No, where are you really from?
October 27, 2015 6:35 AM   Subscribe

 
I like the last pull quote: "Just say Mars. Works all the time."
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:54 AM on October 27, 2015 [10 favorites]


FYI, you can still ask where a person is from but you just need to take stuff into consideration or perhaps be more specific in what you mean.
posted by charred husk at 6:55 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


This article is so wonderful and nuanced! Thanks so much for posting. I greatly recommend reading the whole thing, but if you're short on time, the question posed in the title is wrapped up neatly about 1/8th of the way in: "What they really want to know is why I'm not white."
posted by Krazor at 6:58 AM on October 27, 2015 [19 favorites]


My well-meaning, but small town uncle is a teacher in Kentucky. He was told he'd be getting a new student named Sue and he should help her feel welcome. He met the girl and she seemed to be Asian and she looked intimidated. They've had an influx of immigrants to the school lately, so he made an effort to speak clearly and loudly, as helped this would ease any English-as-a-second-language problems. She said nothing and he worried she might not speak English at all. Finally, he asks, still in his overly loud and enunciated way, "So, um, Sue, where are you from?" And she drawls, "Ah'm frum Murfreesboro, Tennessee, sir." My uncle might be conservative and occasionally clueless, but he had enough sense to laugh at himself and learn something there.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:59 AM on October 27, 2015 [36 favorites]


I have done this. I was called out for it (fairly subtly) and felt like crap about it afterwards. It’s such an easy question to reach for when you’re just trying to make conversation with someone you don’t know & don’t realise the implications of what you’re actually saying when you ask the question to someone who doesn’t have...lets call it the “security of tenure” that you have.

I’ll no doubt make different mistakes in the future, but I wont be making that one again: thanks, guy from Bolton who’s family were from the northern mountains of Pakistan: you were less of a jerk than I was.
posted by pharm at 7:03 AM on October 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


I look like your standard chilean middle class male, but my ashkenazi middle european last name throws people off, so I get the 'where are you from' or 'where's your family from' often. I answer pretty randomly between Poland, Russia and Belarus (all true), but when I'm feeling ornery, I'll just say 'Chile'; if they're rude enough to ask 'no, where are your grandparents from' i just repeat 'Chile', leaving them saying something like "huh, that's a strange name for a chilean…", expecting me to offer up my family history to their idle curiosity.
They really want to know if I'm jewish, though.
posted by signal at 7:06 AM on October 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


My favorite video on the subject: What kind of Asian are you?
posted by msbrauer at 7:09 AM on October 27, 2015 [8 favorites]


[One comment deleted. Folks, just to get out ahead of this, we've just had a big Metatalk thread about this kind of question, and it will be helpful if commenters don't immediately take this in the direction of "this doesn't happen" or "people don't really mean that by it". Even if you don't personally mean the question that way, the author has probably experienced this more and in different conditions than you have.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:17 AM on October 27, 2015 [64 favorites]


I've vented my angst on this question in a couple of other prior threads, and when I've brought it up with white and black friends, I get the sincerely concerned response of, "well, the question is still useful for establishing grounds for small talk. I understand and believe your experience, but ... what are my alternatives?"

and where I am with this now, my usual guideline is: "I'll meet you halfway. You can ask me 'where are you from', but you must accept my answer. I may answer by telling you where I've lived most recently. I may answer by telling you what citizenship I use for my passport. I may answer by telling you what my heritage is, and I may answer by telling you where I was born. All of those answers and identities are valid, and if I express one of them, you must carry the conversation from the thread that I choose.

"if you wish to instead follow up by asking, 'no, what I really meant was ...' then I'd advise you to just skip to that more specific question. But think hard about what you really want to ask and why you're asking it."
posted by bl1nk at 7:24 AM on October 27, 2015 [79 favorites]


Lots of prior posts on this question, though not on this article.


Krazor: I greatly recommend reading the whole thing, but if you're short on time, the question posed in the title is wrapped up neatly about 1/8th of the way in: "What they really want to know is why I'm not white."

Anecdotally, this question can also be re-stated as "why don't you sound like me/people here?" I'm a tall, white dude, but due to my personal blend of talking quickly and mumbling a bit, some people hear an accent, so I also get this question. But as a white guy, I feel less of the (un)subtle scrutiny along the lines of "why are you here?" and more of "you are a puzzle for me to solve" once I answer "central coast California."

(My answer is then often followed by "where are your parents from?" and when that provides to be unfruitful, I'm asked "well, have you traveled much?" Sometimes I make it more fun [for me] and ask "what do you think my accent sounds like?" I enjoy getting a range of answers, or simply say "I don't know what you're talking aboot, I've lived in California most of my life." "Aha! Secret Canadian, I knew it!")
posted by filthy light thief at 7:28 AM on October 27, 2015


This question seems innocuous but it is a very conservative and in many ways outdated question. I know people who have been in one place for generations, who identifiably look and talk like someone from that region. If they travel abroad and someone asks them where they are from, they have one definitive answer.

The question excludes issues of migration, of mixed-races, of subcultures. It sits as part of a monolithic view of the world as people who are from distinct, unchanging regions.

Sometimes people mean something very specific - they are asking where your accent is from, for example. But maybe they are asking why I'm brown, why I look different. I don't know. If they want to communicate with me, isn't it up to them to be clear?

Many conversations here in England go like this:

"Where are you folks from?"
"We're from Gloucestershire."
"You don't sound like you're from Gloucestershire!"
"I was born and raised in California."
"Aha!"

Ok, you say, that was innocuous enough. Except the first question is often asked before I have actually said anything.

