But where are you REALLY from?
May 25, 2013 6:27 PM   Subscribe

i was able to speed read that conversation because i've totally had one very similar to it manymanytimes.

if this laptop wasn't brand new, i'd throw it out of the window in empathy/anger.

(or laugh, as these types of conversations remind me of the only funny dialogue from the generally-unfunny King of the Hill.)
posted by raihan_ at 6:57 PM on May 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's a shiny brutal truth that people who cannot pigeonhole you correctly will just stuff you into a slot no matter what you say.

I can't even begin to count the similar conversations I've had, and I'm not even a Third Culture Kid, just an Asian American born in the Midwest.
posted by spamandkimchi at 7:19 PM on May 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

I had an Asian American lab partner when I was taking Organic Chemistry at NC State U who got really quiet when I asked her where she was from. All I meant was, where did you grow up? in the sense that most folks who attend that particular school did not grow up in Raleigh and so I frequently asked people I met where they were from. She explained that most people who asked her that didn't believe her when she said Kernersville, NC.

I was 23 and that conversation blew my white girl mind. It was one of those big a-ha! moments about privilege and race that I needed to have.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:27 PM on May 25, 2013 [8 favorites]

Oh, I also wanted to share this secondhand anecdote. My friend who is an American citizen raised nearly entirely in the U.S. was stopped at immigration in Heathrow Airport on her way back to the U.S. from Southern Europe. She is of indeterminate brownness thanks to summer sun and a mixed ethnic background. Immigration officers grill her on the suspicious Russian language books in her luggage - are these bomb making manuals? "It's Russian poetry." They make her recite Russian poetry to prove that it was indeed poetry and not terrorism how-to-books. They hold her for hours in a detention room at the airport. At one point, they threaten to deport her. She says fine, deport me so I can go back home. They say no, they are deporting her to Iran. Her American passport states her birthplace, Teheran, Iran. She just stares at them. Eventually they decide that this brown person might actually be American and let her get on the next plane to NYC.
posted by spamandkimchi at 7:27 PM on May 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had one, very embarrassing, conversation like this (thankfully much shorter!) a few years ago. I played the clueless part.

The cringing sensation I feel, thinking back on that particular piece of idiocy, informs how I talked with a co-worker who was clearly South Asian and wearing a Longhorns t-shirt.

I'd like to think I'm not that stupid now, but I know I am only finding NEW and INNOVATIVE ways to make mistakes.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:41 PM on May 25, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'm from Pakistan, I grew up in Pakistan (something which I don't think you can say unless you spent your adolescent/pubertal/teen years in a place) and I came here at the tail end of my teens. Yet I have a completely different issue for very similar reasons.

Everyone assumes that I'm American because I don't have an accent. In fact, that's the first thing that everyone says when they find out. Yes, great, not everyone needs to have an accent. For some reason it's inconceivable for people that this could be the case. This one factor seems to counteract anything else that is "ethnic" or foreign about myself, my behavior, my mannerisms.

On the other hand, for Americans asking me this question, what they seem to be asking is where I grew up in the states and where I went to school, which I still can't fully wrap my head around what feels like such an entrenched (and borderline depressing) mode of life (grow up, get kicked out at 18 or insist on leaving home to go to college elsewhere in the continental US) such that these questions are what is actually implied in "where are you from?"
posted by legospaceman at 7:43 PM on May 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

Wow, this just set off my white-hot rage fuse.

My husband is just barely a second generation Syrian-American. And by just barely, I mean his father was very nearly born on the journey from Syria to the US. I dunno if Teta crossed her legs really hard or what, but my FIL was born two days after his family arrived in the US.

The Maus used to travel for business quite a bit, and a couple years ago, he was pulled aside at DTW for "extra screening". The agent asked him "So, where are you from?", and was vexed when the answer was "Toledo". "No, where are you from?" He elaborated: "Toledo, Ohio." The agent pressed on. "No, where were you born?" Confused, the Maus answered "Mercy Hospital, in Toledo, Ohio." The agent continued. "Where is your family from?" And Maus was getting angry. "My mother was born in Loudon, Ohio, and my father was born in Toledo, Ohio. He's a Korean War veteran! What are you really asking me?"

He missed his flight, because this agent at DETROIT METRO apparently had a hard time believing that people of Middle-Eastern descent could actually be citizens. How can you be anywhere near Detroit and not see Middle-Eastern folk on the regular? Hello, Dearborn?? (Or Toledo, for that matter!)

He now carries his passport EVERYWHERE. We recently got Elder Monster his passport, as well, because he's a clone of his old man. Younger Monster looks like me, and never gets a second glance.

Fucking morons.
posted by MissySedai at 7:58 PM on May 25, 2013 [37 favorites]

A guy in my Freshman dorm was named Rajeev, and was dark as fresh coffee. He was also from Memphis, and had the ridiculous twang in his voice to prove it. I think that listening to him talk was the biggest mind expander I had that whole year. :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 8:04 PM on May 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

I had someone refuse to believe that I was not a native Irishwoman once. I have reddish hair, pale skin, freckles, and, I have been told, a noticeable Maryland accent. Also, I am entirely of Eastern European Jewish descent.

People are really dumb. They are even dumber towards people that look different from them.
posted by nonasuch at 8:05 PM on May 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

The blogger should have just said "Canada" when asked "where are you really from?" and follow it up with a blank stare. Unnecessary backstory only confuses and aggravates the hillbillies even more.
posted by Renoroc at 8:15 PM on May 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Along similar lines: In Auckland at the hotel I asked the friendly guy who checked me in where he was from. He didn't look Kiwi, but rather a bit - well, not Kiwi. So he said from here. I said, OK, sure, but where are you really from. "From here". OK. And your family? "From here".

Well, with a friendly smile on his face he explained to me that he is a Māori and is truly from here.

Lesson learned.
posted by nostrada at 8:17 PM on May 25, 2013 [22 favorites]

My mom's approach to this type of "unassuming" racism was wonderful in one particular instance:

We had to take the bus after dropping our car off at the mechanic. An older white gent (who--for sake of visuals--looked kinda like santa claus) starts talking to her saying "oh, you're very beautiful."

My mom stays expressionless, as if she can't even process what he's saying.

The gent turns to me. "Son, you speak English, right? Tell her she's stunning." I turn to her and sweetly tell her in Bengali that this dude is an idiot. She smiles and nods.

A few minutes later, we get off at near a Starbucks in DTLA; the gentleman happens to be in line behind us.

My mom drops her voice a bit and says to me (again, in Bengali) "hey, this is what you call a slap in the face..." before turning to the guy and saying in her very peppy voice (which sounds like a cross of British schoolgirl and valley girl) "Oh! Fancy seeing you here?! What kind of coffee are you getting?".

Santa Claus turned redder than a Santa coat. It was amazing.

On my end, I confuse the hell out of my customers when I start speaking fluent Spanish. They're shocked and stoked all at once. :)
posted by raihan_ at 8:20 PM on May 25, 2013 [16 favorites]

On the other hand, for Americans asking me this question, what they seem to be asking is where I grew up in the states and where I went to school, which I still can't fully wrap my head around what feels like such an entrenched (and borderline depressing) mode of life (grow up, get kicked out at 18 or insist on leaving home to go to college elsewhere in the continental US) such that these questions are what is actually implied in "where are you from?"

I think for a lot of people - maybe even most (she says with great hope) - this is just a way of finding something to talk about. "Oh, hey, my roommate/friend/SO is from there/from near there." or "I've been there! Is that ice cream place/coffee shop/bookstore still there?" or even "I've never been there, what's it like?"

