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what would the yellow ranger do?
January 10, 2014 9:34 PM   Subscribe

Tired of being constantly asked "Where are you from?", Shing Yin Kor looks to the Yellow Ranger for advice.
posted by divabat (137 comments total) 78 users marked this as a favorite

 
Loved that. Thank you for posting.
posted by sweetkid at 9:39 PM on January 10


i loved this so much. it's a beautiful and moving and still hilarious piece.
posted by nadawi at 9:44 PM on January 10


This is great.
posted by daniel9223 at 9:47 PM on January 10


The faces on television are white, white, white and Will Smith.

Came thisclose to spitting water all over the keyboard! That was pretty great.
posted by rtha at 10:06 PM on January 10 [16 favorites]


I'm willing to bet some of those asking were trying to make small talk. But yeah, fuck people who make small talk and the patriarchy of, uh, small talk.

(It's in my job to make small talk to people. I'm going to ask where you're from regardless of skin color because I don't know who you are and it helps to establish a line of discussion).
posted by efalk at 10:08 PM on January 10 [6 favorites]


Awesome.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:13 PM on January 10


If I could draw I'd do a comic about how every fucking person you meet at a party asks, "What do you do?" Fuck you and fuck my stupid job.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:27 PM on January 10 [14 favorites]


(It's in my job to make small talk to people. I'm going to ask where you're from regardless of skin color because I don't know who you are and it helps to establish a line of discussion).

Right, but that's different than asking, "no, where are you *really* from?" when an Asian person says that they're from a non-Asian location.
posted by hopeless romantique at 10:33 PM on January 10 [27 favorites]


Saw this earlier today and just cracked up about it. Funny and moving, very well done.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:37 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


Good laugh out loud bits, but I hope she finds a middle way between silence and rectal fists of fury.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:47 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]


If I could draw I'd do a comic about how every fucking person you meet at a party asks, "What do you do?" Fuck you and fuck my stupid job.

Why does that have to be a question about your job? "I smoke mad weed and play a lot of Halo" or whatever seems just as legit a response.

Also to be noting the cartoonist makes rad (if expensive) bug things.
posted by juv3nal at 11:04 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


I've lived within thirty miles of where I was born my whole life, but I too get asked where I'm from all the damn time. Not because I'm Asian, but because I talk funny. It's a drag to have the same conversation so often, for sure, so I get her frustration.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 12:07 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


I like saying I was born in Taiwan.
I like saying I am ethnically Chinese.
And I also like to say that I am American and Californian.

It's great that she can loudly proclaim that she's from Los Angeles. But it's a bit f'ed up she's not able to just as loudly proclaim "I'm also from Malaysia" without feeling squicked out at times.
posted by FJT at 12:26 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


The faces on television are white, white, white and Will Smith.

So you're saying Will Smith isn't white?!

I'm going to ask where you're from regardless of skin color

Yeah, this is an American "thing". But I've thought it over and considered how it sounds to be the person being asked, and how likely it is that many times there is indeed a more sinister aspect to the question.
posted by dhartung at 12:53 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


People who truly ask in good faith "where I'm from" never ever go on on to insist that I am really from somewhere else.
posted by casarkos at 12:59 AM on January 11 [21 favorites]


Depending on how my day is going, or how willing I am to do the song and dance when a Japanese person asks me where I'm from, sometimes I'll say America. Other times, I'll just look at them and say "Chiba" and go back to whatever I was doing before.

People are curious. I get that. I imagine Shing Yin Kor gets that. Sometimes, though, I'm tired, and I don't want to have the conversation. The person I'm talking to, maybe this is their first time having it, but I couldn't even begin to number the times I've had it. Sometimes, I think, why take this Luton this person? They don't deserve being brushed off, they're just curious. Other times, seriously, no one appointed me ambassador, I'd really like to just drink my beer in peace.

The conversation goes roughly like this: I'm from America. From Michigan. It's in the middle. Near Chicago. Yes, the one with the big lakes. I've been here for thirteen years. Thank you, but really my Japanese isn't that good. Yes, Japanese is quite difficult. I will continue to try hard to learn it. Thank you though. Yes, I like Japan. Yes, I'm married. Yes, my wife is Japanese. Japanese food is fine. I like izakaya food.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:44 AM on January 11 [20 favorites]


But can you eat the izakaya food with chopsticks, Ghidorah? Now that would be impressive.
posted by dydecker at 2:13 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


I hate "where are,you from?" With a burning passion. No one ever asks me,that in good faith. It's always "which box can I put you into?". Nowadays I just say "everywhere"
posted by divabat at 2:53 AM on January 11 [10 favorites]


I get that all the time in Thailand as well, it does get a bit old after a while.
posted by zog at 3:11 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]




As someone who's been asked this question a lot, I used to feel like she did. It's frustrating to be put in a box, but then I realized that most people have precious little to talk about with new people. And that most of my interlocutors were people who had traveled to my motherland, etc. and wanted an excuse to talk about it. Of course, I could care less about that country, but now humor them. They launch into their soliloquy and forget that I'm even there. ;-> Actually, believe it or not, that engagement is usually the first step to more lasting connections. Empathy with the other side sometimes goes both ways ....
posted by learnsome at 3:31 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


I drove taxis for a while, and I often got asked where I was from because what I speak is clearly not Australian English despite my being three generations post-migration. I put this down to being taught to speak by the Australian Broadcasting Commission circa 1965 (it was not until I learned to make my own crystal sets that I was able to work around my parents' ban on commercial broadcasts in our house).

After a while I started having fun with it, doing things like deliberately affecting a tip-of-the-tongue L to sound a bit African, or playing a New Zealander, or cummen from Brizzie ay. Because it truly is absolutely tiresome to have to keep on accounting for difference again and again and again and again and again and again and again. And again and again and again and over and over and over. Again.

Threatening my passengers with profound rectal damage would probably not have done wonders for my tip takings, so I didn't do that. But it was certainly an occasionally tempting option, especially with a night cab full of drunken AFL footballers whose idea of a witty response to a well-spoken cabbie with dreads was to spend an entire 10km trip shouting "advanced hair, yeah yeah" and giggling like the fucking grade 3 dropout morons they were.
posted by flabdablet at 3:38 AM on January 11 [6 favorites]


Because it truly is absolutely tiresome to have to keep on accounting for difference again and again and again and again and again and again and again.

This. My family name is strange, long and hard to pronounce in Chile. You do not need to comment on this fact. I am aware of it. I don't care if you pronounced it correctly. I don't care if you spelled it correctly. I don't think it's funny that you have trouble with it. Whatever you do or say, I'll smile a tight little smile and continue with my actual business. Thank you. Fuck you, too.
posted by signal at 3:53 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


"(It's in my job to make small talk to people. I'm going to ask where you're from regardless of skin color because I don't know who you are and it helps to establish a line of discussion)."

Yes, but previous threads on this topic revealed that for many people — and not just those who are subjected to covert xenophobia or exoticist othering, like this woman — this is an alienating and uncomfortable question to be asked. Not just a tiny, insignificant number of people, but many people. Rethink your decision to include this in your small-talk repertoire.

I counsel this as someone who is really interested in learning about where people grew up because that information plays a large role in my comprehension of who they are. And, I hope and aspire, not in a stereotyping way, but in a "where you grew up provides a lot of context for an important part of your life" way. So I'm sympathetic to the genuine desire to know where "someone is from".

But, really, that's the kind of question and information that should come naturally from more extended conversation. When it's one of the first things asked/mentioned, it really does signal a kind of facile and possibly phony interest. If the first thing, or the only thing you want to know is where "someone's from", then that's a problem. Because they're so much more than just that and, also, for some people there's no real answer to that question or their answer will be misleading.

As it happens, after consideration during a previous discussion about this, I decided that I don't ever ask this initially and only rarely ask it directly after I've gotten to know someone better. Usually, it's something people offer themselves, anyway. I remember it, because it's an important part of the narratives I create about the people I know. That's how I understand people, I build a kind of narrative about them in my head. It's important to me, but I usually don't need to ask; when getting to know someone, they will usually offer that kind of information themselves.