I mean sure it could be the clothes I'm wearing but most likely the question was initiated with a sense of "Hey, you look different" If you want to make small talk, don't start by placing someone in the "other" category of people.
posted by vacapinta at 7:29 AM on October 27, 2015 [17 favorites]


I have an unusual Danish-Israeli accent, and I live in a provincial town, so I regularly get asked 'that' question. I hate it, and I always have to control myself not to answer with snark or obvious spite. It's just so shallow. Beside the racial/otherness tone (I am 'white'), it shows that the person dosen't have a better angle for his only ice-breaker. It's inappropriate when it comes from a grocery clerk or such. If I were at the register, I could always comment about a scarf, a unique shirt, their nails, something they chose. I can see how much worse it is when it is specifically posed to 'others'. Brrr
posted by growabrain at 7:29 AM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


I've been asked the question many times, and being half European, half Asian and holding triple citizenship has given me many ways to confuse the fuck out of the person asking.
posted by dazed_one at 7:29 AM on October 27, 2015 [13 favorites]


DirtyOldTown: "So, um, Sue, where are you from?" And she drawls, "Ah'm frum Murfreesboro, Tennessee, sir." My uncle might be conservative and occasionally clueless, but he had enough sense to laugh at himself and learn something there.

In 1990 there was a kid in my freshman dorm (in a small, New England college named Rajeev). He was very dark-skinned, with thick, wavy hair -- good-looking guy. When I met him that fall he was wearing a sweatshirt that said "Memphis" on the front.

Our small dorm had a kid from Kuwait, people from all over the U.S., and even two Minnesotans! So when everyone was getting to know each other we were all kind of expecting him to say he was from the other side of the world, too -- and were gob-smacked when he drawled, "Mah name's Rah-jeev. And Ah'm from Memphis." (He may have over-emoted; I know I would have.)

I think every American-born kid immediately got the corrective message, and it never came up again.

I now know that he was a better sport about it than he needed to be, and I wouldn't have blamed him for being a huge dick about it if we hadn't all done a 180. And the lesson stuck: I still think of that one answer all the time, and I try to stifle the urge to make small talk be about where people are from.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:30 AM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


This was really great and interesting, thank you! I really appreciate Tanvi Misra taking the time to write it and make clear why it's such a difficult and painful and othering question.

One of my go-to questions when I meet people for the first time is "Are you from DC originally?" and I phrase it this way in the hopes that I'm making it clear that the answer might be yes and that, if the answer's no, it could totally still be like Michigan or something (also LBR I'm always secretly hoping the answer is Providence so we can be BFFs). I used to ask "where are you from originally?" of everyone because parts of DC are really transient and it felt like such a simple and obvious question to me and articles like this and people taking the time to write them have really helped me be more reflective and recognize that what seems like a neutral question to me that I may indeed ask of everyone may not be heard or perceived that way and the burden is on me to fix that, not on other people to guess my intentions, so I'm always really, really grateful to people willing to take the time to help me figure out ways to be more respectful. Thanks for posting this!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:31 AM on October 27, 2015 [12 favorites]


In 1990 there was a kid in my freshman dorm (in a small, New England college named Rajeev)

The way you phrased this makes me think there's a Rajeev College in NE which amuses me.
posted by zutalors! at 7:34 AM on October 27, 2015 [12 favorites]


There is, though! I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith who went there.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 7:36 AM on October 27, 2015 [13 favorites]


I have the opposite problem, where my lack of accent and intense whiteness cause me to be read as American 100% of the time. It can be a bad feeling. Like a big piece of who I am is invisible and less real and never part of how I relate to other people. I certainly benefit from the privileges that accompany being read as belonging, but it does make me sad that part of my identity gets erased in the process. It basically feels like I'm passing, with much of the attendant good and bad.
posted by prefpara at 7:38 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


What's amusing about a college named "Rajeev"?
posted by notyou at 7:38 AM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I've switched to phrasing something like "so are you originally local to Chicago?" This has the added advantage of seamlessly transitioning to any of the following topics: Cubs, neighborhoods, avoiding neighborhoods when the Cubs are there, traffic, weather, and that traffic from the Cubs game.
posted by PMdixon at 7:39 AM on October 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


It's like naming a college "Hank" or something. And funny for NE. And obviously not the name of the college in the comment.
posted by zutalors! at 7:40 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


(The other punchline to the story about my uncle is him attributing the intimidation exhibited by a 5 foot tall, 100 lb. teenage girl to "trouble with English" when in fact, it inevitably had more to do with him being 6'5", 400 lbs. and built like a brick shithouse, with a voice like a foghorn.)
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:41 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


England. No, really, I am. I am what you call "English."

So this is a pretty simple question for me to answer, but truthfully, as soon as I open my mouth and speak, people know where I'm from.

I saw a T-shirt recently which made me smile as it said "British by birth, English by the Grace of God" on it, over an image of the patron saint of Georgia, Portugal, Romania, and Malta and Gozo. Oh and England, despite that he is Roman Soldier of Greek parents.

A while ago some British Asian (Indian) students were leaving at the end of term and their car was on the pavement, in my way, and, as he put some stuff in the car, one of them said, "sorry, mate," in a strong Brummie accent, and I joked, "No need to ask where your from." He laughed at the obvious joke.
posted by marienbad at 7:42 AM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I thought this did a good job of summing up how much can be wrong with the question - it boggles my mind that this late into the 21st century people haven't caught on that people of all races and ethnicities can be 4th- and 5th- generation citizens (if not here first).

For most people, I think asking about an accent is mostly a small-talk thing, though the more I read pieces like this, the more I think maybe it should be shifted into the "too personal for strangers" small talk category, if it's causing people discomfort to answer - especially since the purpose of small talk is to build a connection and make someone comfortable. I get asked where my accent is from all the time (um, grew up in Chicago?) - possibly because I enunciate and hit my T's on the hard side, a lot of Americans seem to think I'm from England. It's weird but it doesn't bother me - but that's probably just my own privilege speaking, where someone actually from another country and trying to fit in would absolutely feel othered.