I do habitually ask people where they're from, something left over from my exchange student days, and it has often led to hilarious and enlightening conversations. When I was in Chicago earlier this month, I had a cabbie remark upon the weather being some of the most mercurial since he had moved there. "Oh, no kidding. Where are you from then? 'Cause the weather in Ohio has been stupid for about half my life." There was a pause, and a sort of sizing up in the mirror, and he cautiously replied "I came from Palestine about 15 years ago." I laughed. "So, you traded in nice weather for Chicago?" This man cracked right the hell up! "NO! We get snow there! We go skiing and everything!" It was a wonderful 20 minutes with a funny, personable dude who was thrilled to pieces to talk about his homeland and not have to feel self-conscious about it. He was so...joyful. Palestine is now on my list of Places I Must Visit.
posted by MissySedai at 8:21 PM on May 25, 2013 [8 favorites]

Yeah, the inevitable line about "wow, you speak English so well!" is a very good way to get on my nerves. I know you mean well, but I wasn't looking for your approval. This inevitable comment makes it hard to talk about my childhood or my family or relatives, because it always leads to this inevitable derail. Not to mention that it's impossible to explain why this comment irritates me ("But I was trying to pay you a compliment!" "Well, sure, and I'm really impressed by what a great job you're doing walking around on your two legs!").
posted by Nomyte at 8:21 PM on May 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am white Anglo and people have trouble grasping that I am and always have been an American citizen, but I grew up in Canada, on a permanent resident visa, and I now am a resident of Australia. When you mix prejudices about ethnicity, race, culture, language, and religion into the already apparently intellectually challenging matter of immigration status, things must get awfully ugly. People are dumb even when you're privileged (e.g. overeducated white Anglo US passport holder) and they can probably only get dumber if you're not.
posted by gingerest at 8:24 PM on May 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

Growing up in California I used to get annoyed on behalf of my "Chinese" classmates. "Dude, his family has been in the U.S. for 150 years..."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:29 PM on May 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think, for Americans, this is also a naive extension of what I call the "family myth". Many people in the USA like to talk about being "from" somewhere. Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, you know, where ever their ancestors originated. They might have been sharecroppers in the 1700s, but they're still "half-Dutch". There's no tangible sense of history in the place for most people, so they/we have to invent it, and being from Delaware or from Arkansas - even if roots run generations deep - just isn't interesting enough.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 8:42 PM on May 25, 2013 [13 favorites]

Both these people are terrible at having a conversation. Typically, "Where are you from?" (which is one of the very most common getting-to-know-you questions) leads to sharing a bunch of information about your life story in a free-flowing, easy-going way. There should not be this much back-and-forth interrogation. That's not a conversation, it's a deposition.
posted by John Cohen at 8:45 PM on May 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

I get that 'where are you from?' a lot myself. I do wear a scarf. In Bosnia, people just assumed I was Turkish. The last Turks in the family tree were among the Turks who conquered Bosnia, and that was in the 1400s.
Here people assume I am foreign born. I have had to pull out my passport a time or two. I was born here. My mother's side which does have that little bit of Turkish and Bosnian also had Native American and has people who fought in the American Revolution.
On her side, I am about as American as you can get.
My father was only 3rd gen. His people were mostly Russian.
My kids REALLY get it because their father was born in India.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:47 PM on May 25, 2013

I get that 'where are you from?' a lot myself.

So does everyone who's not a hermit. It's one of the most common getting-to-know-you questions along with "What's your name?" and "What do you do?"
posted by John Cohen at 8:49 PM on May 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Man, I get this all the time. I'm ethnically Indian, grew up in Hong Kong, live in Australia. I went to a British school in HK, so I have a rather English accent. People get really confused by it despite that Australia is an immigrant nation.

I recently saw the Aussie comic Matt Okine talk about this; he distilled it nicely. What people are really want to know when they ask 'No, but where are you really from?' is 'WHY. ARE YOU. BLACK?!'

Yeah, the inevitable line about "wow, you speak English so well!" is a very good way to get on my nerves.

Yeah, mine too. It's my native language, man. It had better be good.

My parents speak five languages. My father spent decades working the construction industry in Hong Kong, speaking to the bosses in English, the workers and Cantonese or Hindi (there were lots of Indian and Nepali labourers). He'd hop over to Macau and negotiate in Portuguese. He must have caused a lot of initial confusion.

Even now, we go to yum cha, and he'll start bellowing at the waiters, leaving bewildered wait staff wondering how this perfect picture stereotype of the Indian tourist speaks perfect Cantonese.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:52 PM on May 25, 2013 [26 favorites]

what they seem to be asking is where I grew up in the states and where I went to school, which I still can't fully wrap my head around what feels like such an entrenched (and borderline depressing) mode of life (grow up, get kicked out at 18 or insist on leaving home to go to college elsewhere in the continental US) such that these questions are what is actually implied in "where are you from?"

FWIW, outside of a few huge cities*, this is mostly asked contextually.

For instance, in a college town, or at a popular vacation spot, or while waiting at the gate in an airport. Places where it's assumed that none of the speakers are truly from that place.

Other times, it's more that the person asking can detect a faint whiff of "not from around here". A slight regional accent, an unfamiliar sports jersey, a distinctive aesthetic. I'm constantly seeing clues that people I encounter are from my home state. To which, if I can strike up a conversation, I'll ask, "Where are you from?" Because I know their answer will be Louisiana, and then we can make small talk and feel like we're connecting to each other.

Still other times "Where are you from?" is an accusation -- I can tell you're an outsider, don't think you're passing with me. In my hometown growing up, I was constantly asked where I was from. Despite the fact that I was from there, my dad was from there, my grandmother was from there, and all the way back to the eighteenth century when John Law recruited Alsatians to be part of his Company Of The Mississippi. The reason I was asked was because I was "different". Even though I wasn't actually foreign. Some people just felt the need to remind me that I didn't belong. For Reasons.

*Which, I mean, how did you think places like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles got to be so big? Also this is a huge American narrative in terms of the immigrant experience, settling of the west, etc. In fact, you could probably write an American history book and call it "Where Are You From?"
posted by Sara C. at 8:54 PM on May 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

the Aussie comic Matt Okine

New Favoritest Ever.
posted by Sara C. at 9:04 PM on May 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

Typically, "Where are you from?" (which is one of the very most common getting-to-know-you questions) leads to sharing a bunch of information about your life story in a free-flowing, easy-going way.

This may not be as typical as you'd like it to be.

I'm just grateful that I haven't really had a version of this conversation in well over a decade. Whew.
posted by rtha at 9:18 PM on May 25, 2013

Argh. Why do people have to be such stupid fucking racist idiots?
posted by medusa at 10:14 PM on May 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Re: the "Where are you *from*" video clip...

The saddest thing is one time I asked this dude where he was from, because he looked a bit like my first girlfriends boyfriend she dated before she dated me. He said California, so I just said "oh..."

Then he said "Yeah, my mom's originally from Japan (or some place in Asia, I really didn't pay attention or think much of it)".

And I said "I thought you might have been from (my hometown)..."

Then he's like "Oh... I just thought... I get asked where I'm from because of my unique look (half-Asian/half-Caucasian)"

Then I realized that it sounded like I was asking that bullshit and it never crossed my mind, but it made me realize how often that happens, and the guys default statement to deal with it.
posted by symbioid at 10:28 PM on May 25, 2013

I grew up on the prairies, and live in the Midwest, and I have no problem with "Where are you from?", but rather with the follow up "No, where are you really from?" because the answer to both questions is the same. Color of my skin notwithstanding, I don't have a lot of connection to the cultures or countries that my parents immigrated from, and I really am from the place where I grew up. Asking the second question means that you were disingenuous about the first; you didn't want to know about me--my life, my history, my experiences--you want to know about my skin, and its history, and what business it has being here.

Ask about the former, genuinely, and you probably will find that the latter is irrelevant.
posted by iceberg273 at 10:29 PM on May 25, 2013 [15 favorites]

I kinda have the opposite problem; my family emigrated from HK to Vancouver, Canada when I was very young, well before the great exodus (and return). Circa early '80s. FTR, I say "Vancouver, Canada. Was born in HK).

Now that I'm old-ish and still in Van (well, Richmond for work), so many people I encounter expect me to be fluent in Mandarin (it used to be Cantonese) such that my new boss' boss starts every conversation with me in Mandarin until my boss reminds him that I don't understand.

Was a phenotypic "outsider" growing up, left for college in Iowa and had the outsider role thrust upon me, came back and I'm still an outsider.