The main thing is that however much this is a difficult and alienating question for people who generally "fit in", for anyone who is perceived as being an outsider, whether they are or, worse, when they're not (like with this writer), it's a very bad question to ask because it practically shouts "othering". It's not nice, it's insensitive.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:54 AM on January 11 [24 favorites]


Also, can I just express how fucking nonplussed I am that in this day and age in the US there are people who can't process the idea that Americans can and do look like any kind of people from anywhere in the world? For fuck's sake.

If I overheard someone ask where someone was from and comment that they think that Chinese women are cute and exotic, I'd be hard-pressed not to walk over and tell them to fuck off. I wouldn't do that, because it's not my place to interfere, but I'd sure as hell want to. That's simple racism, right there. And the more disguised kind, that queries someone's ancestry to identify their "otherness", when they don't do that with, say, someone who's Irish-American, is still racism, full stop.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:55 AM on January 11 [5 favorites]


I'm white, male, and living abroad. I get asked 'where are you from' all the time, including 'where are you *really* from'. I've also been accused of lying about where I am from. But for some reason this does not make me as angry as the author.

Obviously some of the comments the author encounters are racist but I'd guess most of the time people just want to engage in small-talk. I don't think people in general mean to offend, or upset.
posted by stephencarr at 4:06 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


Stephencarr, intent when it comes to offending really isn't the point. The offense occurs, and is real, and it's happening largely because of ignorance or stereotypes.

In addition, neither of us have to deal with the added shitstorm of all the stereotypes she mentions, especially the racist caricature of the submissive Asian female that she has to deal with all the damn time. I imagine you'd find reason to get just as angry if you had to deal with that. I sure as hell would.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:40 AM on January 11 [23 favorites]


stephencarr: you ever have people of your race singled out in the press for crimes that everyone commits, and are constantly asked to justify the acts of your people? Has your safety ever been at risk for being a marginalisedother? Have you lost out on opportunities because your name was too foreign or your language skills were suspect just because your accent is unusual?

A lifetime of this is enough to piss anyone off, and you're not suddenly a better man than Yin Khor is just because you don't get angry.

Efalk: if you can't find anything else interesting about a person other than presumed origin than I dare suggest you're not doing your job as well as you could be.

FJT: it sounds like she does tell people she's Malaysian but no one listens to her or takes her seriously. I know I get "no, you're not really Malaysian" a LOT. Also she could have not much of a connection to Malaysia - my parents are Bangladeshi but I was never raised there, so knowing my ethnicity doesn't really tell you much about my life (as Ivan Fyodorovich says, I'm one of those people with a misleading or tricky answer).
posted by divabat at 4:44 AM on January 11 [9 favorites]


I suspect one thing that sometimes makes the question irritating is a point she kind of alludes to: people who are, in effect, asking insistently about your ethnicity but are actually not even interested in it. Even a small amount of precision ("Malaysia") gets a response like "You look like you're from China." These people don't want to know whether your background is Cantonese, Hainanese, or Hokkien, or whether you have a bit of Malay or Javanese blood; they're covertly insisting that you confess to being a wog.
posted by Segundus at 4:49 AM on January 11 [25 favorites]


I agree that most of the people in the author's life are probably just trying to make small talk (ditto with "What do you do?") but this question does get old fast. The quickest way to understand how annoying a question like "Where are you from?" can be is to spend more than a few weeks in a foreign country. You will have to have this conversation with everyone who hears you speaking with an accent:

Them: "Where are you from?"
You: "Chicago."
Them: "United States?"
You: "Yes."
Them: "Is that near Los Angeles?"
You: "Uh... no, not really. It's in the middle. So, like, L.A. is way over here, and New York is way over here. It's here, in between."
Them: "Ah, I see."

Now they procede to ask you if there are lots of gangsters in Chicago and whether or not you own a gun. Yes, Chicago has not changed significantly since Al Capone. We all just run around in suits with tommyguns eating deep dish pizza and spraying bullets at each other.
posted by deathpanels at 5:03 AM on January 11 [8 favorites]


I'm white, male, ... But for some reason this does not make me as angry as the author.

You don't say.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:18 AM on January 11 [72 favorites]


I wish I had the video clip, but there's a scene in "Barney Miller" where Dietrich is talking to Yemena and asks if he misses the mountains and the cherry blossoms and etcetera of his homeland. Yemena looks at him and says "I'm from Omaha." The audience laughs, and finally Deitrich responds straightfaced with "Really? We've got a city in Nebraska with that name."

God I miss that show.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 5:23 AM on January 11 [8 favorites]


We all just run around in suits with tommyguns eating deep dish pizza and spraying bullets at each other.

That was more or less my impression during my visit. Also, improv troopes.
posted by The Whelk at 6:02 AM on January 11 [5 favorites]


That's by MeFi's Own™ sawdustbear, btw.
posted by scruss at 6:29 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


[A couple of comments deleted; astrobiophysican, maybe tone down the hyperbole and over the top fury a bit, and participate in a reasonable conversation about this actual link as opposed to howling about everyone everywhere you feel shouldn't have access to communication for whatever reason? ]
posted by taz at 6:29 AM on January 11


I'm white and born and raised in a multi-racial Asian country. I get asked almost every day where I am and have a polite quip to answer. My husband is Chinese, and never gets asked. My kids who are Cambodian-Vietnamese with varying strong accents get asked all the time and lie a lot in reply. I expect my chinese-white kid to grow up grappling a lot with this. It really is about power. I get asked as a conversation point, and there is no loss to me for any answer I give in social standing or personal scrutiny. For my kids, the answers are to evaluate where they stand socially by class and then the answers become pointed and intensely personal. My kids give different answers depending on their moods and who is asking, and they get really pissed at the repeated questioning and explaining asked of their personal and social identities.

The panel about hot coffee spills is perfect.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:31 AM on January 11 [15 favorites]


My roommate in college was Filipino, but one of her parents was ethnically Chinese and thus didn't 'look' Filipino to random people. It reached the point where I could give a little speech on ethnic groups of the Philippines because people would get it through their heads that it was maybe rude to demand explanation from my roommate and decide to ask me instead, which wasn't really much of an improvement. I never really thought too hard about whether it would have been better to refuse to answer. But this is like the giant flashing neon example of white privilege in my life* because people very seldom press when I kill their attempts to interrogate my origins by saying I'm from Chicago.

*Well, no, it was until an encounter with the Atlanta Police Department two summers ago and we walked out of a situation where getting beaten up by the police was a real possibility because we were white and Asian.
posted by hoyland at 7:15 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


On her tumblr, sawdustbear writes a bit about this piece.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:16 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


Yes, but previous threads on this topic revealed that for many people — and not just those who are subjected to covert xenophobia or exoticist othering, like this woman — this is an alienating and uncomfortable question to be asked. Not just a tiny, insignificant number of people, but many people. Rethink your decision to include this in your small-talk repertoire.

Yes, this. As a white guy I don't get any of her othering (except when I have intentionally put myself into that role), but this question almost never sits right with me. Partly because like many people I don't have a short, neat answer to it (or at least an honest short answer) -- I either have to just pick a place, or do the whole "Well, I was born in X, but then Y, Z, and later P, Q, R, but now..." routine. And in large part because it's usually transparently about pigeonholing, and while I'll answer politely it's not a question that I look forward to.

There are much better ways to make small talk about geography -- more specific questions like where you grew up, how long you have lived in this place, or where you went to college tend to work better, I think, instead of a facile, one-size-fits-all "Where are you from?" that for so many people carries a lot of not-great baggage.

This is a fantastic cartoon, and I hope I see more from her.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:20 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


Having been (mostly) raised in the Midwest, I got this a lot. Probably because there weren't that many Filipinos in mid-Missouri. The questions got a bit irritating at times, but I do think the majority of the people asking them were just genuinely curious.

We children had lost our accents within a couple years of moving here. I was 6.
posted by bayani at 7:32 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


I'm white and male and actually -am- about as frustrated with the question as the author. I've been getting this question for thirtysome years (since childhood) because I have fairly precise diction and grammar.

