Asian guy to test this idea, with thousands of responses, but I haven't seen in in years.)
posted by IAmBroom at 10:28 AM on May 30, 2013


I sometimes play the "what's that white person's heritage game?" but the answer is always either wrong or inconclusive. Also, the game is stupid and pointless.
posted by GuyZero at 10:52 AM on May 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


(We get put in front of the punchlines all the time. As the story goes, S.I. Hayakawa sat back down in his seat after his lecture, and said to his astonished dinner partner: Likee speechie?)

Brother Jim's family had been ensconced in eastern Arizona for centuries--mostly they were Navajos, all of them large and brown, with the classic big nose and high cheekbones, glittering black eyes. His parents and uncles and aunties, and most of the older cousins, spoke Spanish, but none of the kids my age did. I am white bread, white trash, mongrel Seminole Cajun Okie. Jim was born in California, and I lived with his family for a few years when I was a snotty teen guy with an attitude. (I have mentioned this here before.)

Jim and I worked in the fields when we were in junior high school. I was used to it, though field work was new to Jim. We did a lot of cotton-chopping that first year, in a field filled with a mish-mash of braceros, blacks, and other people, whose lineage seemed vaguely Asian, though perhaps were South Sea Islanders or Filipinos. I grew up speaking Spanish: my father was fluent, and my mother was good with Tex-mex.

But here's the story: Jim and I, standing at the end of the row of knee-high cotton, sipping water from the stainless steel cup that was hung by a string on a 40 gallon lister bag that had been set up near the field boss's truck. Several braceros were standing nearby, and one asked Jim in Spanish if he was from around this area--by our clothes it was obvious that we weren't from Mexico. Jim's Spanish vocabulary ends just the other side of taco, so he looks over to me, and I tell him what the guy said, and then I tell the guy that we're both from Fresno. The braceros glance at on another, and ask Jim if his family's from the area, or did they come from down in Mexico. Jim gestures with his chin, and I translate for him, then tell them that his family is from New Mexico and Arizona, never been to Mexico, don't have any relatives down there.

This goes on for a few more minutes, then one of the Mexicans tells me that he doesn't think it's funny, Jim pretending he can't speak Spanish, getting an Okie to translate for him--somehow we are making fun of them, I guess, was his meaning. We had a conversation about it. I believe they stayed insulted, on account of how unlikely it seemed to them than an Okie was able to speak Spanish and an Indio wasn't.
posted by mule98J at 10:54 AM on May 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


Sickening to read this tweet this morning. Apparently straight up racism including physical violence is alive and well in Ireland.
posted by TwoWordReview at 11:46 AM on May 30, 2013


Eh, a crazy lady followed me down the street yesterday, screaming at the top of her lungs calling me a "Fucking Saigon whore," complete with "Suck my dick" for about 4 city blocks. I'm 37 weeks pregnant and don't walk very fast, so this took a good 10 minutes. Straight up racism including physical violence is alive and well everywhere, but kids being stupid is even more ubiquitous.

I am impressed that crazy homeless lady managed to guess my ethnicity, though.
posted by snickerdoodle at 11:58 AM on May 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Straight up racism including physical violence is alive and well everywhere, but kids being stupid is even more ubiquitous.

A few months back, a crazy Jamaican dude went off on me on a shuttle train in Brooklyn. As soon as I boarded, he started mocking the sound of an Asian language. Then he proceeded to start naming Chinese foods, and using slurs and stuff. I pulled out my smartphone at this point and started videoing him, but he immediately changed what he was saying. He started saying something like, "Hey, Japanese, why are you in the warm, and I'm here in the cold. It's a hard knock life ... " Then he started singing and I couldn't understand what he was saying.

So, yes, even in a big city like New York this kind of stuff happens. It happened to me more in the small town I'm from, and it was usually white people there.
posted by ChuckRamone at 1:03 PM on May 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I grew up in a mostly-white town in Virginia (we didn't even have many Italians or Jews) and no one ever questioned that I was Indian American because there just weren't very many and no one really ever thought about what they expected Indian people to look like. I was still expected to understand, of course, that I was REALLY FROM another country and not a regular American.

Then I went to college and hi stereotypes!!

Not sure which I prefer.
posted by sweetkid at 1:08 PM on May 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Who needs FB when you have WWW?
posted by infini at 1:11 PM on May 30, 2013


I have not been the victim of racism so this is mostly just a funny story, but people are weird and this is semi-apropos.

I am a tall white dude. Like 6'5" tall.

I was visiting Taiwan. I was in what I think was some sort of historical village in the south. A busload of high school students arrived. I was about to become the main attraction.

What would a group of small-town Taiwanese high school students should at an unexpected huge white dude?

"MICHAEL JORDAN!! MICHAEL JORDAN!!!"

Than they all took their picture with me.

Michael Jordan.

Thankfully there was no spitting or threats of physical violence. I'm still not complete sure if I was being mocked.
posted by GuyZero at 1:15 PM on May 30, 2013 [3 favorites]




The whole idea of race is messed up, when you come down to it, and I think I very much understand the impetus behind encouraging kids to get beyond thinking of themselves as half of anything. It think it doesn't matter how you get there, if the end result is the kids have a positive (and hopefully totally independent of ideas about 'race') self-image.