Have met a couple of other people in similar situations, and being an "honourary" CBC (Canadian born Chinese) has probably been the least offensive pidgeonholing.
posted by porpoise at 10:35 PM on May 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Typically, "Where are you from?" (which is one of the very most common getting-to-know-you questions) leads to sharing a bunch of information about your life story in a free-flowing, easy-going way.
But if someone doesn't accept the answer s/he is given, then it isn't about getting to know the other person - it becomes a demand for further explanation, an expression of disbelief, or a microaggression. I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, but I also don't have to contend with racist bullshit all day every day, so I can more safely assume that They Don't Mean Anything by It. (Again, privilege.)
posted by gingerest at 10:35 PM on May 25, 2013 [11 favorites]

This thread brought up a really weird memory for me. Of this ad I saw when I was a kid, that addressed this exact kind of unthinking assumption. But I couldn't really remember it properly - just that it had something about making assumptions about race and nationality.

But, we live in an age of wonders and miracles. Seriously. Some obsessive weirdo uploaded it - a Nescafe ad from the mid-90s - to YouTube.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:25 PM on May 25, 2013 [12 favorites]

Yeah, the inevitable line about "wow, you speak English so well!" is a very good way to get on my nerves.

My usual response to comments such as that would often be: "Why thank you! So do you."

I'd complain about this where-are-you-really-from shit a bit more hadn't it been for the fact that the Indian embassies worldwide do this as a matter of official policy when non-Indians apply for visas. You have to state all your previous nationalities, and your parents' past and present nationalities. If you've had to state Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka in any of this huge matrix, you are in for some heightened scrutiny.

It is BS, is what it is.
posted by the cydonian at 11:36 PM on May 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

I literally just got home from a party where I overheard the following conversation:

Woman A: I'm so glad there's vegetarian food here oh my god because I'm a vegetarian. Are you a vegetarian too?*
Woman B, of Asian descent: Oh, no I'm not actually [gestures to half-eaten bacon-wrapped BBQ pickle in her hand]
A: Oh. Because a lot of people like … are vegetarian. Where are you from?
B: Calgary.
A: No I mean, like, where you're from are a lot of people vegetarians?
B: No, there aren't a lot of vegetarians in Calgary.

*I am, myself, a vegetarian. This person was both a vegetarian and an imbecile, those two qualities being unrelated.

posted by wreckingball at 11:44 PM on May 25, 2013 [14 favorites]

Kind of reminds me of when my mate was proud to be traveling the world on his Tongan passport. When he crossed the border from Myanmar to Thailand (a fair few years back, before the internet or smartphones were ubiquitous), he got stopped by the guards. Tonga wasn't on their list of accepted countries. Or their list of denied countries. Or any list.

He tried to show them where it was on a map of the world. But it wasn't on that, either.

They just kept asking where he was really from, and why he didn't have a proper country on his passport. Eventually they decided that mai pen lai, he can chuck us some money under the table, and we'll just let him through. When he got back to Australia, he binned his Tongan passport and got an Aussie one.

Um. The end.
posted by Sedition at 12:59 AM on May 26, 2013 [11 favorites]

"I think for a lot of people - maybe even most (she says with great hope) - this is just a way of finding something to talk about."

American here. I almost never ask people "where they're from", the exception being very specific contexts (such as meeting people who are traveling). However, I think one of the strongest bits of generalizing about people I do, and which I think is perhaps unusually and idiosyncratically very important to me, is about where people grew up. And that tends to come up naturally in conversation.

Pretty much all the people I know more than briefly, I build histories of them as I learn details (and it took me at least two decades of my adult life to become aware that other people generally don't remember this stuff like I do) and for me a keystone of that narrative is where they grew up. In my head, I classify people that way, I think in terms of what I know about the regional subcultures, and then what I know of them informs and refines the regional knowledge.

I've come to realize that this is excessive and misleading in some cases. But it's such a powerful and long-standing habit of mind, I don't really know how to change it. I can't necessarily tell you where everyone I know was born, but I almost always know where they went to secondary school.

Oh, also, on re-read, I realize that I want to qualify what I wrote about how I generalize in this way. I'm not generalizing based upon regional stereotypes, although probably when I was young I did. Rather, I find that what matters to me about this regionalism are the myriad things that are important to the people who live there — geography, food, history, even sports teams and politics and business/industry, all the things that people tell you about where they're from that creates a sense of place. Because I grew up in New Mexico and that's pretty different from growing up in Ohio or Hawaii. It's not that as people either collectively or individually we're that different in essential ways; it's that each mosaic of place-specific details is unique, it's usually an important part of how people understand themselves and their social identity. Military kids and similar have their own recognizable histories, too.

The "where are you really from" as it regards ethnicity — that's kind of shocking to me, I'm virtually certain that I've never asked this of anyone, ever, in this way. I might ask about ethnicity, but my sense is that either that's volunteered, or obvious, or if neither of those, then I don't really care. I'm shocked and saddened to learn that other people (mostly those of color, I assume) are asked this question, and in this way.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:08 AM on May 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm a white guy from a part of Canada that rarely produces such. Living in Toronto, I get this all the time: "But you're not, like, from there, right?"

The difference is, as a white guy, that's pretty much where the conversation ends. I've never been made to feel less like a Canadian as a result of the questioning; it's more just incredulity on their part that I could be from there as opposed to being from another part of Canada, which they would be entirely comfortable accepting. I can't imagine having a conversation that not only includes the incredulity, but also that unspoken suggestion that you don't really belong. That's awful, and turns what's a mild annoyance for me into a much, much bigger issue for others.
posted by ZaphodB at 1:19 AM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

So much of the population of New Mexico was born here that I usually say "Are you from here?" or "Did you grow up here?" instead of "Where are you from?". It avoids the "where are you REALLY from" connotations that you can get asking people of color that question. That works less well in places with a more migratory population, though.
posted by NoraReed at 1:20 AM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

My dad, who strongly resembles Leonard Nimoy, has been getting this from every angle for years. He worked in the defense industry, where they are understandably, if usually incompetently, "foreigner" minded.
He's been subjected to scrutiny, arrest, and threats of deportation for not having his green card for being:
Russian/Eastern Bloc (1970s)
East Indian (1980s)
Mexican/Central American (1990s)
Arab/Middle Eastern (Currently)
At least the first and the last were in the right direction.
He's a 1G American Ashkenaz/Baltic Jew born, raised, and strongly accented from Philadelphia. The only language he speaks is American English. His passport is USA, as were his security clearances.
posted by Dreidl at 2:42 AM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a white guy (so not the subject of the posted dialogue) living in Asia and working with people from all over, and meeting new people all over, this happens all the time--in both the innocent and clueless varieties. At an international conference, I'll answer "The States" and people will say "No, I mean where do you live/work?" If I answer, "Tokyo" they'll say "No, where are you really from? Canada?" But, it's just miscommunication, not disbelief.

Once saw a great linguistics talk by a guy with an amalgamation of Pakistan and Scotland via California in his backstory. He had the very generous solution to correct any possible ambiguity. Answer the question with a question. He suggested:

"Where are you from?"
"You mean most recently?"
And, if they say "Yeah, which school?/I mean which hotel?/Which company?" it's all good. Just conference banter, or he's given them enough cover to walk it back and think.
And, if they reply "No, where are you really from?" then, you can't fix stupid.

I try to go for "Where are you based?" as a more neutral question.
posted by Gotanda at 2:52 AM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes - Toronto now has so many people from other countries that I've been in the situation where I've been asked, "Where are you from," and the asker didn't believe me when I said Canada. But the difference between Toronto and the rest of Canada is that I'm white and the asker was not - it wasn't a race issue, just that they really hadn't met many people who were born in Canada with no recent immigration history.

(Experiences like this are what make me so annoyed at Americans who assume that Canada is less diverse than the US, when we have a higher proportion of immigrants and more people who don't speak English as a first language.)