The general assumption locally is that these traits are British, for whatever reason.
posted by Archelaus at 7:34 AM on January 11


It's a subject close to my heart (I actually wrote about it myself once) and I like her take on it. From my own perspective, when I get asked this question I always say 'From here'. And not because I want to make the person shut up about it (although I'd appreciate it) but because it's the truth. To me, at least. I've lived here longer than anywhere else and it's my adopted home. I love it, truly feel a part of it, and it would break my heart if I had to leave. So my own take on this is that when someone asks me where I'm from, they're implying 'this is not your home' and it hurts me a little every time because it feels like they're denying me my feeling of belonging. I understand that I might be overly sensitive, but when you get asked this question on a regular basis, it might start to annoy. Or hurt. (I do have to add that I get asked this question based on my accent, not race, so my feelings regarding the subject are obviously a little different).
posted by I have no idea at 7:34 AM on January 11 [8 favorites]


"There are much better ways to make small talk about geography -- more specific questions like where you grew up, how long you have lived in this place, or where you went to college tend to work better, I think, instead of a facile, one-size-fits-all 'Where are you from?' that for so many people carries a lot of not-great baggage."

Yeah.

One of the things mentioned in the previous thread about this question as it impacts everyone is that its phrasing presumes that someone is an outsider. It's often not intended that way, but it's there in the subtext.

So, like I wrote earlier, I think that direct questions of this class should be avoided altogether at least until you've spent some time getting to know someone and what's best is to just allow this sort of information to come up naturally as you do get to know someone.

But, for example, if for some reason you feel the need to directly ask this question, it's much better to ask it from a presumption of someone being in-group, not out-group, and ask, "So, you grew up here?" That avoids the "I'm assuming that you're not one of us" implication and, instead, sends the opposite message. It may not help that much because then people who aren't, in fact, from "here" will be forced to identify themselves as not being from "here" and that runs into some of the same problems.

I'm not sure that it's that big of an improvement, but I mention it as a possibility that, at the very least, is helpful as an example to illustrate how the more usual phrasing — "where are you from?" — carries with it an implication that someone doesn't belong. Both the phrasing and the phrasing in combination with merely asking it signal that someone has identified you as being an outsider. Even if that's the last thing intended, that's a subtext and some people will be very sensitive to it and will be upset by it.

So if you're like me, and really do genuinely care about someone's life and history, then a) it's probably better to get that information in a more organic and complete way; and b) if you do approach it directly, do so with the implication that you're seeing them as in-group, not out-group.

On Preview:

"So my own take on this is that when someone asks me where I'm from, they're implying 'this is not your home' and it hurts me a little every time because it feels like they're denying me my feeling of belonging. I understand that I might be overly sensitive, but when you get asked this question on a regular basis, it might start to annoy. Or hurt."

You've expressed this much better than I did.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:42 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


My partner (who is Romanian) tends to just punt when asked and say, "Transylvania" because the fifteen to thirty seconds of oh my gawd, like Dracula??!1? is less annoying than having to give people a capsule history of post-communism Romania, which tends to be the other outcome.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:44 AM on January 11 [10 favorites]


"Where are you from" is always an unintentionally awkward question. In the US the asker could be meaning:
  • Where were you resident most recently? (the rust belt)
  • Where did you grow up? (elsewhere in the rust belt)
  • What is your ethnicity? (ummm... 3rd generation American from eastern Europe on one side, and like 9th generation American from various parts of Britain on the other; how much do you really wanna unpack this right here right now?)
At times it ends up being more of an unintentional filter of the people who can gracefully navigate social interactions than anything else. For people who don't find small talk easy it can lead to far more overthinking than the asker intended.

And that's assuming the responder is a white American among other white Americans. It's just not as neutral a conversation starter as asking about the weather or your shoes, even if the asker has best intentions in mind.
posted by ardgedee at 7:45 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


Yesterday, I had my work performance review in a hotel lobby (because we have a tiny office and there's no place to have a meeting without everyone hearing).

We were having a good meeting, and getting things sorted, and suddenly, this teenage boy comes up to me.

"Sorry, but you're American. I heard that. I'm joining the Marines in two years."

"Okay."

"Yeah, got my visa and everything." (walks away, leaving my boss completely bemused and me just rolling my eyes again)

But I love confusing old dears on the streets around my house. "Where are you from?" "Netherfield." "No, really." "Yeah, really, two streets down that way *points*"
posted by Katemonkey at 7:52 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


I like to ask "Are you from around here?" instead of "Where are you from?" as I think it gives the answerer more flexibility. They can just say "Yes" or "No" and I'm not going to pry any more, and it lets them decide what "around here" means: this neighborhood, this city, this state, this region, etc.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:03 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


Most people have something that grates if it gets asked a lot.
posted by flabdablet at 8:11 AM on January 11


Old white male with two comments from 'the other side'
  • In Turkey (or maybe just Istanbul), tourists like me are harassed constantly by beggars and touts in the street, who always try to start a conversation with "Hey, where you from?" My stock answer became "I'm from a place where it's rude to ask 'Where you from'?" This actually worked.
  • At the nadir of the second Bush administration, my country's image had become so embarrassing that when traveling abroad and this question came up, my answer became "California."
posted by Rash at 8:13 AM on January 11


I think the in group, out group presumption changes depending on where you are. In the circles I'm usually working in in DC, the presumption is that you're not from here. "One of us" means "probably from some place else."
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:14 AM on January 11


i hope that the white guys who are chiming in with their "where are you from" treatment overseas, realize it's still a very different thing than the entirety of what she's speaking of here.
posted by nadawi at 8:20 AM on January 11 [13 favorites]


As a Filipino living in the West, I've participated in a few MeFi threads about the pernicious nature of "where are you from?" such that I don't have anything new to add, except for a recent experience with what felt like it's mirror opposite.

I was in Stockholm over the American Thanksgiving break for no particular reason aside from it being a bit of a spin-the-globe exercise in spending the four day break somewhere new, and almost every day that I was there, I was asked by a different person for directions. I realize that asking someone for directions can also be contingent on how approachable the person appears to be and/or how safe/trustworthy they may seem; but in the same way that "where are you from?" can imply otherness, there's a certain quiet pleasure in having someone walk up to you with a question that is contingent on an assumption that you are familiar as opposed to foreign.
posted by bl1nk at 8:24 AM on January 11 [5 favorites]


I almost never ask people "Where are you from?" because I'm afraid of contributing to the problem discussed here.

Maybe this is an askme, but is there an alternative that makes it clear from the get-go that I'm really just trying to make small talk? Is "Where did you grow up?" okay?
posted by jcreigh at 8:25 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


i feel like there's not a completely non-baggage way to ask someone where they're from. it seems like the sort of thing they should bring up if they want it to be part of small talk.
posted by nadawi at 8:32 AM on January 11


I'm white, male, and living abroad. I get asked 'where are you from' all the time, including 'where are you *really* from'. I've also been accused of lying about where I am from. But for some reason this does not make me as angry as the author.

Obviously some of the comments the author encounters are racist but I'd guess most of the time people just want to engage in small-talk. I don't think people in general mean to offend, or upset.


1. Going on the assumption that "living abroad" means that you spent a good deal of your life living in a place where people never asked you "No, where are you REALLY from", the reason why it doesn't make you as mad as the author is that she's had to put up with it her whole life, and you haven't had to put up with it your whole life.

2. Just because people don't mean to offend doesn't let them off the hook for learning about how their questions are offensive.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:42 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


bl1nk: ha, I'm often bemused by how there's as many people that ask me for directions as there are asking where I'm from. Some weird half chameleon ability.
posted by divabat at 8:50 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


i hope that the white guys who are chiming in with their "where are you from" treatment overseas, realize it's still a very different thing than the entirety of what she's speaking of here.