It's funny, though, from a Jewish-geography perspective, Jews ask each other this all the time, or more often the name-origin variation that signal mentions. Maybe because it's sort of a given that someone left or got kicked out of somewhere in your ancestral past and you're likely going to have an origin story for your (various branches of) family. And different Jewish backgrounds often mean interesting cultural practices the others don't have ("Yekkies" vs "Litvaks" vs Persians vs. Ladino, etc. - there are lots of cool differentiations), which does make for interesting small talk. I don't know if that makes it more okay or not, but I don't think it's a judgement in the same way that asking based on looks clearly is.
posted by Mchelly at 7:43 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have found "Have you lived here all your life?" or "Did you grow up around here?" to be far less alienating. Though it depends on the context.
posted by schroedinger at 7:45 AM on October 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


Sadly, it's hard to imagine we will ever succeed in extricating reflexive tribalism from human interaction. I guess habits that come from millennia of warring with the next village and competing for scarce resources is hard to undo.

This sort of silliness also tends to lead into the almost universally-fruitless ritual of "Oh, you're from [Town X} - do you know [Name of Some Acquaintance of Theirs]???" "Let me think. I don't think so, sorry." "Oh, well, how about [Name of Another Acquaintance of Theirs]???" "No. I mean, it's a pretty big town." "Sure, but how about [Yet Another Acquaintance of Theirs]?" "No..." (Etc.)
posted by aught at 7:46 AM on October 27, 2015


I'm kind of interested in the way this thread seems to be repeatedly referencing the idea of people of Asian descent with strong southern US accents as remarkable and surprising. In my Atlanta high school, we had plenty of students whose ancestors had come from India or the Middle East or China or what have you. Immigrants don't only immigrate to the urban North, and their children don't always wind up there either.
posted by sciatrix at 7:46 AM on October 27, 2015 [19 favorites]


This article may be totally on-target in the US, where there's an idea that people should be considered fully American no matter what color they are or where they and their family are from. In France and Spain, it's the standard small talk first question. The really intrusive and rude question is "what do you do for a living?", which is seen as a crassly classist way of asking people how much money they make.
posted by fuzz at 7:48 AM on October 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


When I moved to Western PA, it was in the depths of the aftermath of the local economy crashing in the '80s; no one had moved here in generations and I'd get the "where are you from?" question a lot when people heard my non-yinzer accent. After I'd answer, "New Jersey", the next question would be "why did you move here?" As if it never occurred to them that someone might move here voluntarily.
posted by octothorpe at 7:49 AM on October 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


FWIW, sciatrix, the point of my anecdote was that it was surprising to my uncle, who needed a wakeup call, not that it was or should be surprising to the world at large.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:49 AM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I have found "Have you lived here all your life?" or "Did you grow up around here?" to be far less alienating. Though it depends on the context.

I dunno, as someone who moved to new towns several times as an adult, it sometimes seemed like a challenge to be asked pointedly if I grew up there or now. Like maybe I wasn't legit if I hadn't. I mean, sure, I understand most people think they're just fishing for common ground on which to make pointless small talk about shared references like high school mascots and favorite dive bars or whatever, but any reformulation of what amounts to "You're not from around here, are you?" can be alienating.
posted by aught at 7:50 AM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


the idea of people of Asian descent with strong southern US accents as remarkable and surprising

Well, I think it's a very othering, simplistic idea. People can only look like X if they're from Y etc. Indian people are often stunned that I am of Indian ancestry because I don't look like the way even they think Indians should look.
posted by zutalors! at 7:51 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I can understand in the context of the article that being singled out with the question may make some people uncomfortable. I have an accent and in general conversation, it has never bothered me one bit if someone asks where I am from and I don't understand the offense to it at all. I have no problem with it being a general conversation starter with new acquaintances that may be curious about who I am or to add more conversation. Admittedly, I am sometimes met with further stereotypical questions or statements when I explain where I am from, but to me it provides the opportunity to discuss and provide facts so I am not even offended by the stereotypical aspects either.
posted by jasminejakes at 7:53 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is a question old white grandmas will ask minority waiters or waitresses when they're pissed at their relatives and want to watch them squirm and feel shame in restaurants.

At least that's how I've been interpreting it.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 7:56 AM on October 27, 2015 [14 favorites]


There was actually a great piece on NPR once, Bob Edwards Weekend, I think it was, about a woman who'd grown up her entire life in rural Texas and followed her heart into country singing... only to find clueless, awful people trying to bat her down who couldn't process how this was possible, since she was of Asian ancestry. It touched on a lot of this... I will try my Google skills and see if I can find it.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:59 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Hari Kondabalu on the question.
posted by cmfletcher at 8:00 AM on October 27, 2015 [11 favorites]


Well, I think it's a very othering, simplistic idea. People can only look like X if they're from Y etc. Indian people are often stunned that I am of Indian ancestry because I don't look like the way even they think Indians should look.

Yeah, and I think it's also something that comes out of oversimplified, weird ideas about how race relations in the South work. Like, there's only been Black and White people in the South historically, so that's the kind of people you would "expect" find with strong Southern accents, right? Except that's not true--I've had a post on the back burner for ages on the history of the Chinese community in the Mississippi river delta all the way through Jim Crow, for example, and there's communities like the Lumbee who point out that it's *really* not as simple as White vs. Black in the Appalachians. (Now I've been reminded, I should really work on that post--it'll be a priority again once my laptop isn't in the shop anymore.)

The history of race in the US gets weirdly oversimplified very frequently, maybe especially with respect to the South, and I think that's a hell of a shame because it's a complicated history with a lot of interesting twists and turns. In particular, there's this attitude that I frequently see from people who do not identify as Southern that twist my arm has eloquently discussed elsewhere--and forgive me for not Googling, I'm working off a tablet here--that "Southern culture" is implicitly White unless otherwise indicated, and then it's Black. And that erases the culture and history of huge swathes of people who live and have lived in these regions of the US.
posted by sciatrix at 8:05 AM on October 27, 2015 [11 favorites]


I dunno, as someone who moved to new towns several times as an adult, it sometimes seemed like a challenge to be asked pointedly if I grew up there or now. Like maybe I wasn't legit if I hadn't.

I think this is really context dependent. I sometimes ask this question in DC and it's with an expectation that you probably didn't grow up here, but might have. Around here, it's mostly a question people who didn't grow up here ask of other people they expect didn't grow up here. On the other hand, I grew up in the South and there's definitely places there where it could very reasonably be interpreted as a challenge.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:06 AM on October 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


Jews ask each other this all the time, or more often the name-origin variation that signal mentions.