I do ask people, "Where did you grow up?" or "Are you from Toronto," because I think that where someone lived when growing up is really interesting and part of their character - but I expect an answer like "Windsor" or "Calgary" (but rarely Vancouver because no one there will move east). Sometimes someone will answer, "Well, I was born in [country x] but I moved to Canada when I was one..." and then I feel bad.
posted by jb at 4:52 AM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Toronto is fascinating for this, because of its diversity- I've had conversations with people who've asked me this question, and then asked the person who I was with, and who I grew up with, the same thing but started into the whole "No, but where are you from..." song-and-dance. I leave my friend's skin tone to the reader's imagination.

For a long time, in Canada, it was basically a way of saying "funny, you don't look White." (actually, I imagine in some parts of Canada, and for some people, it still is. You get a lot of weird casual, unconscious and sort of old-fashioned racism here)

On the other hand, these days people are more likely to be surprised that I was actually born in Toronto, because, like, no one is really born in Toronto.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:17 AM on May 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was also working at a coffee shop in a neighbourhood dominated by recent immigrants, and most of the customers and my boss and all but one other staff member were all born outside of Canada, so I think they were surprised that I didn't have any ethnicity/nationality other than "Canadian" to claim. Sometimes people would try to guess - German, Turkish - as if you can actually tell to look at someone.
posted by jb at 5:34 AM on May 26, 2013

I live in Toronto. A few weeks ago, I was in the hardware store and one of the employees, out of nowhere, came up toe and asked me what my background was. For whatever reason, people- complete strangers- seem to think they have the right to pressure me about this information. I'm obviously a minority, but not a clearly identifiable one. For whatever reason, this makes me public property.

It's usually men who ask this question and it's usually how they open the door to start hitting on me. (Although all kinds of people do it, I've gotten it from employers, customers, cab drivers, newly introduced aquaintences, all sorts- and it's not just white Canadians who do it). I find it infuriating. I used to say "I'm adopted and nobody knows anything about my parents" and then I moved on to "why do you ask?" It's astonishing how incredibly ashamed many people are when I ask that- they know that they are being rude (at best), and they still asked. The ones who aren't ashamed I know at least might be asking in good faith. My latest response is to describe my educational background and act very confused when they push for racial information. I used to answer with the name of the canadian city I was born in, but then people just tighten the thumbscrews and start asking about my parents or my ethnicity.

When I was a little younger I wrote an angry poem about men who hit on me this way and want to use me because they think I'm "exotic" or whatever. I have never, nor will I ever, willingly gone to bed with someone who hassled me about this stuff. being hassled about my race doesn't make me horny, motherfucker.

One interesting experience is that, since it's not clear what my background is, how many people will decide that I "look" a certain race; it's fascinating at least.
posted by windykites at 5:46 AM on May 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

Yeah, the inevitable line about "wow, you speak English so well!" is a very good way to get on my nerves.

I'm a pale dude who was born and raised in Canada and while I have travelled a fair bit, I have spent 90% of my life living here. I have little personal experience of this question, but little is not zero: twenty years ago I was living in the Middle East and spent a lot of time in Cairo. Cairo was at that time visited by many German tourists; I was tall, quite blond from the sun, lean enough in those days to be angular, and wore steel-rimmed glasses; I never thought about it until I got there, but I suppose I did look a bit Teutonic (my immigrant ancestors were by and large from the Celtic Fringe or from Scandinavia). Mostly this was revealed to me by shopkeepers asking me hesitantly, "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" before engaging in conversation.

Once, though, a European backpacker couple walked up to me and the guy did not even ask if I spoke German, so confident was he of my nationality. He just spoke directly to me: "Entschuldigen, bitte, können Sie uns sagen, wie das Museum von Kairo zu finden?" ("Excuse me, please, can you tell us how to find the Cairo Musem?")

I had taken four years of German in school, so I understood and didn't bother to correct him, but just answered in my (accented) German: "Ja, genau. Gehen Sie vier Blöcke hier entlang und biegen Sie rechts auf dieser Moschee..." ("Yes, of course. Walk four blocks along here and turn right at that mosque...")

His girlfriend or travelling companion was British and perhaps did not speak German. She turned to him and asked him, "Oooh, also ask him where we can find a post office." I replied directly to her in English. She said, "Your English is really good!"

I said, "Thanks, so is yours."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:22 AM on May 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

Yes - Toronto now has so many people from other countries that I've been in the situation where I've been asked, "Where are you from," and the asker didn't believe me when I said Canada.

I think Pierre Berton once observed that more than half of Toronto's population was born abroad and some 90% of the Canadians there were arrivals from elsewhere (Berton himself was born in Whitehorse and spent his childhood in Dawson City). He wrote this meant that when Torontonians heard that the rest of Canada did not care for Toronto, we all instinctively thought, "Well, they don't mean me, they mean someone else."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:35 AM on May 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is totally why I have become very, very careful to ask everyone "where did you go to school?" or "did you grow up in [city where thing is taking place]?" because even "where did you grow up?" can sound like you're exoticizing someone.

Actually, one thing that I've realized about my social milieu - it's generally considered in poor taste to ask most sorts of questions about people's past until you know them fairly well, regardless of people's race. Partly this is because there are plenty of queer or trans people who are estranged from their families and have overridingly bad memories of home. Partly this is because some folks were pretty broke as kids, and it feels awkward to have to explain or reference that. This is actually a bit hard for me to remember, since while I had a childhood with many therapy-requiring aspects, I am on good terms with my family and find it easy to talk about them, at least the small-talk version.

In general, I think, it's good to leave all questions about place, race or ethnicity, family, money and so on until quite late in the acquaintance. It's so much easier to talk about books or movies or snacks instead, and you don't risk making the other person uncomfortable.

On a side note, there are some pretty great essays on that blog. The "methodological note" that pops up [by the blog-runner, not the OP writer] on the front page is very interesting - about a historiography of Pakistan.
posted by Frowner at 6:53 AM on May 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've noticed a rise in "where's your family from" instead of the usual "where are you from" questions - I'm not sure if this is because of people like me who say something boring like "I'm from Boston."

About a year and a half ago, I was coming back from a vacation in St. Lucia. I have an ambiguously unusual name that most people have never heard of. On looks alone, I tend to get assumed for being either Latina or Middle Eastern (I have neither of which in my background, though 23andMe guesstimates me as being "<.1% Middle Eastern or North African").

I hand the passport agent my US passport. He asks me "where are you from?" I reply "uh, the US. I was born in Boston." He rephrases - "where's your family from?" "India & Italy" I tell him.

Then there was the dermatologist who told me that I shouldn't have to worry about skin cancer because I'm "from that part of the world." Till this day, I still have no freakin' idea what part of the world he thought I was from - and gave him a heads up that my mom died of melanoma.

I get that some people are just curious. In person, I think people place me into an assumed box (aforementioned ambiguously Latina or Middle Eastern), but once they learn my name, that usually draws the "where are you from/what's your background/where's your family from/where were you born" questions. They're awkward questions that don't have a quick and easy answer, but I also think it's at least slightly better than drawing up assumed conclusions. But then again I just generally like to prove people wrong and stump them. I feel like it's a small success when the conversation turns to "so why don't you have a Boston accent?"
posted by raztaj at 7:02 AM on May 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

The linked conversation is obviously a product of extreme ignorance, but I don't think it's racist to ask where someone is from per se, or at least that never crossed my mind as a white person travelling in India. I just took it as polite curiosity.
posted by walrus at 7:11 AM on May 26, 2013

My latest response is to describe my educational background and act very confused when they push for racial information.

Oh, man this reminds me of an awkward situation/social faux pas of my own.

When I first started working in my field, I had a sort of informational interview with a production manager friend of my boss. Just to sort of pick his brain about career type questions.

At this point, I really didn't know what kind of educational background beyond film school would lead someone into film as a career, knew nothing about the production side of film, and was curious about what kinds of interests and previous experience led most people into the industry aside from "I really like movies a lot".

It should be said that this guy was sort of ethnically ambiguous. But honestly that wasn't foremost on my mind.

So it's the beginning of the interview, and I ask him, "What's your background?" Expecting to get "I went to school X and majored in Y and I was really interested in Z which led me to..."