How is it different? Seems to me the othering and putting up with bullshit stereotypes is exactly the same. At least in my experience as a European in Asia.
posted by dydecker at 8:53 AM on January 11


"What's your name?" my barista asks. "Hey, where're you from?"
"Jane." I say because no one's name is ever spelled correctly."
"Jade. I like it. Very exotic," he says.
Almost lost my cough drop at that.
posted by ignignokt at 8:54 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


jcreigh: nowadays I tend to think of ethnic heritage as something like politics or religion. I don't make it a point of asking someone what church they belong to or their stance on welfare. Ethnicity, identity, birth background and what a person defines as "home" or "origin" or "motherland" is complex and defined by person. Let them volunteer that information as part of their expression to you of who they are, and if they don't volunteer then assume that they don't think it's important or relevant to whatever your conversation may be about.

Because, like, religion or politics, many times where you're from actually isn't relevant.
posted by bl1nk at 8:56 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


i should have had my bingo card ready. i should've known better than sharing this on facebook.
posted by cendawanita at 9:01 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


I have a different twist of this sort of situation. I'm Indian and I live in Mexico, and most of the time I can easily pass for Mexican, with the result that almost nobody asks me this question. The only time strangers ask me this, is when they speak to me for a while (usually taxi drivers) and then my weak hold on spanish gives me away and then they ask, soo...where are you from, expecting honduras or something. And then I nonchalantly tell them, India, because it always kinda blows their mind, the answer is so unexpected. And then they pepper me with the usual India questions. But the funny thing is rather than being annoyed, it reinforces my connection to India, and I'm happy to answer anything. But I reckon this is because these encounters are so few. If I started getting the where-are-you-from every single day, I would also prepare myself with a brusque answer.
posted by dhruva at 9:03 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


When it's small-talk relevant, I ask people how long they've lived in wherever we both are. Then, because it's the Bay Area, it usually leads directly into mutual bitching about commutes and/or cost of living. Common ground!
posted by rtha at 9:04 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


> I'm often bemused by how there's as many people that ask me for directions as there are asking where I'm from.

I was asked for directions while visiting Seoul.

To be fair, adult white nonmilitary-looking people are relatively common in Seoul, at least in the main commercial and tourist parts. I was rarely the only non-Asian on any bus or subway car, regardless of where I went. I think a lot of Americans assume the only white people most Koreans see are American military, and don't assume that Seoul might have become a modern cosmopolitan city in the sixty years since the U.S.'s combat role in the Korean War.

Being asked for directions in every city I visit is a running joke between my partner and I. Looking like an approachable English speaker can, itself, win you credibility among other English speakers who feel out of their element. Regardless of whether you feel out of your element. Touring the provinces of South Korea last year broke that particular streak of mine. In Jeongju schoolkids were pointing at me and going "Hey, an American!" Their assumptions based on stereotypes were correct for me at least, but the Australians and Britons traveling with us probably had other thoughts.
posted by ardgedee at 9:06 AM on January 11


I have to learn a hundred new names every semester. I tell them: give me your name and something interesting about yourself.

If they tell me where they're from I yawn and ask again. WHERE YOU ARE FROM IS NOT INTERESTING.

A colleague told me a story yesterday: a student picked "I like bread" as her interesting fact.

Now I put this to you: is that the most boring thing in the world, or is it in fact that most crazy interesting choice imaginable? What kind of person can find interest in bread, the quintessential boring thing? I propose that that is very, very interesting indeed. I *will* remember her name, and she's not even my student!
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:11 AM on January 11 [5 favorites]


I bookmarked divined by radio's amazing round up of ways discussions on intersectional gender are derailed today because it's so useful for spotting real life examples in the wild.

* But I do not receive this behavior as gendered/sexist, and since it is invisible to me, your idea that it is gendered/sexist is invalid
* But there is just absolutely no way that the main reason I do not receive this behavior as gendered/sexist is because I am a man


LOOK I GOT A BINGO
posted by Juliet Banana at 9:13 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


intent when it comes to offending really isn't the point. The offense occurs, and is real, and it's happening largely because of ignorance or stereotypes.

It is for me. If someone is clueless I may (probably will) get frustrated with them, but I save up my getting offended for people who should better.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:19 AM on January 11


If people keep pushing past "I was raised in So Cal" with me, I just reflexively drone "My mom is a white lady from Chicago, my dad is from Mexico" because I am fully aware that that's really what they're asking and I'm sick of the "where are you from where are you originally from where are your parents from" volley of escalating questions that really means "hey, you're a vague ethnically-ambiguous light brown that could be anything from Southest Asian to a really tan white and it's incredibly important that I know what race you are."
posted by Juliet Banana at 9:22 AM on January 11 [11 favorites]


I think we've had this conversation on the Blue multiple times and it always goes the same way. Minority person explains why some behavior by the majority bothers them. Majority person stops in to say that it doesn't offend them and the people were just trying to make small talk (and maybe minority person is oversensitive).

Maybe it's just one of those things you can't fully grasp unless you've lived it?

I didn't read her cartoon as being angry just because of "where are you from." She was angry at creepy dudes calling her "exotic" and "tiny" and telling her they love Asian girls and about their ex-wives from a completely different Asian country (because they both have superficially similar physical apperance?) And she was frustrated that her husband couldn't empathize and discounted her experience (similar to some of the commenters in this thread), because he never had to go through anything like that.

A white guy going to a foreign country as an adult and being asked "where are you from" is not the same thing. A more accurate parallel would be a white guy who was born and raised in a country where he is a minority, considers himself part of the local culture, but is treated like a foreigner every day of his life because he's white. (and if that country pays nominal lip service to being colorless and diverse, that just adds insult to injury).

I'm Asian, born and raised in the US, and I'm mostly used to the "where are you from" (and thankfully, don't have to deal with all the creepy exoticization the author did). But it doesn't bother me at all when I get "where are you from" when I travel abroad, because those are places where I expect to be treated like a foreigner. What hurts is being treated like a foreigner in the country you've grown up in, and to be treated like that your entire life.
posted by pravit at 9:29 AM on January 11 [34 favorites]


also - as an ethnically Chinese person whose parents are from Thailand, I totally get the added twist to the author's dilemma. I usually alternate between saying "I'm Chinese" or "my parents are from Thailand" instead of trying to explain the history of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia. I save that for the people who notice me answering the question differently and think they've caught me!
posted by pravit at 9:35 AM on January 11 [5 favorites]


I don't think it's really necessary to argue that the two things are completely different to make it clear that the two things are different. That is, the two things are similar in one respect, but dissimilar in another, and the latter is what changes this from "annoying/infuriating" to "an example of covert bigotry"

And it's helpful, I think, for privileged people to think about how the implicit othering in their being asked this question elsewhere is (I would hope self-evidently) magnified a thousandfold for someone who is seen as being "other" where they really are "from" (whatever that means) in so many ways, of which this is only one example.

Anyway, I hope that my discussion of this being something disliked by many people beyond the context of racism wasn't seen as being a derail or diversion from this being a heartfelt and important expression of anger at racism, because I certainly didn't intend that and I'd not have mentioned it if I'd thought that doing so would be such. I was just surprised that previous threads revealed many people disliking this question in the wider context, which besides being interesting in its own right, is just one more reason for why people should stop asking it, ever.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:48 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


> I was in Stockholm over the American Thanksgiving break for no particular reason aside from it being a bit of a spin-the-globe exercise in spending the four day break somewhere new, and almost every day that I was there, I was asked by a different person for directions.

Heh, I was also asked for directions when I visited Stockholm.

These days my response to "Where are you from?" questions is to reply "I'm Korean, but I grew up in South America." This has the interesting effect of stopping the derail mentioned in the cartoon, of then being told about some other unrelated Asian country or their Vietnamese ex-girlfriend or some such. At times I can almost hear the record scratch sound as the other person is trying to connect Korea/Asia and South America in their heads.
posted by research monkey at 9:48 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


My friend whose parents are from Korea has a t-shirt that reads "I speak English". He lives in San Francisco and still gets asked all the damn time. He may as well be wearing a kimono and that cone shaped hat with buck teeth.