I do this with NE regional jews who don't have a strong nyc accent because apparently according to certain bad people from florida I sound like Fran Fine's gramma Yetta and I want to know how others avoided this sad state of affairs other than simply being from somewhere else in the US.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:07 AM on October 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


... truthfully, as soon as I open my mouth and speak, people know where I'm from.
- posted by marienbad at 7:42 AM on October 27

Yes, exactly. Accents come into it a lot.

I get asked this a lot, but it is more a result of my accent, which is vaguely American as is the case with many third culture kids educated in international schools - than a result of my dark skin. So most people expect me to say "America" and are surprised when I don't. For me at least, it is my accent and not my skin colour that people are curious to "place". Some people skip the "Where are you from?" bit completely and go straight to "Whereabouts in the States are you from?"

(Although I do remember one person following this question up with "Well, you speak English very well!")

I often respond with "And where are you from?" which dilutes the slightly othering aspect of the question and opens up the conversation a bit.
posted by Ziggy500 at 8:09 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Re: third culture kids and accent expectations, there was this recent thread that a bunch of people enjoyed.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:11 AM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


This is a question old white grandmas will ask minority waiters or waitresses when they're pissed at their relatives and want to watch them squirm and feel shame in restaurants.
I was at a wedding in Long Island where an old WWII vet asked me specifically, "what color of Asian are you? Because I was taught, in the Army, that Asians are either yellow, orange, or brown, and I was curious which one you were."

And I really rather wanted to ask him which color was friendly vs. which color was shootable, but instead I just said, "I'm Canadian, sir." Afterwards, I was told that this particular elderly relative was just someone who likes trolling folks at family events and revelling in being an old-fashioned jerk.

Which, you know, thanks again, white people for using minorities as another pawn in your petty family politics.
posted by bl1nk at 8:12 AM on October 27, 2015 [31 favorites]


I was born and raised in the south, but I cannot fake a Southern accent to save my life, largely because in my formative years the accent my mother drove me to learn was the neutral one favored by PBS/NBC Nightly News.

My brother, however, sounds like he grew up in the deep south.
posted by qcubed at 8:13 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wait... what are orange Asians supposed to be?
posted by qcubed at 8:14 AM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I will often ask, "You a city native, or just trapped in the sucking vortex of no escape that is Dallas?". If native, then we can move on to bitching about things which now suck but were so amazing when *our* generation did it, if trapped, they laugh and we can move on to how they got trapped here. (If Texan, but not City, we can bitch about how Austin has been subsumed.)

Dallas is such a multicultural city with a vast transient population of students and telcom and oil folks that transfer all the time, that there's a pretty good chance that the person you're chatting with did not grow up here. Or they could be a lizard person who has been here since the evil heart of the city was first staked down under the basement of Neiman Marcus. It's Dallas, it could go either way, really.

But it would never occur to me to ask where someone's people came from. That seems nosy.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 8:15 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I hate this question, which tends to come up when I introduce myself (3rd culture; the Other bit is mostly in the name). My response is usually like bl1nk's. However, it does sometimes happen that I'm asked it by people from ethnic groups that I'm unaware have any recent genetic connection with me (though one never knows), on the assumption I'll answer that I'm one of "theirs". I give them the heritage answer, because (apart from it being a whack question), it's obviously wrong to illegitimately benefit from nepotistic warm fuzzies. (Which I'll cop to slightly enjoying, though, I mean it's nice when people smile at you.) They pull back a little, but the conversation does still get a sort of friendliness runoff from their first assumption - they'll go "oh, that's close" or "we're all immigrants, aren't we". That is the one isolated situation in which it's not an entirely horrible question.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:15 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was trying to explain to someone the other day about what the particular kind of urban/suburban middle class accent that I grew up with in the South sounds like when you move away from home. How it sounds when it was definitely there, but never that strong, and then you go North or to the Midwest or wherever and lose some of the musicality, but you still hang on certain notes and sounds. And I found myself saying, "Kind of like Aziz Ansari sounds." Because that's what the traces of my southern accent sound like these days: pretty much Aziz Ansari, who like me is an American from the urban/suburban South who has long since moved elsewhere.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:18 AM on October 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


Anyway, my rule of thumb in the States is:

- If they have a non-American accent and aren't Asian/Asian-American, they're probably asking from a place of genuine curiosity and probably aren't being dicks about it.
- If they look Asian/Asian-American and ask me in their native tongue, even if I don't understand it, we're cool-ish, because they're probably not being dicks about it.
- Anyone else, I give the "Atlanta" answer. Actually, "Et-lanna". My ancestry is not the only thing to talk about, dude, and I don't want to hear you butchering "hello" Korean.
posted by qcubed at 8:21 AM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


I used to ask "where are you from originally?" of everyone

FWIW this is still an appropriate question when dealing with ghosts.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:22 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't know what orange is supposed to be, qcubed, but the experience made me want to get my hands on some of these vintage Cultural Sensitivity manuals just for the lols.
posted by bl1nk at 8:25 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I make a pointed effort not to do this. If I'm curious about someone's background and we are acquaintances I will wait until they do something or wear something that indicates they aren't local. Like saying "I've never understood the St. Louis pizza thing." or wearing an Indiana sweatshirt. I do this because I want to find common ground or know more about people that might be friends.

If you're just some rando on the street, I find that I don't ever need to ask that question because it has no relevance to my life. But sometimes, to make chitchat I'll ask a question about the sports team hat or the band's shirt you are wearing. It's a nice bridge into a vaguely personal connection and doesn't carry the baggage of "Where are you from?"

However, I have taken the university branded clothing to mean more than it actually did and got a cool story out of it.

A cab driver in San Diego was wearing a bright orange University of Tennessee hat with the great big white T on it. Being from that area originally myself, I asked him if he was from Knoxville or did he go to UT. He replied in a very thick Arabic accent, "No, I'm from Kuwait but I love orange and my daughter's name starts with T!"