Thank jeebus that I don't have and won't be having kids, though, because fuck me if I have any idea how I would navigate that whole thing as a parent.


Honestly, race wasn't even anything I put any thought into when I married the Maus and we had children. (Why, hello there, White Privilege, not having to think about such things!) And really, we didn't have to think about it too terribly much until after 9/11. I mean, we had the typical questions from the kids about why Mommy is very pale and Daddy is tan. We talked about where our respective families emigrated from, and why. (Maus' Mom's family has been here since the 1800s, but his Dad's family and both sides of mine didn't show up until the early 1900s, the n00bz.) We talked about the different foods from our ancestral lands. We talked about why Daddy was of Syrian descent, but had a French last name. But that was pretty much it. Race wasn't something we really gave a shit about.

9/11 changed all of it. Kids that were at our home on the regular were suddenly not allowed to come down to play with "those sand niggers". That was a fun term to explain to a couple of little kids, just 5 and 9 at the time. Maus got punched in the face at work by a customer who was angry that a particular item was out of stock - the cashier called for him to come talk to the customer, and BAM! sock to the face, accompanied by "fucking muck muck!". People suddenly felt very free to tell "terrorist" jokes in our presence, slyly watching for reactions. I was called traitor for being married to a "raghead". And on and on.

Things have calmed down some in the meantime, though Maus and Elder Monster still occasionally get slurs flung at them. Younger Monster is pale like I am, but let someone call his big brother a ragtop and he will blow a gasket. "Hey, you ignorant fuck, that's my brother!" (The looks he gets, followed by sheepish silence, are priceless.)

I agree with you that the concept of race is messed up. The idea that being of one race or another makes you bad or lesser - or "normal"! - is asinine and bothersome, but I've no idea what to do about it outside of just carrying on and muddling through.
posted by MissySedai at 5:10 PM on May 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


Not to derail, but can someone fill me in on a bio of "Ken Tanaka"... I hate to think that I know people that are getting duped by this guy if he really is racist.

Not to say I don't agree with the sentiment of the video btw -- this totally happens all the time. For some reason when it comes to people obviously from other countries (Im in DC and had exactly Downing Street Memo's scenario in mind) I'm more tolerant of the "what are you?" questions, like its often a general fascination with people of different nationalities. then I can ask about where they are from and how they like it here, and this all feels markedly different than the guy in this video.
posted by NikitaNikita at 7:46 PM on May 30, 2013


What data I've seen suggests that no one can tell by looking. Cultural prejudices make us believe elsewise. Given 18 Asian pics of 3 nationalities, the average seems to be getting about 1/3 correct - which is no better than random guessing.

While I don't want to perpetuate the "Asian guessing game" (which thankfully I haven't been a recipient of since middle school), I've always thought that "all look same" website is a poorly designed test of ability to tell East Asian ethnicities apart (and really, it seems to exist more to prove the creator's point than as a legitimate test). How are you supposed to tell if someone is Chinese or Japanese or Korean if they're twisting up their face, sticking out their tongue, and wearing sunglasses? And is 18 questions really enough to tell skill from guessing?

A better test would have you rate at least 100 standard passport photos, and compare your results to a pool of "unskilled" test takers. Of course nobody exists who can tell East Asian faces apart with perfect accuracy, because there is a lot of overlap. Finger in the air, I'd think the best performers would score at most 70% accuracy on this test. But there are certain face types that are much more common in each of these countries than the others. Some faces are just unmistakably Korean (or Chinese, or Japanese), even though there might be a few people from other countries who have the same face type.

And of course faces only tell half the story - most Asians in Asia tell each other apart from style of dress, makeup, hair, mannerisms, etc. than just faces, which is why this is so difficult with Asian-Americans. If you were to take full-body pictures of Seoulites, Tokyoites, and Beijingers wearing their everyday clothes, I bet someone batting only 50% on the faces test would get up to near 100%.
posted by pravit at 8:18 PM on May 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sweetkid that was fucking infuriating to read. I have been through that and it made me feel like a dog in a show with clueless people talking about my exotic breed.

I don't know why people think it's a no no to discuss the personal appearance of a new acquaintance except when you are trying to guess their ethnicity. Sometimes I fantasize about coming up with a really disturbing story about my heritage so I could shock them into silence.

Maybe I should just start pointing out details about their appearance and what they mean to me, too.
posted by Tarumba at 6:23 AM on May 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Let me first caveat by saying that I have never had the same experiences as a non-white person in the US dealing with all these little racial annoyances building up over many years. I am not trying to equate my experiences to those.