It is one thing to have people mistakenly make assumptions. It is another to be constantly othered in the city you were born and raised in.
posted by munchingzombie at 9:50 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


I hate this question because then I have to admit I'm from New Jersey.
posted by nev at 9:55 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


How is it different? Seems to me the othering and putting up with bullshit stereotypes is exactly the same. At least in my experience as a European in Asia.

this comment does a good job of discussing the differences and this discussion hits upon the broader aspects of being female in public and how that differs from being male in public. it's the combination of being a woman and asian and how those are received in america. you might also read her blog post linked in this thread.
posted by nadawi at 9:57 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


nadawi, right I see. You were talking about Western men on holiday not having these experiences. Fair enough. Note that this is a different group of people than "white guys overseas"!
posted by dydecker at 10:30 AM on January 11


I'm a fourth-generation Japanese-American, born and raised in Los Angeles. I once had someone ask if I was adopted because I spoke such "perfect English". It's almost unfathomable how hard people will try to slot you into stupid little boxes they can understand.
posted by Diagonalize at 10:32 AM on January 11 [9 favorites]


The Yellow Ranger, interesting choice...I know more than one person who's adopted this spitfire as their alter ego.
posted by psoas at 10:37 AM on January 11


dydecker - no. i was talking about white men who for whatever reason and for whatever length of time find themselves in a situation where they are not in the majority is different than an asian woman's treatment in the united states. reread the comment i linked and the comic if you're still confused about the differences.
posted by nadawi at 10:40 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


People ask me where I'm from all the time, but that's a different situation. I work at a university, so everybody is from somewhere else. Usually though, since I know "Where are you from?" bothers people, I ask "Did you grow up in [current location]?" instead. I think it's better because it defaults to "you belong" instead of defaulting to "you stand out/don't belong." Of course, I might be wrong about that.
posted by yeolcoatl at 10:41 AM on January 11


I shared my sister's story in a previous thread related to the "Where are you from?" question. She is adopted, and I was explaining how this question can be complicated if you are. (nev, had to laugh at your comment, though my sister much prefers to say she is from New Jersey, since that is where she has lived for 48 years and she considers it Home with a capital H.)
posted by gudrun at 10:42 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting. Wonderful. As an 1.5-generation Asian-American who is both "from" the USA and both from Korea, and who honestly answers with both, I both feel resentful and apologetic, because I have experienced this painfully, yet can reasonably elide such questions by living in New York, and by "actually" being partially from Korea as well. But it still grinds my gears when I am asked the "no, but really", or "where are your parents from?", etc.

And I expected the following responses in the thread even before I opened it -- and I was right:

1) "I'm white, this happens to me sometimes. People are just trying to make small talk, what's the big deal?"

2) "I'm white, but this happens to me sometimes because of my accent, somewhat interesting, not too much of a big deal"

3) "I'm white, and this happens when I travel; it can get tiring, so I understand"

4) "I'm white and I live in a non-white country but speak the language; I totally understand"

Like what pravit says, none of these are actually analogous to the situation in question. The only one that comes barely close is the last one, but it only makes sense if you consider that the post in question is talking about 'being non-white in a white country'.

Which is really the mindset behind most people asking this question -- 'well, the USA is a country full of white people and black people, so that Asian-looking person must be from Somewhere Else; I wonder where?'

There are so many problematic and painful assumptions behind this mindset. There's the concept of 'white' and 'black', which are groupings not really defined by countries or cultures but by politics only partially based on skin color, and mostly based off of fear and exclusion. There's the idea of 'Asian-looking' which somehow automatically is linked to another country and thus a non-US-ness, while say, redheads aren't automatically thought to be "Irish-looking" and "from Ireland", and don't have the same "where are you from?" question applied to them. There's the idea of "Asian" in general, which is a giant homogeneous lumping-together of East-Asian and sometimes even SE Asian countries -- yet how often do you say 'oh, she's Western European' instead of 'she's French'? There's the assumption that people who look different than white are from Somewhere Else, which in the US of A of all countries, is utterly bitterly ironic of course.

So, for me, I appreciate everyone who answered according to those top four categories, but I can't help but shake my head and say -- sometimes, you may not have an analogous experience. There are cases where you can not actually directly understand someone else's position, in the way that I can and will not understand someone else as well. The idea in the first place that all experiences are transferable and empathize-able itself is a kind of privileged assumption.
posted by suedehead at 10:52 AM on January 11 [17 favorites]


I mean no disrespect to actual adoptees. It's an extraordinarily rude question to ask any stranger, in my book. I just have precious little patience for Americans who can only imagine a fellow American of Asian descent speaking fluent English if they were adopted. I'm sure their heads would just explode if they met my fluent Portuguese-speaking, ethnically-Japanese cousins from Brazil.
posted by Diagonalize at 10:57 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


nadawi, I think you should reread pravit's comment that you pointed out to me, a comment which I one hundred percent agree with by the way, in particular this section:

A more accurate parallel would be a white guy who was born and raised in a country where he is a minority, considers himself part of the local culture, but is treated like a foreigner every day of his life because he's white.

Personally I lived in a country for a long time where this routinely happens, and it's a very sorry state of affairs indeed. As such I liked the comic because I relate to the bullshit she has to go through because I've been through it myself. You might think I don't but I do.
posted by dydecker at 10:59 AM on January 11


In Turkey (or maybe just Istanbul), tourists like me are harassed constantly by beggars and touts in the street, who always try to start a conversation with "Hey, where you from?" My stock answer became "I'm from a place where it's rude to ask 'Where you from'?" This actually worked.

It wasn't until I went to Istanbul and everyone just assumed I was Turkish and nobody asked me where I was from AT ALL that I fully understood white privilege.
posted by Sara C. at 11:00 AM on January 11


dydecker this part of the comment is what you seem to keep missing:

She was angry at creepy dudes calling her "exotic" and "tiny" and telling her they love Asian girls and about their ex-wives from a completely different Asian country (because they both have superficially similar physical apperance?) And she was frustrated that her husband couldn't empathize and discounted her experience (similar to some of the commenters in this thread), because he never had to go through anything like that.


tell me, do people who can quite easily double your size ever tell you about their sexual fantasies because of your skin color and assumed ethnicity (and subservience)? suedehead also makes some great points about your specific situation.


sometimes, you may not have an analogous experience. There are cases where you can not actually directly understand someone else's position, in the way that I can and will not understand someone else as well. The idea in the first place that all experiences are transferable and empathize-able itself is a kind of privileged assumption.
posted by nadawi at 11:08 AM on January 11 [2 favorites]


As such I liked the comic because I relate to the bullshit she has to go through because I've been through it myself.

It sounds like you've been through some bullshit, but the author has had to put up with this bullshit her whole life, which means that there are many parts that are completely not analogous to your situation. Has someone suggested that you needed remediation for a language you've spoken your whole life? Did you grow up barely seeing any people who had the same ethnic background as you on television? I think those are important parts to the story being told by the author.
posted by 23skidoo at 11:31 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


23skidoo, the author didn't move to the US until she was sixteen.
posted by dydecker at 11:37 AM on January 11


dydecker, nothing that I've written should have given you the impression that I didn't know that. The author's story isn't solely about constantly answering "No, where are you REALLY from" her whole life, it's about having to put up with lots of other stuff her whole life, too, like the stuff I already mentioned.
posted by 23skidoo at 11:46 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


This exchange is making me a little uncomfortable because while I think it's undeniable (especially upon reading sawdustbear's tumblr about it) that she's very specifically writing about the intersection of her being an ethnic minority in the US who experiences bigotry with being female and experiencing sexism and how this combination is expressed via people querying her on "where she's from", to disallow wider discussion than this would exclude, say, fourth generation Japanese-American men who experience covert bigotry in the form of this question and surely that's very much on-topic and comparable?

And if we're going to allow that, then it's conceivable that a man who is "white" but grew up or otherwise has long lived somewhere that is a) majority "non-white"; and (importantly) b) where "white" is a racially-discriminated-against ethnicity that lacks (in that society) status and power would also experience something that is on-topic and comparable.

That said, we haven't seen any examples of that in this thread, I don't think.

But even with the things that are farther afield, like what dydecker describes as his experience, I'm very uncomfortable with minimizing or delegitimizing someone's attested, lived experience of being hurt by covert, casual bigotry. Is it very different in many respects and almost certainly less with regard to the hurt that results? Yes, of course. But I really sort of feel like we're not at all in anything like the MRA-style territory here of asserting an egregiously false equivalence as an attempt to delegitimize the attested experience of someone else. I think that the ire is better directed at some of the earlier comments than dydecker's.