He then went on to tell me that when he first arrived in the states and he saw the hat in a store in the mall. It was such a pretty color and the T reminded him of his daughter that he felt like he had to buy the hat. When he wore the hat driving his cab, some nice people tipped him really well and said "Go Vols!"as they tipped. He thought it was a weird American thing to say when you tipped someone. Finally a guy got in his cab and was really rude to him and said "Stupid Vol Fan." He asked what that meant and the guy explained that he was wearing a college football team's hat and that school had just beaten his school and he was mad. It was then that he realized that all those nice tipping people were doing so because he was wearing their team's hat.

He kept wearing the hat and actually paid attention to UT football now and thought it might be a nice school for his daughter to look into when she got old enough for college.

As an alum, I felt required to tip him well.
posted by teleri025 at 8:26 AM on October 27, 2015 [79 favorites]


I will do the EL for this question once. I live in the city I grew up in, so I say, "Here, actually!" If the follow-up is "no, where are you reeeeeeallllllly from?" I just give them a head tilt and a slow blink. I definitely live in an area with many foreign-born folks, so I try to assume that the question comes from a good place.
posted by komlord at 8:28 AM on October 27, 2015


1. I have never been able to pinpoint precisely why this question bothers me.
2. Unlike US-born Asian Americans, I cannot simply say I was born in the USA. So I don't have a nice comeback.
3. I've thought of saying something like "Well, we're all from Africa, aren't we?" or the somewhat hostile "Where are you from?" but it feels more confrontational than the situation warrants.

Coming back to why this bothers me: I guess, after 17 years of living in the US, in my bumbling head I'm living this fantasy of being a normal person who belongs here, whatever that means, and this question always shakes me out of my pleasant delusion.
posted by splitpeasoup at 8:36 AM on October 27, 2015 [10 favorites]


Professor on first day, in front of class: "Ah, BuddhaInABucket, what kind of name is that?"
Me: "it's Persian."
Professor: "Ah! Did you know that Iranians are Aryans?"
Me, sitting next to a black woman, horrified: "Uh. [endless silence]"

Dear everyone in the USA: why is our ethnic background so fascinating to you?
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 8:38 AM on October 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


I've gotten this question a lot over the years, and in general I try not to let it bother me. Usually the person is just curious. (I'm biracial, so sometimes people have trouble figuring out my ancestry.) It's still not a polite question, but I try to give people the benefit of the doubt.

But one time many years ago, when I was working in retail, an older white woman asked me, "Are you Chinese?" I answered no, and told her my actual racial background (AND that I was born and raised in North America). Then she proceeded to tell me how polite I was, how I was so much kinder and more respectful than all the white workers at my retail store... and then she said it must be because of my "Chinese culture and ancestry". What?! I had already told her I was not at all Chinese.

So.... I guess racists are racist. And they think it's okay as long as they're giving a "compliment".
posted by barnoley at 8:38 AM on October 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


That question, or variants of, is often asked here in the Maritimes when they detect any hint you might not be local. In this particular case it has nothing to do with being a visible minority. But it is still a way to distinguish the "come from aways" from those who "naturally belong". Not sure how many generations are required before you're considered a local, but the answer is likely "one more than you".
posted by GhostintheMachine at 8:39 AM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


1. I have never been able to pinpoint precisely why this question bothers me.

It bothers me because it implicitly implies that I'm not a real American. Doesn't matter whether I was born here or acquired that citizenship through other means.
posted by Karaage at 8:39 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


So.... I guess racists are racist. And they think it's okay as long as they're giving a "compliment".

"You speak so well!"
"Your English is perfect!"
"The way you say 'fuck you' is so delightful!"
posted by qcubed at 8:40 AM on October 27, 2015 [19 favorites]


So.... I guess racists are racist. And they think it's okay as long as they're giving a "compliment".

Yeah, I get super tired of explaining that exoticizing/fetishizing various races/ethnicities/etc isn't actually the good thing that people inexplicably still think it is.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:41 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I can't count how many times I've had a back-and-forth with someone who was determined to get me to explain my ethnicity to them, while I was intentionally playing dumb.

"Where are you from?"
"New Jersey."
"I mean, where are you really from?"
"New Jersey."
"Er... where were your parents from?"
"New Jersey and Pennsylvania."
"You know what I mean, like... where are your ANCESTORS from?"
"Like, which ones, all of them?"

I know you want to know the breakdown of why I look the way I do, I just don't want to have that conversation.

I also hate that when I do divulge my ethnic background, it's often used to fetishize me, like half-Asian women are some sort of box to check off on your to-fuck wishlist.

I'm not your geisha, fuckboy.
posted by rachaelfaith at 8:43 AM on October 27, 2015 [47 favorites]


If you're just some rando on the street, I find that I don't ever need to ask that question because it has no relevance to my life.

Odd that so many people feel the need or that they're even entitled to that knowledge.

On my family's first visit to DC we were accosted by a middle aged white guy who strolled up next to us with the old:
"Where are you from?"
>America.
"No really where."
>California.
"I MEAN LIKE ORIGINALLY."
I turned around and said: "Go fuck yourself, U.S.A. Now get the fuck away from us."

I felt bad for losing my temper but that was one of most satisfying things ever.

also as a cis straight asian male these sorts of interactions have long made me sympathize with and understand the street harassment women have to go through
posted by Karaage at 8:44 AM on October 27, 2015 [21 favorites]


[One comment deleted. If you ask this question for cosmopolitan reasons or if you personally don't find this question annoying, that's great, but calling other people silly is a pointless fightstarter. As usual, if you think the subject is dumb please just skip the thread.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:50 AM on October 27, 2015 [26 favorites]


LobsterMitten is on point today.
posted by qcubed at 8:53 AM on October 27, 2015 [39 favorites]


I ask this question because I hate that Americans think it's ok to go through life without ever getting a passport.
Well. I am for damn sure that I am a passport-bearing American who is asked this question on the regular because I have This Face and therefore cannot possibly be American. If I'm staying in a hostel or in an airport, this is contextual and sure, go ahead and ask me. If I am ordering Chipotle, this is not likely to be an appropriate conversation.