Instead, I got an awkward silence, a strange look and, "Moroccan Jewish, actually."
posted by Sara C. at 7:57 AM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Having lived in two very transplant- and transient-heavy cities, I've found that the question "So, are you a [city name] native?" is a good one, because if they are, you can ask questions about how things changed etc. and if they're not, then follow-up questions are less likely to come off sounding like "Oh you're not white or black so you must not *really* be American."
posted by rtha at 8:43 AM on May 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

On the other hand, maybe it's ok that people ask about other people's origins, and not really harmful in most instances (obviously not customs agents) that some assumptions are made based upon someone's looks. Maybe it's those conversations, when handled respectfully, that educate the unintentionally ignorant.
posted by cman at 9:06 AM on May 26, 2013

No problem with this type of conversation at all. Allows people to open up their minds a bit and understand that it isn't always easy to assign people to a single identity.

The multiple identities people are having as the world gets smaller is very interesting.
posted by tarvuz at 9:34 AM on May 26, 2013

The multiple identities people are having as the world gets smaller is very interesting.

I was born in the Philippines, hold a Canadian passport, and have lived in Boston for over half of my life. Normally, when people ask "where are you from?" I usually ask for clarification\specificity right away, "do you mean where do I live now? what my ethnic heritage is? why I still think in metric?" It's definitely gotten easier to twig to people who are asking for it as some kind of outgroup classification prelude -- there are cues to tone and body language that can lead with that, and many times, I'll just say "Canada" to provoke them.

However, living in a city with a huge, rotating grad population, there are those who are looking for the opportunity to display some kind multicultural awareness ("let me try my Tagalog on you!", "oh my god, I used to do a hockey exchange program with this school in Quebec!") and I'm usually ok with that.

The thing that throws me for a loop sometimes, especially, if I get into the whole three-part heritage deal, are folks who then ask as a some variant "so what's your chosen cultural identity?"

and it sounds kind of petty and over-weeningly self-important but after spending most of my life living in places that I could not claim, my answer is: "whatever you are, I am not going to be at least one of those."
posted by bl1nk at 10:14 AM on May 26, 2013

I have been asked for directions in so many countries, usually in languages I don't speak. (I think I look friendly and harmless, though not always.) If I speak their language I offer to share my map, and if I don't, I shrug and smile, and still offer to share my map.

I don't have a problem talking with strangers, but the visible assumption that they have guessed my origin and so know what language to use with me is the funny part. Especially when they switch to (chagrinned) English. I am a tall, reddish-haired, and freckled person who usually has on earphones and carries a backpack, and kind of shout out "American!" to most observers.

(An entirely other kettle of fish: my accent still confuses people, too: I got asked just yesterday where I am from. When I was a kid in Minnesota some thought I was from England or Europe, and now folks still have trouble placing my origin. Let 'em guess!)
posted by wenestvedt at 10:15 AM on May 26, 2013

This reminds me, actually, of wandering around a Turkish market during a couple of days last year. The pitchmen were very vocal and a lot knew a handful of greetings in different languages, and they'd call out to people in whatever language they figured the person spoke, based on their appearance: German, Italian, Spanish, whatever. They seemed generally pretty good at picking these things out, but for me and my then-girlfriend, both ethnically ambiguous in terms of appearance, it became a matter of pride that we got about as wide a range of guesses as possible. (The high point was Hebrew followed by Italian, from the same guy.)
posted by ZaphodB at 10:27 AM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's an askmefi from a few years ago that relates to this thread.
posted by gudrun at 10:40 AM on May 26, 2013

It's interesting to see how many folks see this question "where are you from?" as just friendly small talk but that most can also see that the follow-up "no, where are you really from?" as problematic. A lot of the distinction between policing the perpetual foreigner and getting to know you chit-chat is context and intent.

But I think it's worth keeping in mind that strategies like rtha's have a low cost to the asker, and may be profoundly appreciated by the receiver. I'm feeling a bit of puzzlement from some of the commenters in here, as in "I don't receive this question as problematic and I definitely don't ask this question to challenge people's right to be here or belong here."

But speaking as someone whose primary interaction with chatty Midwestern strangers in the 1980s and 1990s was "no, where are you really from", "wow your English is so good" and often followed by a cheery "Sayonara!" even after I told them Illinois -- a simple "so did you grow up around here?" or "what's your hometown?" feels like the clouds parting, the angels singing, and the constant barometric pressure of "please don't challenge my Americanness" dissipating.
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:03 AM on May 26, 2013

I'm assumed to be a native of almost anywhere I go. In Brooklyn, people come up to me and immediately start speaking Polish or Russian. In East LA, people come up to me and immediately start speaking Spanish. I was even mistaken for South Asian twice in India, which ooooh kaaaay.

It occurred to me reading this thread and checking out some of the videos/stand-up bits/blog entries linked here that this is yet another aspect of white privilege.

Nobody will ever question whether I'm "really" from where I say I'm from. Nobody will ever let questions of my ethnicity hang in the air like a fart. This isn't ever something I need to think about when I hear a question like "Where are you from?" or "What's your background?"

And thanks to having brown hair and tanning easily, nobody will ever question whether I belong, anywhere, at all.
posted by Sara C. at 11:04 AM on May 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

But I think it's worth keeping in mind that strategies like rtha's have a low cost to the asker

Not to single out rtha or anyone else who suggested this, but I actually think it's not a great idea for white people to try to bend over backwards to change the ubiquitous and friendly part of this interaction.

My dad has a habit of over-correcting about stuff like this, and it can almost come off as more racist than if he was clueless about it. For a while I dated a guy with a Muslim-sounding last name. When he met my dad, there was some small talk about where to go for dinner. And of course my dad -- clearly expecting a Good Southerner cookie -- was like, "Are you halal? I mean, like, do you keep halal? Or, I don't know, however you say that?" Groan groan eye-roll eye-roll.

So maybe it's just my personal baggage about this, but I sort of think it's better to just be cool. You can ask someone where they're from, if you honestly want to know where they are from. Like, if you're making small talk while waiting for the airport shuttle. If you don't actually want to know where they're from, just don't ask. Avoid asking strangers about their racial/ethnic/religious background, as a matter of course.

I really like the way that nescafe commercial framed it, where the problem is the white girl's ASSUMPTIONS about the black guy, not any particular sentence she said.
posted by Sara C. at 11:14 AM on May 26, 2013

> This reminds me, actually, of wandering around a Turkish market during a couple of days last year. The pitchmen were very vocal and a lot knew a handful of greetings in different languages, and they'd call out to people in whatever language they figured the person spoke, based on their appearance: German, Italian, Spanish, whatever.

Ha! This happened to me and my then-girlfriend when we were in Turkey back in the late '80s. I got so sick of having people try to sell me rugs that I pretended I spoke nothing but Russian, which baffled them. Now, of course, since the fall of the USSR Turkey's full of Russians, so I'd have to try Georgian or just make a language up as I went along.
posted by languagehat at 11:25 AM on May 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

I love this thread. Next time someone asks me, "Where are you really from?" I'm responding "MetaFilter" and talking to someone else.
posted by yaymukund at 11:26 AM on May 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

*OK I probably won't actually say that for various reasons, but I will think about it and grin.
posted by yaymukund at 11:29 AM on May 26, 2013

Sara C., We're gonna disagree on the value of that one I think, because I think universally changing your wording for everyone (regardless of assumed ethnic background) is pretty awesome.

Also I think about how annoyed I was by the "so what do you do" question at grown-up parties and how it requires us to present ourselves as our jobs. I'm all about questions that don't imply a pigeonhole at the end. "Oh you're Korean." "Oh you're unemployed/a waiter/a quant/a welder/a quisling."

[Kidding about the quisling, it was just the next Q word that came to mind]
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:46 AM on May 26, 2013

I've always had a tough time with this because I live in San Francisco and by and large it's a transient city (becoming even more so with skyrocketing rents). I typically assume that almost nobody is from here which is why I'm tempted to ask. But then I realize that there's all sorts of baggage associated with that question (as outlined in the many stories above) so I tend to say nothing and just wait for the other person to mention it.
posted by Sandor Clegane at 11:49 AM on May 26, 2013

I guess if people are universally rethinking how they make casual conversation in "where are you from"-prone situations (like a conference or something), that's nice.