But, dydecker, you see, don't you, how sawdustbear's piece is really about a big conjunction of ways in which she experiences bigotry that are all expressed concisely in this specific question, and, as such, she's really describing a relatively extreme experience that shouldn't be casually compared to less extreme but somewhat similar experiences?
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:48 AM on January 11 [3 favorites]


i was responding specifically to dydecker telling me his experiences are exactly the same when i said there were striking differences (involving those intersectional issues). i'm not really sure why i'm getting the push back on that.
posted by nadawi at 11:55 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


"Right, but that's different than asking, "no, where are you *really* from?" when an Asian person says that they're from a non-Asian location."

Yeah, the follow-up should always be something like, "Cool! What's it like there?" or "Really? What part of X?" I'm in LA, like one in ten people is actually from here. The next question I ask after those two is usually something about local beer or food, since people usually love to give their opinions on that stuff and you can learn a lot.

"Having been (mostly) raised in the Midwest, I got this a lot. Probably because there weren't that many Filipinos in mid-Missouri. The questions got a bit irritating at times, but I do think the majority of the people asking them were just genuinely curious.

We children had lost our accents within a couple years of moving here. I was 6.
"

Where I grew up has a university, so there's a moderately-sized Asian community there, but I remember being on a road trip some twelve years ago or so, and one of the people I was crashing with was an internet pal whom I'd never actually spoken to. I knew she was Chinese, but I admit to being surprised by her thick Southern accent. Just one of those unconscious stereotypes; I expected Asian people to sound like they were from the Midwest, California, or from abroad. She took us to some record stores in Springfield, Mo. that were really cool, which was the second surprise of the visit.
posted by klangklangston at 12:09 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised no one mentioned the comedy short "Where are you from?" that illustrates how gross and awful this kind of line of questioning is in a funny way.

The comic really drives the point home about the extra creepiness factor of dudes talking about the submissive stereotype of asian females (I can't believe people say this out loud to strangers), which sounds even worse than the existing racism of the where are you from question.
posted by mathowie at 12:18 PM on January 11 [12 favorites]


that comedy short it absolutely perfect, mathowie - i might have hurt myself a little from laughing. also, i will always and forever love actors read real comments from their video as a genre, but i love it even more than usual in this case.
posted by nadawi at 12:34 PM on January 11


I am a white person whose ancestry is not infrequently guessed at, as in: "Are you Italian? Greek? Spanish? Middle Eastern? Oh, I know- Persian?" No on all fronts, but I look more like people from those countries than the Northern European mutt (with expressive dark eyebrows!) that I am. A big (HUGE) difference between my experience and the author's is that I, like others of N. European ancestry, am not being discriminated against or treated weirdly by people when they play the guessing game. A majority just nod and say something like, “Well! You look like (my idea) of a person from X country!” So it goes in the US, and so it should go for all nationalities/nations. Shing Yin Kor has to put up with stupid racism and stereotypes white folks of uncertain origin do not.
posted by but no cigar at 12:48 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


Where are you from video had a previously


This comment I made in that thread hopefully illustrates how irritating/othering this behavior is.
posted by sweetkid at 12:51 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


I get people telling me that I look "exotic". After a while, that really becomes tiresome. After all, just like Obama, I'm half white. So sooner or later my mind starts feeling the "exotic" as some sort of "one drop" type of racism. And I really don't want to feel that. Oh well.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 1:54 PM on January 11 [6 favorites]


Reading this thread has stirred up a memory from when I spent some time traveling. I was in western Germany on a boat and somehow struck up a conversation with a Chinese man who was vacationing with his wife. The first questions asked were "Where are you from?" and "What do you do for a living?"

Question A resulted in the aforementioned confusion (because nobody knows where Chicago is). Question B resulted in me stammering on about maybe going to into teaching. Somehow the man got around to asking me my major in college, which now seems oddly prying. I actually lied about my major, which is something I had started doing while traveling – I'd usually cycle between English, psychology, and history. I had gotten so tired of giving everyone I met a two sentence summary of my current life status, and those questions made me feel uncomfortable, but I always chalked that up to a personal sensitivity.

But now I realize there was more going on that just my own sensitivity. Questioning a stranger about their career trajectory and where they grew up is a way of implicitly trying to figure out a person's standing in the world, economically, socially, or otherwise. It's a way of trying to puzzle out where you each fit in the pecking order.

Yet I realize that I do this all the time when I meet new people, especially in situations where we are perfect strangers. Ugh.
posted by deathpanels at 2:48 PM on January 11


It's a way of trying to puzzle out where you each fit in the pecking order.

I've watched my Mother-in-law ask someone new what they do for a living, then a few beats later ask (the same person!) what a person in that position typically earns for a living. It's really unpleasant.
posted by mathowie at 2:51 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


i hope that the white guys who are chiming in

nadawi, seriously? And suedehead, to some extent. Maybe, for just a moment, consider that the people you're talking about are members of this site, members who've likely been reading the posts here, and taking part in the discussions that spring up because of them. Please understand that engaging in this place, (and, for that matter, living and breathing outside of here) has an educating effect. Do I claim to know anything about, first person, the author's experience as it relates to being a woman? Hell no, and I said as much. On the other hand, I would like to think that I can empathize, but hey, now empathy is a matter of privilege (according to suedehead)?

I said what I said because some of what she wrote, I have lived. Other parts of what she wrote have directly affected people who are near and dear to me. Still more has been discussed here on Metafilter, and I've heard people here (who are, for the most part, far, but still dear to me) talk about their own experiences.

I always wince when I see stuff like I'm doing right now. I know what's coming next. I'm going to hear about 'oh, there's a white guy complaining about N' and the 'silenced all my life' bullshit. Then again, maybe I should just stop 'chiming in.'
posted by Ghidorah at 4:15 PM on January 11 [5 favorites]


i really don't understand the outrage about my comment. for what is worth i really enjoyed your original comment and thought you did a good job indicating you understood some of her issues were different than your experience.i don't think everyone was quite so circumspect. there's a difference between "here is where i empathise" and "i've had exactly this experience."
posted by nadawi at 4:32 PM on January 11


i loved this. i'm not asian but i am mixed-race with a fairly unusual pairing of backgrounds and i get "where are you from [because you're obviously not from here!]....no really, WHAT ARE YOU" pretty frequently, and i hate the way answering the question honestly makes people start acting like i'm some exotic animal after knowing me for fifteen seconds. i prefer to turn the question back on them, or make them guess, or just answer "ontario" continuously until i can make my escape, but sometimes i'm not that quick on my feet.

i have also noticed that men will sometimes use this is a pickup line and then start projecting their fantasies of mixed-race women onto me, which is just. please no.
posted by sea change at 4:44 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]


especially the racist caricature of the submissive Asian female that she has to deal with all the damn time.

I remember Googling the term "Asian" – nothing else – on Google image search a few years ago and being supremely disappointed in humanity. (I usually have SafeSearch off at home, but it's wasn't that much better with it on.)

Search results are basically the same today.
posted by ignignokt at 5:05 PM on January 11 [4 favorites]


Is it really that bad to ask people where they're from? I ask people that fairly often. Not out of a colonialist mindset but I'm just curious. Sometimes you can have a nice conversation out of it.
posted by PHINC at 5:36 PM on January 11


PHINC, the question may be coming from genuine curiosity, but it can be taken as implying "You are not from here like I am. Your kind are from somewhere else far away."

See the other comments above - many other people who ask that question just don't accept that a non-white person is "from" the USA, and they insist that the person is "really" from somewhere else. If you are an American and have lived there for your entire life, it's frustrating and insulting to hear random people decide that that's not your true identity.
posted by cadge at 5:54 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


It's not that it's bad, exactly. It's just that some of us get asked that question all the damn time, and it gets old and boring, and all too often that question is not-very-subtexted with "No, really, where" and "Oh so exotic!" which is more than old, it's gross. There are many people here explaining that.
posted by rtha at 5:56 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


In my case, when people start with the 'but where are your parents from?' they want to know if I'm jewish or how jewish I am. If they seem genuinely friendly and I'm in a good mood, I'll tell them about my grandparents being born in the Warsaw ghetto. Most of the time I don't feel like feeding people's idle curiosity or baseline racism.
posted by signal at 6:03 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


Is it really that bad to ask people where they're from?