ETA this is (now) in response to a deleted comment, so mods can delete if it seems prudent.
posted by komlord at 8:54 AM on October 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


When I was sixteen, I went to China with my high school choir group. I will never forget our tour guide taking me aside and saying, "Where are you from?" (Me, dumbfounded, since we were all from the same high school): "Um...Missouri?" "No, but where is your family from?" "Um...Michigan and Connecticut?" Him: "You look different." (Thanks, dude. That's just what every sixteen year-old girl wants to hear.)

That might have been the first time I had that exchange, and definitely one of the more blunt endings, but certainly not the last. For the record, my ancestry is straight up northern European as far as I know, but I have dark hair and tan skin and I teach Spanish, so people cock their head at me when I tell them that. (This question still drives me nuts, but tone can help a lot.)
posted by pitrified at 9:02 AM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


I was born and raised in the south, but I cannot fake a Southern accent to save my life, largely because in my formative years the accent my mother drove me to learn was the neutral one favored by PBS/NBC Nightly News.

My brother, however, sounds like he grew up in the deep south


Same. I deliberately ironed out any trace of a Southern accent from elementary school on(thank you, PBS!) and one only reveals itself when I get drunk. People in the UK and Canada seem terribly disappointed that I don't have the expected pronounced Southern accent when I met them. (Also, please don't start doing one when we are introduced. That's just weird.) My sister, on the other hand? Holy cow, does she ever have the accent.
posted by Kitteh at 9:03 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Ugggggh, this question. The only people I assume who ask in good faith are somewhat older first gen immigrants because it's this kind of a "we're all in this together" thing.

If it's a white person, it's Schroedinger's racist. I don't know you so I can't trust you yet, why the hell would I give out any personal info you could use against me or people like me?
posted by zix at 9:16 AM on October 27, 2015 [15 favorites]


This question seems innocuous but it is a very conservative and in many ways outdated question.

And people can get weird and twitchy about it if you don't play by whatever they've decided the rules of the game are (but haven't told you). I'm a military brat, so I'm not from anywhere in particular and just plain don't have a hometown. And people occasionally get visibly annoyed by this, as if it's some crap I just made up or as if obviously I have a hometown but am just lying to them for some strange reason.

Similarly, my surname is obviously Italian if you see it written (if you hear it you might think it's latino), and people have occasionally asked me where in Italy my family is from. Which, sure, is fine on the face of it, especially when the people asking are Italian or Italian-American themselves and so obviously coming from a place of "We have this in common!" But if you do that, don't get visibly annoyed when I tell you the truth, which is that I'm not ethnically Italian at all and that I carry the surname because my father was killed while my mother was pregnant and two-husbands-later adopted me. And no, I don't know where *his* family is from because I never thought about it when I was a kid and we don't really talk now because he later ran off and is kind of an asshole.

tl;dr -- people who ask this often seem to be unable to deal with answers more complicated than "Toledo" or whatever.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:18 AM on October 27, 2015 [12 favorites]


White American who moved to Canada as a teen and purposely got rid of my southern accent to avoid this very interaction. Being able to lose that "otherness" is a privilege a lot of visible minorities do not have.

But once the family decided to stay permanently and eventually became citizens, I started to regret not having an accent anymore.
posted by thecjm at 9:21 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I have found "Have you lived here all your life?" or "Did you grow up around here?" to be far less alienating. Though it depends on the context.

Honestly, if someone phrases it as, "Have you lived in Chicago/place-we-are-at all your life?" then it's not off-putting at all. Then I assume you're actually curious about me, not the shape of my eyes.
posted by qcubed at 9:24 AM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


I do think it's at least partially rooted in your race being "out of place" - DC is mostly white and black with pockets of hispanic, but for the most part, Asians don't live in DC proper (i laughed pretty hard when I saw what DC's "Chinatown" looks like these days).

I know a lot of times when I'm asked that it's rooted in that and not intentionally othering, so I don't always take them seriously - One time I was painting my fence and a black guy asked:
"Hey did you learn that in your home country?"
> Did I learn how to paint in my home country?
"Yeah."
> America?
"Oh you American!"
> Yes, born and raised and do you really think Asians invented painting or something?
"uhhhhh.......hahaha yeah you're right."

High five.
posted by Karaage at 9:58 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


ROU_Xenophobe:
"tl;dr -- people who ask this often seem to be unable to deal with answers more complicated than "Toledo" or whatever."
And if they're actually well meaning, that should be all they are looking for.

I've heard the variation, "Where are you from recently?" thrown around. Does that seem like an issue to anyone else in terms of small talk?
posted by charred husk at 10:01 AM on October 27, 2015


I do think it's at least partially rooted in your race being "out of place"

This is like, the definition of othering.
posted by zutalors! at 10:01 AM on October 27, 2015 [10 favorites]


I also hate answering this question because if it's extended beyond the polite acceptance of "Southern California" as my answer, then I just know we're going to be mired in a conversational morass where the asker expects me to either a) have opinions on the current situation in the Middle East, b) explain my family's whole immigration history to them, which frequently involves a history lesson about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, c) Taliban, amirite? d) "explain to me the ethnic groups of Afghanistan, because you don't look brown" or e) some exciting racist/Islamophobic comment which I will have to judge how to respond to in such a way that will not lead to us causing a scene.

It's tiring. I'm not down for providing an actual and personal history lesson every single time some rando wants to know what variety of Other to slot me in. I appreciate that a lot of people start this conversational pathway out of genuine interest or desire to learn, but, like, I'm not here to be your teaching moment. I'll happily ramble about this stuff once I know someone, or if they're a fellow immigrant or third culture kid, but if I was Empress of the World, I'd issue a decree forbidding "but where are you really from???" as a conversational gambit.
posted by yasaman at 10:11 AM on October 27, 2015 [13 favorites]


It's definitely valuable to have these chances, every now and then, to hear from people that yes, this sucks. Even if people are often too kind to tell you on the spot in blunt terms, it sucks. Even if you know, intellectually, and as a matter of basic civility, that yes, this sucks. Even if you wouldn't say it personally, because, fucking A, it sucks. It's still immensely valuable to hear from people who live this experience that it is a thing, that it definitely goes on and is part of the world they have to live in. And sucks.