In addition to my non-white American and Canadian friends' anecdotes about these sorts of experiences based just on skin color or other physical features (and they have heaps of them), one other thing that has made me really sensitive to how I ask people about their backgrounds is living in the southwestern UK. I look like pretty much everyone here, but every time I open my mouth it's pretty clear I'm not from here. So every conversation when I order a drink at the pub, or food at a restaurant, or buy shampoo, or call for an appointment, or whatever, starts with "Hey! Where are you from?" And while there's nothing inherently aggressive about that question, and I'm sure the people asking are indeed just curious -- there aren't many American ex-pats or tourists in the city I live in so I am a bit of a novelty -- it's basically saying "Hey! You don't belong! You need to explain your presence here to me before you can carry on with your business!" And that is really, really obnoxious when it happens every time I leave my house.

Of course god forbid I encounter anyone familiar with the Boston accent. "Where are you from?!" "Boston." "You don't SOUND like you're from Boston!" "Okay, you got me, I was born in Ohio." Christ, stop the interrogation already and let me buy my tampons.

I can't even imagine how much worse it would be if I visibly looked different and didn't even have to already be interacting with someone for them to start interrogating me.

tl;dr: I feel really bad now for every single time I've asked someone with an obvious accent in the US "Oh, where are you from?".

Random fun fact: while visiting the US for the first time, my white-as-hell Australian husband was enthusiastically informed that his English was excellent.
posted by olinerd at 4:35 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm white, my family's been in Canada for over 300 years yet when I moved to another part of the country people thought complimenting me on my English was appropriate. I sympathize.
posted by peppermind at 6:18 AM on June 1, 2013


I just came back to say that just a few days ago I was walking to meet some friends and then a guy stopped me to ask for a light for his cigarette.

Before I could even reply that I did not have one he pointed at me and shouted "YOU'RE KOREAN!" as if I inadvertently stepped into some bizarre game show.

I don't have time try and enlighten people like this and I don't even know what the point would be.
posted by like_neon at 1:05 PM on June 3, 2013 [2 favorites]




Actors read racist comments from What Kind of Asian Are You

That's awesome.
posted by sweetkid at 7:12 PM on June 5, 2013


Sorry "Ken," you can't inoculate yourself against racism when you're the donor racist.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:27 PM on June 5, 2013


...what?
posted by sweetkid at 8:28 PM on June 5, 2013


I will not abuse the edit window just to make a clarifying, reworded correction:

Sorry "Ken," you can't vaccinate yourself against accusations of racism when you're the donor racist.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:32 PM on June 5, 2013


that doesn't clarify anything for me.

this video isn't racist, if that's where you're going.
posted by sweetkid at 8:40 PM on June 5, 2013


I thought we covered this earlier, the film is a heavy-handed provocation by notorious racist internet kook Ken "Tanaka." The followup film of youtube comments is an attempt to immunize himself against accusations of racism. Hey, if racists hated the film, it couldn't possibly be racist, right? Wrong.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:56 PM on June 5, 2013


charlie, are you arguing that Tanaka actually thinks the guy was doing something normal/acceptable, and was advocating for more people to behave like that, or what?
posted by jacalata at 9:54 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


or - 'heavy handed provocation' to who? Who or what do you think he is trying to provoke? Is it maybe you - he's poking fun at your own inability to let go of his previous work?
posted by jacalata at 9:55 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


It was not covered earlier, unless you mean the part where you marched in like we were already talking about the filmmaker (and not, you know, the subjects addressed in the video) and made a Prouncement. You did not clarify or explicate or explain. Then you went away. Which I reckon more than one mefite was fine with, in no small part because we were already talking about something, something you very obviously did not want to talk about. No one here appeared to want to take up your topic, so.
posted by rtha at 1:37 AM on June 6, 2013


No one here appeared to want to take up your topic, so.

I thought it was at least nominally addressed:

Basically it's best that we regard this Ken Tanaka matter as being like having a fairly involved and nuanced conversation about politics, as reasonable adults, with an extended family member who just happens to hate "the Jews," and we just sort of avoid that topic because it will not help anything, especially when things are going so well conversationally.

Now that the conversation is basically over, I'll use that hamfisted metaphor to recontextualize. It's like trying to have a nuanced conversation about Jewish cultural issues, with an extended family member who just happens to hate "the Jews," with him setting the discussion topic, except you decided to have this discussion in his living room, with his collection of antisemitic materials on display.

Sure you can try to have a nuanced conversation in that environment, and deliberately ignore the 800lb gorilla in the room. And by doing so, you are giving credibility to the exact factors that make nuanced conversations so difficult.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:35 PM on June 6, 2013


Yeah, you brought it up first. DoctorFedora acknowledged your comment. Then nobody else really seemed interested in discussing it, and kept talking about the things we had been talking about before you jumped in with

Oh shit it's by THAT Ken Tanaka. His schtick has always been lame.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:15 PM on May 29


six hours and a couple hundred comments into a discussion that had not been about the filmmaker himself at all. Sorry you didn't like that and that it apparently still makes you unhappy.

We were not attempting to have a discussion "with" the filmmaker. MetaFilter is not his living room.

And it's really weird to me that you seem to be saying that by sharing our experiences of being asked what kind of [ethnicity] we are, we are condoning the filmmaker's alleged racist agenda or viewpoint.
posted by rtha at 9:59 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


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