No, it's not. It is a question strangers ask each other everywhere either out of a sense of ritual or out of a real interest.

However it is a question that means different things to different people and if the initial response is curt you should probably move on to talking about the weather.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:16 PM on January 11


When I was younger, the question would piss me off.

Now it no longer does and it took decades to get there. It comes down to one small difficult shift: The realization and acceptance that my self-worth is separate and entirely independent from what people say or do.

So if someone says "Where are you really from?"
Storybored (age 20) thinks: you racist. Fuck you.

while

Storybored (age 50) thinks: I wonder what I can say to find out more about this curious person.

In any case, I feel proud of who I am, what my history is, where my parents came from. No question anyone asks is going to affect that. How can I be angry when I am untouched?
posted by storybored at 6:54 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]


Is it really that bad to ask people where they're from?

PHINC, the question is not an offensive one, but if you're a visible minority or look "ethnic," you know that 99% of the time, the conversation is about to head somewhere seriously annoying. For example, these are good ways to have a "where are you from?" conversation (which never ever happens if you're "ethnic"):

"Where are you from?"
"Toronto." (Answered literally)
"Cool, are you a Leafs fan?" (Answer taken in stride, conversation continues naturally)

OR

"Where are you from?"
"I was born here; my parents are Korean."
"Cool, do you have family there?" OR "Cool, have you ever been there?"

But usually the conversation goes more like this:

"Where are you from?"
"I was born here; my parents are Korean."
"Oh, Korea! Annyonghaseo!" OR "Oh, Korea! I looove bulgogi, you must eat bulgogi all the time, how lucky." OR "Oh, Korea! You know, I've always thought that Korean girls were the most attractive, wink wink."

In my experiences with this type of conversation, I know most people are just trying to be friendly and make conversation. But make a conversation with ME, not my ethnicity.
posted by Rora at 7:11 PM on January 11 [12 favorites]


Questioning a stranger about their career trajectory and where they grew up is a way of implicitly trying to figure out a person's standing in the world, economically, socially, or otherwise.

I think it certainly can contribute to nasty social hierarchy-making. It's also a way for us to connect with each other, and to find something about another person that we can show interest in. I can't see anything wrong with that provided we're aware of the racist and classist ways this kind of question can go, and do our best to avoid hitting those buttons for our conversation partners.

FWIW, I do my where-are-you-from inquiries in the form of "I just moved here X months ago -- I really like it! Did you grow up here, or are you a transplant like me?" Either way it's something to talk about. They can tell me their favorite things about the area we're in, or we can chat about other places we've lived. There are some benefits to not having deep roots much of anywhere. Downside is that if anyone asks me this sort of question, the answer's "uh, it's complicated."

However it is a question that means different things to different people and if the initial response is curt you should probably move on to talking about the weather.

Definitely.
posted by asperity at 7:26 PM on January 11


What would the Yellow Ranger do? Wear her seatbelt, I hope.

But on to the topic at hand...

I read the comic as being more annoyed at the "You're so exotic" comments.

This conversation actually made me start wondering what we mean when we ask "Where are you from?"

If I'm asking that to somebody I'm generally asking "Where were you raised" as well as "Where are you living these days?" That's because I'm curious as to where you grew up as that's the place generally people are most familiar with.

Still, a lot of people do have the usually unintentional stereotype that Asians by default can't be from the U.S. so that may get annoying. I do wonder though why she seems annoyed at somebody saying that her English is perfect after finding out that she's from Malaysia. English isn't an official language of Malaysia and she did say that her parents are of Chinese heritage. I too get "your English is perfect" comments but I understand them even though I've lived 3/4ths of my life in the U.S.

Still, the U.S. really is a nation of immigrants. Anyways, I guess my question is:

When you guys and gals ask somebody "Where are you from" what do you mean? And, also, slightly unrelated/slightly related: At what point do you accept your surroundings as "Home" (note the capital 'H' as mentioned in this thread.)?
posted by I-baLL at 10:53 PM on January 11


Oh, totally forgot to mention:

The "White, white, white, and Will Smith" comment about television reminds me quite a bit of the movie "21".
posted by I-baLL at 10:55 PM on January 11


empathy is a matter of privilege (according to suedehead)?

No, it's not that empathy is a matter of privilege. It's that sometimes other people have experiences that I can not directly empathize with; I can only sympathize.

Sometimes, people have experiences that are outside the bounds of my experience.

My usual response may be to say, "well, maybe their experience X is kind of like my experience Y, but just a little different. Ah, now I see! I understand experience Y."

But that's the kicker: sometimes, these experiences are not comparable. It is not necessarily possible to fully understand what "experience X" is like for that other person. I cannot take the entirety of my experiences and use it as a map or an analogy guidebook to understand the rest of the world with.

Sometimes, there will be experiences that I cannot understand, that I can not see through the lens of my own experience. In response to that, all I can do is to ask a lot of questions and learn about this other person's experience that is totally new. All I can do is attempt to understand and sympathize, and this is very important and powerful.

When this does not happen - when a person in question says, "OH, I know that experience X, it is just like my experience Y!", it is admirably well-intentioned, but short-sighted, because no real kind of communication happens. The person is happy because they have processed and understood the situation according to their own experiences. They have not encountered any new form of reality, nor learned anything new about this other person's unique experience; it could be understood as a form of inadvertent dismissal. And it has not occurred to the person that, in fact, they might not actually understand enough, or that they might not have enough experience about this specific facet to understand 'experience X'.

So what I mean is: we don't know everything. Some people may have a unique experience that we may not have had, or may not be able to have. Who are we all to say that we absolutely empathize and have been there? Perhaps, in fact, we have not been, and will never.

Sympathy is important, and empathy may not always be possible. That is okay, because what's more important is the long, sensitive, and precious task of trying to understand each other by listening and sympathizing, not by casting each others' experiences into versions of our own worldviews.
posted by suedehead at 10:56 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


I-baLL: Every school student in Malaysia learns English their entire schooling career from Std 1 if not earlier. There is a significant amount of media published and broadcast in English. There has been a strong push for being equipped in English for many years. Many universities and colleges conduct classes in English. If you're the sort of Malaysian to migrate anywhere or be an international student, you would have a strong command of English - especially since you won't be granted a visa unless you pass an English test. International television is available in Malaysia - and Johor's close enough to Singapore that you can pick up their TV and radio, which is heavily English-centric.

And even without all that, she has been in the US since she was a teenager.

But thanks for proving the point about stupid assumptions made about non-white people based in Anglophone countries. Now can you see why "your English is very good" is grating? For some of us there was NO CHOICE.

Signed,
A Bangladeshi-Malaysian whose first and primary language is English - and according to the comments on the What Asian Are You thread I shouldn't exist.
posted by divabat at 11:06 PM on January 11 [5 favorites]


Ivan Fyodorovich: I'm very uncomfortable with minimizing or delegitimizing someone's attested, lived experience of being hurt by covert, casual bigotry.

Yes, I am too. I don't want to minimize/delegitimize someone's experience.

But I think it's important to note that these experiences are DIFFERENT. They are not analogous. The stress/pain/othering that expats feel in other countries is very real, and very tangible, and of much importance to be discussed. But this is DIFFERENT from the annoyance/pain of having someone in your country, that you have lived in since you were born, complementing you on your English and asking you where you're "really" from.

One deals with moving somewhere new and constantly feeling like an outsider. Another deals with growing up in an environment that one considers home, which then turns around to accuse oneself of being a foreigner. These experiences are both important, but different.