But I also think that's not really a necessary thing for people to do, in general, and it seems like a weird response to the idea that you shouldn't fixate on people's race/ethnicity.

Like, just don't be racist. You don't have to completely re-frame your way of dealing with all other people in casual situations.

If you otherwise wanted to re-frame your way of interacting casually with people, great! But if you didn't, don't let that be a barrier to not being racist.

(FWIW I never really know what to think about the idea that you shouldn't make small talk, or that you should never use stock icebreaker questions like "what do you do for a living" or "what's your major". Maybe it's the polite chatty Southerner in me. I mean, how am I supposed to politely wait for the airport shuttle with a cluster of strangers if I can't ask them anything about themselves for fear of "pigeonholing" them?)
posted by Sara C. at 11:57 AM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Get a smartphone?
posted by Seiten Taisei at 12:01 PM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, because never interacting with other humans at all is better than asking them a somewhat rote question that might make them think... something... about you.
posted by Sara C. at 12:04 PM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Sara C. maybe chill on this for a while?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:06 PM on May 26, 2013

Ah, I get this sometimes.
Q: Where are you from?
Me: Here. I'm a native southern Californian.
Q: Where are you really from?
Me: I grew up in Whittier. Most of my family is still in that general area.
Q: No, where is your family from?
Me: *sighs* My relatives came from Mexico.
Q: So, you're Mexican?
Me: No, I'm an American. I've never been to Mexico and I don't speak Spanish.

Or, as a friend (fellow born-in-SoCal) and I agreed, our fathers served in the US Armed Forces. We're Americans.
posted by luckynerd at 12:40 PM on May 26, 2013

I've always had a tough time with this because I live in San Francisco and by and large it's a transient city (becoming even more so with skyrocketing rents). I typically assume that almost nobody is from here which is why I'm tempted to ask. But then I realize that there's all sorts of baggage associated with that question (as outlined in the many stories above) so I tend to say nothing and just wait for the other person to mention it.
posted by Sandor Clegane at 11:49 AM
"So do you live here in the bay area?"
"How long have you been here?"
"Where did you move from? How do you like it/How does it compare?"
"California is windy and full of spiders, amirite?"

I had to learn a new repertoire when I moved here (from a southern college town where "What's your major?" and "Noles or Gators?" was a default question), but it's not been hard.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 12:56 PM on May 26, 2013

Why is it such a burden to talk about your ethnic heritage?

Because if I looked more white than I do, no one would ever ask me about it right when they meet me. It's one thing to ask it of someone you know a little bit, but on first meeting?

We all have control over what we say, but we don't have control over what other people hear, and we really don't have control over what other people's experiences may have taught them very directly what a question like that really means.

I'm a non-white person who doesn't feel that asking (or hearing) "Are you a [city] native?" is a sign of bending over backwards by white people, or anyone else. To me, it's a question that's more open-ended and likely to elicit interesting answers, and as a bonus, avoids even the appearance of othering subtext.
posted by rtha at 12:59 PM on May 26, 2013 [14 favorites]

I'm a non-white person who doesn't feel that asking (or hearing) "Are you a [city] native?" is a sign of bending over backwards by white people, or anyone else. To me, it's a question that's more open-ended and likely to elicit interesting answers, and as a bonus, avoids even the appearance of othering subtext.
posted by rtha

As someone who tires of the "but what are you really" line of questioning - I'm glad to hear this. Here in the bay area, almost nobody is a native, so depending on the response I either get to hear about their origins, or exclaim at the fact that they're a local (how many generations? have you always lived on the peninsula? etc).
posted by TheNewWazoo at 1:07 PM on May 26, 2013

In the mid-90s I was working at a tech startup and frequently chatted with a woman from California who was about the same age as I was.

One day I stopped by her desk and she was clearly ticked off. "Someone just said to me, 'Oh, it's so sad you don't know your own language!' she said. 'My language is English. I'm fourth generation American. I bet YOU never get asked that,'" she said.

And she was right. She, as a fourth-generation American with Japanese ancestors, got condescending sympathetic comments from people about "not knowing her native tongue." I, a first generation American, never learned any Lithuanian beyond food words such as "kugelas" despite the fact that everyone on my dad's side of the family spoke it. (Really, actually, "kugelas" is it. And "zeppelini," but I learned that when looking up a recipe for kugelas on the Web.) And no one thinks that's the least bit unusual.

I am very sorry that happened to her but glad that she told me. It's what made me start thinking about these issues.
posted by rednikki at 1:20 PM on May 26, 2013 [12 favorites]

Throughout growing up (and once in a blue moon since) I was the first Jewish person a lot of people had ever met. This has always felt ridiculous as there is really no dearth of Jewish people in Chicago, but frequently, when I would describe my ethnic origin as Jewish (which was really much simpler than explaining the steady stream of countries that my family got kicked out of over the centuries, the person I was talking to would ARGUE with me about it.

More than once, someone would list off every country they could think of in South and Central America. Personally, I would judt take someone's word before thtowing out "Panama!" as some sort of GOTCHA.

I guess word hadn't gotten around about Middle Eastern/Mediterranean Jewry and if I wasn't gonna have the decency to wear religious clothes (which a surprising amount of black and brown folk found shadowy and threatening), I should have at least been a skinny nebbishy Jerry Seinfeld/Woody Allen type.

Sidenote: two of my best friends were half jewish/half Indian kids and we LOVED when their dad Sher turned off his thick accent to make sales calls. It was just the coolest funniest thing in the world.
posted by elr at 5:37 PM on May 26, 2013

Also I'll ask a lot of people "are you from here" and sometimes I'll get a defensive, "what, am I from AMERICA?" when I really meant "are you from Chicago or one of those goofy Ohio cities that people keep coming here from?"

Really I just wanna talk about Chicago a/o get the flirting ball rolling. I should probably ask that differently.
posted by elr at 5:45 PM on May 26, 2013

Why is it such a burden to talk about your ethnic heritage?

Based on my experience as a sort of all purpose queer - trans - gender-non-conforming person who often has to Explain It All For You, I bet a lot of it is just that it gets tiring. Dealing with someone who is well-meaning and friendly and who has totally incorrect ideas about a large important aspect of your life - well hey, if it's only once you just want to set them straight politely and kindly, because they are after all well-meaning. When it's happened fifty times, it just gets maddening, I bet. I have found myself feeling this way about queer/trans/gender stuff. It's a bit emotionally draining to explain all that stuff to someone who is not familiar with it and sometimes it makes me aware of some difficult aspects of my life and brings my thoughts back to them.

I think one of the trickiest things about this stuff is that to the Questioner, it's only once that they're asking, and they are asking as an individual, but to the Questionee it's fifty million times and the askers start to blur together into a mass. So when the Questionee gets frustrated and maybe a little snappish, in a sense it isn't "fair" to the Questioner, who might be totally well-meaning and innocent about it; but on the other hand, we don't want a society where the Questionee gets ground down by being asked the same emotionally draining thing over and over again all the time when they need to work, eat, read, think about something other than explaining themselves.
posted by Frowner at 6:22 PM on May 26, 2013 [8 favorites]

I'm a Chinese-American guy but when I was growing up I used to think I was Thai-American, because my parents are from Thailand and they thought it was too difficult to explain to me as a kid that we were actually ethnically Chinese. So as a kid, I always used to get really angry when other kids called me "Chinese" - both because, hey, I was born and raised in the US, I'm American, and that's not even the right ethnicity anyway.

Then when I got older, I realized we actually were Chinese. Now I don't even really know what ethnicity to present myself as, because my name is very Thai and resembles a Sri Lankan name more than it does a Chinese name. I've even had people think I'm of Eastern European descent on the phone because I don't have an accent and my last name superficially resembles a Slavic surname (ends in "-ich"). Most days, I present myself as whatever ethnicity seems most natural. Someone asking where my name is from? Thai. Someone asking what "nationality" I am? Chinese. Most people don't remember anyway.