So thanks for everybody sharing. Unless/until it becomes important to you to say otherwise, you're all "from" MetaFilter to me.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:23 AM on October 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


I'm white, but my name is not the most common and I get this all the time, and in . And contrary to the rest of the people here, I've actually gotten this more often from non-white ethnicities. People do not like it when you say you are from NYC (clearly no one is actually from New York City), and when they ask where my parents are from the correct answer is not the accurate "North Dakota and NYC".

I used to just answer "I'm American" to the question. It never shut anyone down. Occasionally I now get a "oh that's an interesting name, where is your family from", which is somewhat more polite, but ARGH.

TLDR, this question got old when I was in elementary school. Please stop asking where I'm from, and yes it IS in fact possible to grow up in a city of where7M people live.
posted by larthegreat at 10:25 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I dunno, as someone who moved to new towns several times as an adult, it sometimes seemed like a challenge to be asked pointedly if I grew up there or now. Like maybe I wasn't legit if I hadn't.

Growing up in small-town Michigan, I've definitely seen it both ways. Younger, less aware, me would ask if you grew up here as small talk, because in my experience it was generally friendly, looking for something to bond over. Either you reminisce about back in the day, or, if it's someone new, welcome them and recommend things around town.

But there are some places/people where it was meant as a challenge. Especially in towns that are at the beginning of a sudden population boom, it can definitely serve to put you on notice (lots of sighs about how peaceful things used to be). In college, my very much white male boss got the stink-eye from his neighbor who didn't like it when he said no, he grew up in New England. Then he mentioned that his wife's family had been there for generations, prompting the neighbor to look embarrassed as she'd only been there 10 years. I can only imagine what she would have said if my boss didn't look white.

So now I only ask if the topic somehow comes up (they ask me, mention something about moving, etc). I don't want to get in an inadvertent pissing contest about who's family has been here longer, and more importantly, I don't want to make someone else feel like they have to brace for an interrogation.There's lot of other stuff to talk about anyways. Like all of the good breweries that keep popping up.
posted by ghost phoneme at 10:26 AM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Addendum: I strongly suspect that I get this question from non-white ethnicities because they have gotten it so often that my name triggers the "oh people ask me this all the time, I can finally ask one of them back!" response. Usually if they ask me, they're just trying to start conversation, but still. *sigh* White people generally assume that I've just got a weird name since I probably check "white bread American" on all other signifying boxes.
posted by larthegreat at 10:35 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm half-Chinese, half British Isles, born and raised in California in the US. Sometimes folks call me Hapa, which I think I technically may not be, since as far as I know that stands for "Half-Asian Pacific Islander", but maybe it means "Half-Asian/Pacific Islander" which may fit. I'm unsure. It's a mutable definition, I suppose.

I look white to Chinese folks, and I look Chinese to white folks, usually. But I speak assimilated California and/or Business English, I have no accent at all, and my immediate ancestors (some were born in China, some in the US, in the Chinese side) were deeply concerned that I and all my cousins assimilate to the best of our abilities. So most of us didn't get Chinese School, and we only really celebrated Ching Ming and the Autumn Festival(s) with family, some years, mostly to pay homage to our grandfather to predeceased me, and whom I never knew.

I was just thinking that I do sometimes want to know what part of Asia some of my Hapa friends are from, or how they grew up, so I tend to ask just those questions:
- "What part of Asia is your family from?"
- "What Asian holidays do you and your family celebrate?" and then I come prepared to talk about mine.
- This is rare, but sometimes I say something like, "What heritage is your Asian bloodline from?"

There are lots of ways to approach the question that I think are far less problematic than the default exoticization-oriented "Where are you from?" set of questions. These vaguer questions encode a lot of stupid, ignorant and often racist assumptions. I think if you want to know specifics, you should ask specifics and be prepared to share your own.
posted by kalessin at 10:40 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I hate this question. I hate every variation of this question, which attempts to ask the same thing but with different words, as though the phrase itself is the problem. I don't care if you say "recently", I don't care if you say "are you local" instead, I don't care. I don't have a "well, sometimes it's ok" context, because all the assholes have ruined it, and every version I've trained myself to accept has been used to get back to the same "hey, so you're brown" bullshit. I do not ever want to hear this question again, and I immediately assign anyone who asks it to the "probably an asshole" category. The very second someone asks me anything like this question, I start looking for an escape route out of the conversation so that I don't ever have to talk to that person again. That is how strongly I feel about it. So, I guess, be aware that people like me exist. My identity might be small talk to you, but it's not small to me.
posted by Errant at 10:46 AM on October 27, 2015 [29 favorites]


I often wonder whether it might be useful to restate, "are you asking me why I'm not white?" and watch them sputter.
But I suspect it would only work in the US where people have at least a theoretic ideal of being "one nation". In my country, people would probably say, "uh...yes, I guess?" and think you kind of crass for putting it that way.

Things I've said, "my parents are from... And where are you from?"
And then I'd ask tons of questions about their place of birth and be really fascinated with their local trivia, and watch their rising alarm and flustering because my rapt questions were suddenly pinning this really boring aspect of their lives into the spotlight.

I'm also a big fan of "thank you! Your English is really good, too!" The reactions are priceless.
posted by Omnomnom at 10:47 AM on October 27, 2015 [11 favorites]


I was born and raised in California, but I'm of Japanese ancestry, and much of my extended family lives in Hawaii. I went to an almost all-white school, but lived in overwhelmingly Chinese and Hispanic immigrant neighborhoods. Growing up, I got this question in many different ways and contexts, but I don't think it was ever really benign.

Then I met and married a white man and changed my surname to his, which is the same as an Eastern European country, from which he has no ancestry. We think it's a corruption of a more common French name, but aren't sure. That's added a whole new layer of weirdness to the line of questioning, since no one who sees me actually thinks I'm from Eastern Europe, but damned if they don't feel it is their god-given right to find out what the deal is.