It's like if someone said: "Well, I was bullied in high school and was a social pariah, which really sucked. So I totally understand what it's like to be gay in the USA." These two are different scenarios, with different contexts, and different meanings. They're both meaningful experiences, but comparing the two just doesn't make any sense.
posted by suedehead at 11:10 PM on January 11 [4 favorites]


""Where are you from?"
"Toronto." (Answered literally)
"Cool, are you a Leafs fan?" (Answer taken in stride, conversation continues naturally)
"

I think you mean:

"Where are you from?"
"Toronto." (Answered literally)
"Oh, fuck the Leafs! Go Wings!" (I'd say Habs, but fuck them too.)
*shirting*
posted by klangklangston at 11:21 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


But thanks for proving the point about stupid assumptions made about non-white people based in Anglophone countries.

So is this the part where I have to apologize for thinking that people from other countries don't automatically speak English? And am I supposed to think that somebody who has moved to the U.S. when 16 will automatically speak perfect English when some people who were born and raised in the U.S. don't speak English very well?
posted by I-baLL at 11:22 PM on January 11


Also:

"Now can you see why "your English is very good" is grating? For some of us there was NO CHOICE."

How is somebody who has never met you before supposed to know that? Especially when they don't know the current history/culture of the origin country?
posted by I-baLL at 11:25 PM on January 11


Is it really that bad to ask people where they're from?

I also feel like there are contexts when it's totally appropriate, and contexts where it's not.

In an airport bar? Sure, ask away.

At a youth hostel? That's the classic conversation starting question and totally expected.

First day of college? These things are bound to come up.

Living in a city where a lot of people are transplants, expats, and immigrants? Fine, but proceed with caution.

Pretty much any other situation, and the person in question is a stranger? Probably not.
posted by Sara C. at 11:37 PM on January 11


I wanted to post this, because it is excellent, but Shing, in addition to being one of my favorite artists, is one of my best friends, so I could not. I'm glad someone did!

She has also used my name when ordering food or coffee because she's so over people not getting hers. I found the confusion funny, but felt bad for her all the same.

As much as I love her adorable (bugs!), creepy (also bugs!), and funny (Marlowe!) other output, I'm glad she's applying her politics and beliefs to her art, and I'm excited to see what she comes up with in the future.
posted by flaterik at 11:42 PM on January 11 [4 favorites]


*raises eyebrow*

...Marlowe? Christopher or Philip or something else?

*secretly hopes it's Philip*
posted by I-baLL at 11:45 PM on January 11


How is somebody who has never met you before supposed to know that? Especially when they don't know the current history/culture of the origin country?

I don't know, I just feel like "your English is so good!" is just kind of a messed up "compliment" in general.

The only time I've ever said it, I was in a country where English definitely wasn't widely spoken, and the person I was speaking to was being overly humble about their fluency level. They said, "I'm sorry my English is so hard to understand," and I said, "No, no, you speak English really well! I can understand everything you say. So don't worry!"

That's a very different conversation than:

ME: Hi there! Do you mind if I ask: where are you from?
STRANGER: Singapore, originally, though I've been in California since high school.
ME: Wow, you speak such good English!

It's just such a presumptuous thing to say unprompted.
posted by Sara C. at 11:45 PM on January 11 [6 favorites]


Oh holy shit, I'm on Metafilter!

To clarify - I speak accentless California English, and have since I was 17(It took about 6 months to lose the accent, although I've been speaking and writing English since I could speak and write). I doubt that there are still any outside indicators of "foreignness" on me, except for race and the propensity to still spell some things in the british manner.

(oh holy crap i'm on Metafilter)
posted by sawdustbear at 11:46 PM on January 11 [39 favorites]


Is it really that bad to ask people where they're from?

In my opinion, no. It's when the asker denies the validity of the answer, ie "where are you really from" that it's insulting and hurtful. This previous post has a lot of MeFite stories about why. Here's mine .
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:58 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


Oh holy shit, I'm on Metafilter!

Deservedly so; this piece is awesome. Well done.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:59 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]


Asking questions are a necessary part of having a conversation with someone. One problem with asking a question like "where are you from" is that almost always, the person asking the question doesn't volunteer their information first. Just like it would be rude of me to walk up to someone and ask their name without introducing myself first, it is also rude to ask someone where they are from without telling them where you are from. By the asker providing their information first it gives some context for the expected answer so the person isn't wondering what is really being asked.

If I want to know when someone moved to Toronto I'll tell them first that I was born here but moved away for university and a few years after that before returning. If I want to know where there ancestors came from I'll start by telling them about my parents and when they came to Canada. It is entirely possible that there is no good way for me to bring this kind of thing up in any given conversation. If that is the case, then maybe I don't need to ask the other person where they are from either.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:30 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


And I make this huge rant on English literacy while blanking on the word "literacy"...
posted by divabat at 12:57 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


I-baLL: why the need to evaluate or assume anyone's language level?

sawdustbear: hello! I think I mangled your name in one of my comments, I'm sorry :(
posted by divabat at 1:08 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


There is an enormous weight of post-colonial and class stuff going on with being white in most Asian countries though, compared to being a historically marginalized minority. Sure you get asked where you come from, and people assume you don't speak the local language and will over-charge you - but you are about a gabillion-times less likely to get harassed by cops on the street, will have prompt retail and restaurant service, people will go out of their way to help you assuming you are a desirable rich foreigner based on ethnicity (white man wearing flip-flops and shorts is still more likely to get served ahead of the neatly dressed office-wear Indian man) and dating wise, you're a social catch.

I have been harassed and profiled negatively for being a white woman in Asia, but overall the extra privileges of race and class far outweigh any negatives, so I can shrug them off as occasional annoyances. If I had to deal with it every day and it was neutral, let alone negative, it's an entirely different and much more intense scale.

Okay, and I just asked one of my kids when he was last asked that question and he said last month he was told to lie about his race by his manager to his boss at a holiday job, because the boss didn't like foreigners, so he said he was chinese when asked, just tanned. I looked horrified, he shrugged and said "Lots of people don't like foreigners, what."

Gah.
posted by viggorlijah at 1:35 AM on January 12 [9 favorites]


oh holy crap i'm on Metafilter

Welcome to Metafilter!

I really appreciate that comic you did- it was thought provoking in the "Do people really do that? Damn that would piss me off!" sense. People really need to know this sort of thing, even the people that are pulling the "This happens to white people too" line.
posted by happyroach at 1:53 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Welcome to Metafilter!

She's been a member since 2009.

posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:02 AM on January 12


What would the Yellow Ranger do? Wear her seatbelt, I hope.


I don't like this
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 4:37 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


why the need to evaluate or assume anyone's language level?

I don't really know. I always took it as a compliment though, like I said previously, I've been living in the U.S. for most of my life but I still get that sometimes so I always thought it was meant as a compliment. I don't get that in other countries though but that's because I don't really speak the languages. I can't really decide what language to learn but that's a whole different thing.
posted by I-baLL at 7:16 AM on January 12


I don't like this

I don't blame you as my joke was crude but, still, people should try to always wear their seat belts as you never know when the car might spin out of control or you might get hit by a drunk driver or what. I've recently had a few friends of mine get hit by a large 18-wheeler but they're okay because they wore their seatbelts.

For those wondering why Ray said that he doesn't like my joke:

Thuy Tang, the actress who played the Yellow Ranger, "Trini Kwan", in the original Power Rangers series, tragically died in 2001 when the car she was in flipped over. One of the other passengers, Angela Rockwood, ended up a quadriplegic from the same accident. So, yeah, wear your seatbelts.
posted by I-baLL at 7:33 AM on January 12


[I-baLL, that was a nasty sideways comment; please don't pursue this further here.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:39 AM on January 12


Welcome to Metafilter!
She's been a member since 2009.


Wow, you speak mefi so well!
posted by signal at 12:59 PM on January 12 [12 favorites]


Many years ago, I took part in a Christmas toy giveaway for inner-city kids in which a bunch of us were issued costumes and posed with kids for photos. I was the pink Power Ranger. (I'm Asian.)

One little girl I posed with said, "But you're the yellow Power Ranger!"

I leaned in conspiratorially and told her, "That's right. My suit is at the cleaners, and I had to borrow this one. Don't tell anybody!"

She seemed kind of in awe at sharing this secret with a Power Ranger.
posted by salix at 7:01 PM on January 16 [5 favorites]


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