When I was traveling in Turkey, I got this question all the time. Most people there have no concept of "hyphenated Americans" and thought I was pulling their leg when I said I was American. On more than one occasion I pulled out my passport to prove it. By the end of the trip, most people were pretty happy with the explanation of "my ancestors are from China, but I live in the US." And really, that's as close to the truth as any explanation.

These days, when people in the US do the whole "where are you from" I usually mention being born and raised in New Mexico but throw in my ethnic background in the same breath, because most people are curious about it, and 99% of the time they don't mean any offense. I have a Russian-American coworker whose first language was Russian, but for all intents and purposes he basically looks and sounds like another white guy - his ethnic background never comes up. I feel like maybe 50 years from now, when most Asians in the United States are (X>1)-generation, things might be a little different, but for now, I've come to accept that some folks, especially older ones, will never see me as a "real" American. So be it. I've stopped caring.
posted by pravit at 6:36 PM on May 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I too am one of those people who looks like they could be from anywhere. My paternal ancestors have been in America since the 1600s. My maternal ancestors are are Jewish and Middle Eastern. I'm darker skinned than most anglos, and have dark hair. White folks in Texas assumed I'm Hispanic, (although I've also heard "high-yellow", which I totally didn't know was still a thing), until 9/11. And being outed as having ANY Middle Eastern heritage made my life a living nightmare of harassment until I sold my house at a 100k loss and moved out of the town.

I mean, it's not like there were flag burnings in my yard, but there were regular flag plantings. One woman, who was in charge of the Home Owners Association, asked about the dishes I'd brought for a pot luck. When I told her my grandmother was Lebanese, and that these were her recipes, starting the next week, we got fines every single week until I finally listed the house for sale; once for having grass .25" too long, once for having too many dog toys in the back yard, that sort of thing. Always something.

You can't ignore fines from an HOA in Texas, they can take your property if you refuse to pay them. And in Texas, there is no legal recourse to stop an HOA from harassing you. It was only last year that HOAs were forced to get a court order before foreclosing on you.

Anway, one day she said something like "Well, maybe your people don't know...." and I lost it. And then I called my broker and listed the house for sale, because as much as I loved my home, it wasn't worth being in tears every day.

Now, if people ask where I'm from, I say "Oh, you know Dallas, it's a giant sucking vortex from which there is no escape, I've been here forever. How 'bout you?"
posted by dejah420 at 7:13 PM on May 26, 2013 [9 favorites]

Two confusing, recent conversations that stand out against a lifelong background noise of "What are you?" and "Where are you really from?":

A couple of weeks ago there was a wedding on at the place I work - I offered to give the caterers a hand because I wasn't doing anything else. The woman in charge asked me what my background was. What? Should I say 'linguistics'? Or like, have I worked in catering/restaurants? I asked what she meant,
"I mean have you worked with these things before" Holding tongs, she points to giant catering-size steamers full of Chinese pork buns.
"With steamers?"
"With these buns. Like, what's your background."
Ah, I see.

In Sweden, a guy I'd just met is probing me about where I come from (fair enough, I'm obviously not a native Swedish-speaker). Question upon question, until I was explaining that my dad's side of the family came from England sometime in the mid-1800s. "Okay so you're a real Australian then".

Apparently I'm only a real Australian because my dad is white and his family has been here for several generations, not because I've lived here my whole life. And the fact that my mum spent the first few years of her life in Asia meant that I was capable of the very difficult task of opening packets of arranging buns in a steamer and putting the lid on.
posted by flora at 7:16 PM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

So maybe it's just my personal baggage about this, but I sort of think it's better to just be cool.

I mean, how am I supposed to politely wait for the airport shuttle with a cluster of strangers if I can't ask them anything about themselves for fear of "pigeonholing" them?)

I don't think you really understand how complex and confronting the question 'where are you from'/'no, where are you really from' is for some people.

A personal anecdote. I did most of my growing up in Hong Kong, in the 80s and 90s. I went to British schools fill with the kids of expats; everyone was from somewhere else, and so no one was from anywhere else - we were all 'from' Hong Kong.

I moved to Australia with my family in my mid teens, in 1997 (a reaction to the handover of Hong Kong back to China). Hong Kong was the only placed I had ever lived, and it was changing overnight. I was distraught about leaving; it was the only place I'd ever lived. What made it particularly terrifying was that it seemed like I couldn't ever come back. there was seemingly nothing to come back to; most of my friends were going too, scattering across the world as their families abandoned HK under the looming shadow of the Chinese government. My world was gone, smashed to pieces, and the pieces scattered to the winds.

Unsuprisingly, the move for me was pretty traumatic. I didn't fit in particularly well at my new school in Sydney, where perhaps only 20 of the 320 kids in my year were not Caucasian, and the majority of the kids had been together since the start of primary school. I was one of 6 new students that year, and the only one from outside the Australian school system. I was unequivocally an outsider, in every way possible. I had a 'pommy' accent but was confusingly brown, I didn't understand the slang or the schoolyard politics, or the pop culture references.

I felt depressed and alienated until I got to university; where, outside of the conservative, narrow cliques of high school, I actually had the space to rebuild my identity. It took a few years, but it was a heady and exciting time and it was a joy, not a chore.

It was years before I could answer unthinkingly, 'Sydney', when someone asked me where I was from. For me, there was and is a lot of internalised self-growth, reflection and acceptance in that single word. So when I'm at a party and someone asks 'no, where are you really from', it's like a giant neon sign crashes through the wall, garishly flashing YOU OBVIOUSLY DO NOT BELONG - WHY ARE YOU HERE? It is a declaration that the questioner does not accept the identity that I have built for myself as valid; that in their eyes I'm not a real Australian, that I'm just someone who lives here, that I can't belong.

As an aside, during the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, I was waiting for a friend at steps at Sydney Town Hall - it's a popular meeting spot. They didn't show, and I dusted myself off and started to walk away. Apropos of nothing, a well dressed middle aged (Caucasian) lady came running up to me, and asked me politely, if in a rather slow and halting manner, if I needed directions. She clearly thought I was a tourist, although dog knows why she thought I was lost. She obviously meant well, but the thoughtless assumption that a brown person must be a tourist, that they couldn't possibly live here (or speak English!) was baffling and stinging.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:49 PM on May 26, 2013 [9 favorites]

It seems like thare's a lot of getting cought up on the "where are you from?" question when the real problem is the followup. "Where are you from?" is a great small talk ice-breaker type question because usually the answer people give is the one that is most relevant to who they are. No matter their skin color, if their reply is "Chicago" then there's a good chance they'll have plenty to say about being from Chicago. If they want to talk about where their grandfather was from, they'll find a way.

Why is it such a burden to talk about your ethnic heritage?

Because very often that's not what defines a person in their own mind. My family is from northern New Jersey going back generations, and this fact is probably just as defining as their ethnicity.

Also it's a burden for some people to talk about their ethnic heritage, because they really don't know what it is. There's a lot of different ethnicities tied up in being a so-called African-American. A phrase that implies descendant of slaves, but our President is literally an African-American despite not being descended from slaves, and so is actress Charlize Theron, born in Africa, and a naturalized American citizen. One of them culturally identifies as Black, one doesn't. Which has to do with color of skin, but is a person from Nigeria "Black" or is she Nigerian? Or Yoruba?

If you ask me, Black Americans are so complicatedly intertwined with the history of this country that the only people more American than us are the ones who were already here when the explorers first landed. Which is why despite having brown skin, and an Arabic name, If anyone asks, i'm from Seattle.
posted by billyfleetwood at 8:04 PM on May 26, 2013 [14 favorites]

I don't think you really understand how complex and confronting the question 'where are you from'/'no, where are you really from' is for some people.

Uh, no, I absolutely do.

But the problem isn't in the first part of that exchange, "Where are you from?"

It's in the second part, "No, where are you really from?"

It's perfectly easy and ordinary to just ask "Where are you from?", hear "Toledo", and accept that information. The problem happens when one assumes that someone who isn't white can't really be from Dallas or Brisbane. When you use "Where are you from?" as a code for "Why aren't you white?"
posted by Sara C. at 8:22 PM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's perfectly easy and ordinary to just ask "Where are you from?", hear "Toledo", and accept that information. The problem happens when one assumes that someone who isn't white can't really be from Dallas or Brisbane.

Ah. In that case, broadly speaking, I think we are on the same page.

However, I think that the appropriateness of a question like 'where are you from?', even without the follow up, can be context specific; in my experience, there are situations in which a Caucasian person would not be asked 'where are you from?', where a non-Caucasian person would. For the ethnic majority, there is often a default assumption that they are 'from' the country where they are, unless otherwise specified. For the minority, it's often 'foreign unless proven otherwise', often through some intrusive questions, and it can get tiresome.

I think Birdherder's entertaining youtube link above is a good illustration - why would you assume that she was from somewhere else? If not for her ethnicity, why even ask the question?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:11 PM on May 26, 2013

In Birdherder's link, though, it's presented as a stranger randomly walking up to someone and asking intrusive questions about that person's race.

Again, I think the gist of this is "try not to be racist", not "try to never ask people where they're from".

If you see someone who is not of your race standing around in a public place, and you don't know that person, don't walk up to them and ask, "where are you from?" because you want to know what their ethnicity is.

If you're at a conference, sure, ask people where they're from.

The problem isn't the question. The problem is the intent.
posted by Sara C. at 9:25 PM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

This really is one of those moments that you can decide to treat the question as some malicious attempt to make you the "other" or just a friendly person trying to break the ice. I understand that occasionally there are some pretty obvious signals that might lead you to conclude the former, but isn't it easier to make it through a day by assuming the latter in other situations? Why is it such a burden to talk about your ethnic heritage? We are supposedly living in an age where we celebrate diversity and multiculturalism. We are asked "the question" on virtually every application for anything important. How do you "celebrate" diversity if all of a sudden it is some social faux pas to be asked about your ethnic heritage? And some of you have amazing backgrounds. To think "my god, that person is so clueless, isn't it obvious that my grandfather on my mother's side was from Vietnam and my grandmother on my father's side is Dutch? I mean, duh" is not very charitable.

I just...

It might not be malicious, but as others have said it is exhausting to answer this question over and over, day after day. It's a crappy way to break the ice, actually, because having to decide how to explain to "well meaning" or not people (not just white people BTW)why I have curly hair or not dark enough skin to be Indian by a stranger's estimation really doesn't tell you that much about who I am as a person, it just annoys me and leaves me getting into all these internal arguments about just how political I want to get in that moment -- like the other day, when I sort of shrugged off this guy's comments about how all Indian people are lazy based on his experience with an offshoring firm. Or when I have to explain how my mother (a doctor) wasn't like sold in marriage to my father when she was eight or something. Or how my last name isn't Pakistani. No, really, it's not Muslim even a little at all. No, that doesn't OFFEND me, it's just that the assumption is wrong. No, no really you did not know a Muslim Pakistani family with my last name. No, as far as I know I am not even a little Chinese. Probably more French than Chinese and definitely more English than Chinese. Yeah, even with my small eyes. On and on and on and OMGon.

And some of you have amazing backgrounds.

It's not really important to me if a stranger or vague acquaintance thinks my background is "amazing" or not. I mean talk about othering. There are actually a lot of amazing and interesting things about me that don't really have much to do with how Indian or not I look to people.

That's the problem with getting this question put in your face all the time.
posted by sweetkid at 9:28 PM on May 26, 2013 [13 favorites]

As I wrote earlier, I'm pretty sure that I very rarely ask anyone the specific question where are you from?, it actually seems a little weird and too direct to me even though I think I'm much more interested in where people grew up than usual.

But, even so, I'm sympathetic to the point that Sara C. and others have made in that being interested in what I'll call someone's "formative location", which usually amounts to where someone "grew up" but could also be more attached to some other part of one's history, is both appropriate and an acceptable part of the kind of conversation that people have when they are getting to know each other. At the "breaking the ice" stage and the "getting to know more personal things" stages.

Okay, but with that in mind, what I'm seeing in this thread is that the particular question where are you from? is problematic because it has a wide range of meanings, some of which are asking about ethnicity, some which question people's inclusion, and all these sort of things which have been so eloquently described in this thread. So I think that particular question is problematic and should be avoided.

Seems to me that if you're going to ask for this information (the "formative location") directly, then it should be asked in a form that avoids these other meanings.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:03 AM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and also, I think we (those of us to which this applies) ought to be aware of our privilege. Even if we ask the question in a better form, as I just described, and even if it's something we ask of almost everyone we meet/know, the problem is that there's a whole bunch of people who don't ask this sort of question, or care, until they suspect that someone doesn't belong, at which point they'll ask as a means to verify or disprove this suspicion.

So the end result is that some people will be asked this sort of question all the time, much more often than average, and the difference in frequency is mostly accounted for by the people who are asking this question in an othering way. And the people who are asked this question all the time have no way to tell, prima facie, us from the othering people and, anyway, if you have to deal with this question all the time and often from people who are othering you, then it's probably not a welcome question even when it's appropriately phrased and well-intended.

That's just reality. An unfortunate reality, but a reality we have to work with until all the insensitive or outright bigoted people described in this thread are gone.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:16 AM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've found the best response is to turn the questions back on the asker.
"I'm from X-town. What about you? And your parents? So you're REALLY from Y? What's it like in Y?"
It flusters people a lot and doesn't give them time between thinking up answers to focus on my heritage. And when they've told me a lot about themselves, I'm usually no longer opposed to telling them a bit of my history.

Best answer to "you speak X-language really well" is, hands down, "thanks, so do you!"

Once a guy chatted me up at a party by saying, "I'm not going to ask you where you're from because I get that all the time, and it's so annoying. I'm half Greek."
He made me laugh and we spent a long time chatting.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:51 AM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

My absolute favorite one of these is when some probably-drunk woman (outside a bar), apropos of nothing in the short conversation, told me that my English was really good and asked me how long I'd lived here (in the US). Upon hearing my answer, which was "How old am I again? 30? No, 31. So 31 years", she became extremely flustered and stammered, "Oh. Well, welcome to America!"

These days, when people ask in the traditional non sequitur fashion, I say, as rapidly as possible, "In order? New York, Massachusetts, New Orleans, and Seattle." I find the information overload to be helpful. If they persist with "no, really though" stuff, I put on my best Christopher Lambert voice and say "Lots of different places." My best, it should be said, is not terribly good.

The other variant of this that I get a lot is after I tell people my name (it's in my profile), they frequently say, "Wow, that's so cool!" Thanks, I'll tell my parents, I didn't really have anything to do with it.
posted by Errant at 5:46 AM on May 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

> The problem isn't the question. The problem is the intent.

People can't read your mind, so they don't know your intent. And you seem completely uninterested in any viewpoints but your own. Have you even tried to take on board the many comments from people explaining why the question bothers them, or do you just shake your head impatiently, think "Why can't these people understand," and repeat your boilerplate "it's all about me and my beautiful intent" analysis?
posted by languagehat at 11:59 AM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sigh, yes... I have had variations on this conversation many times. I'm mixed Chinese/white, born and raised in Canada.

Now that I now live in Germany, people here are much more direct:
Where are you from? Canada
Oh. But why do you look Asian? My father is Chinese
End of conversation

At least I never had to deal with the question my white mother always used to get:
Where are your children from?
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 2:05 PM on May 27, 2013

Where are your children from?

My (white) mother was heaped with praise by a group of nuns for adopting a Vietnamese orphan! (Me, that is - not adopted, not Vietnamese, not an orphan until many years later.)
posted by rtha at 2:53 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I feel like if I were to adopt a kid of any ethnicity besides white, blond and blue eyed, people would believe it was my natural born kid.
posted by sweetkid at 3:05 PM on May 27, 2013

I got the "no, really, where are you from, where is your family from" questions from a cashier in NYC a few years ago. I'm as white as you can get and have a generic American accent.

I still don't know if the guy, who'd probably been on the other end of this several times that week alone, was actually curious about my Lithuanian-American complexion, or if he was just bored at work and entertaining himself.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:25 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

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