Because a huge chunk of my friends and acquaintances are academics dealing with a largely transient lifestyle, "Where are you from?" is all but inevitable, and I really want to believe that in most cases, they're just feeling lonely and want to compare notes on "home," but it's still weird. Husband still has to explain that, no, he's not really "Eastern European", and I've started to just say "California" in as firm a manner as possible, because to go into any more detail will occasionally open up a can of "OMG, I love sushi/anime/etc" and I just can't even handle it.
posted by Diagonalize at 11:10 AM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


I drove cab for a few years as a young man so maybe I picked up a few good habits way back then regarding what is/isn't a good question to put to a stranger.

Anyway, three questions I almost never ask anyone are:

Where are you from?
What do you do?
Are you married (or in a long term relationship)?

If they want you to know, they'll bring it up. If they don't there are seven billion [squared] other things for two strangers to talk about, starting with the weather.
posted by philip-random at 11:13 AM on October 27, 2015 [14 favorites]


Also, if someone asks me "Where are you from?" I almost never understand the first time what it is they're driving at, so I usually, honestly and without subterfuge, say something like "Berkeley", or "California" or whatever. And not maliciously. I just don't understand the subtle aim of the question.
posted by kalessin at 11:15 AM on October 27, 2015


i get asked this question a lot, too. and, as with everyone else, i find it tiring. but i have to say that for me, here in chile, it does seem to be in good faith - just people trying to make conversation about something. of course, that's partly because i'm a "high status" immigrant (i'm inventing the term here, but i guess it's clear what i mean). also, it seems to be happening less often - santiago (if not the country as a whole) seems to be more cosmopolitan and accepting than it was.

(also, apropos other threads on cultural appropriation, been having a big discussion with various friends here about whether or not to wear a buff (scarf) that has an "ethnic" pattern taking from a tribe exterminated by spanish settlers (you can see why that was an uncomfortable present...). the surprising consensus seems to be - though i am open to further comments - that it's actually a positive if i wear it because a "european" wearing something "native" is making a statement that it's actually important / worth something. weird how these things sometimes turn out.)
posted by andrewcooke at 11:21 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Anyway, three questions I almost never ask anyone are:

I think 90% of my social anxiety would disappear if everyone followed those three rules. Hey, you don't happen to cut hair, do you?
posted by Lorin at 11:21 AM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I might ask if you grew up here (because maybe I know people from your high school/lived close to your neighborhood at one point, those are good conversation openers) but where "your people" come from, good Lord. No! And obviously a racist thing. If you and I get to hanging out, I assume at some point you'll say "My mom's family is from Manilla" or whatever, if you think it's relevant.

If we never get to know each other, well, then why should I bring it up in casual conversation at all? Doesn't speak well of my small talk skills if I can't ask better questions than that.
posted by emjaybee at 11:24 AM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I used to think that asking Where are you from? was a harmless, conversation-starting "bid." On reading and sometimes commenting in recent MeFi conversations, I now understand why it is not. (ObDis: I am white as milk, male, and from the upper Midwest, and so I pretty much "out-privilege" lots of people. Hell, I'm even taller than many people around here!)

As a kid I got asked lot if I was from England (I wasn't). But 25 years ago I moved away from the place where I grew up: now I am a New-Englander-by-driver's-license, but always an outsider by birth (and accent), and so I am happy to offer "I grew up somewhere else" as a gambit for people who are willing to engage that way. Now I am honestly wondering, is even that too much?
posted by wenestvedt at 11:33 AM on October 27, 2015


andrewcooke, I think I understand what you mean— when I lived in Manila I got this several times a day; there's a sort of latent ethnic hierarchy still in Filipino culture and if you're a bearded euro-caucasian-Occidental guy people are really curious about exactly 'what' you are.

also, obligatory "Karen, you can't just ask someone why they're white"
posted by a halcyon day at 11:36 AM on October 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm mixed. I'm white-passing enough to benefit from white privilege, but am apparently "ethnic" enough that people have approached me on the bus, from across the street, and after I've taught a class to ask "What are you??" This exact question has been posed to me as a conversation-opener at least 3 times, and I've gotten it way more often in less direct but still disrespectful forms. It is not as complimentary as the asker thinks it is, and I implore anyone reading this to not recycle it.

Curiously, I've never gotten "Where are you really from," presumably because my appearance is ambiguously white enough that I could be from anywhere.
posted by nicodine at 11:43 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Damn, and I thought I had trouble answering this as a white lady who's lived in various parts of the US.

I will also note that hitting the Southern accent hard is totally A Thing. When I'm at a con in my hometown of New Orleans and people ask where I'm from, I say things like "I'm from Narlins. I'm in Seattle nowadays but I'm stayin' by my mama's." Outside of that exchange I have never called her "my mama" in my life, or really speak in anything but Newscaster American English, but it's a signifier of local culcha, dawlin'.
posted by egypturnash at 11:44 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Now I am honestly wondering, is even that too much?

I'm with phillip-random and emjaybee in that all this stuff will come up if it's relevant. Today at work I mentioned supporting the Mets, and my co-worker said that he was surprised I was a Mets fan, since I grew up in Massachusetts. I know for a fact he's never asked me where I'm from. But he knows anyway, because it's the kind of thing that you naturally talk about eventually.

i get asked this question a lot, too. and, as with everyone else, i find it tiring. but i have to say that for me, here in chile, it does seem to be in good faith - just people trying to make conversation about something.

I appreciate this perspective. I wonder if the social position you term "high status" makes the question seem less like talking down to you than it feels here in the States.
posted by Errant at 11:52 AM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


So can one ask, "Are you from around here?"
posted by 4Lnqvv at 11:53 AM on October 27, 2015


SecretAgentSockpuppet: "But it would never occur to me to ask where someone's people came from. That seems nosy."

As a person fascinated by American history in general and local history in particular, I am 100% itching to ask this question all the time, because I am FASCINATED by how people's families ended up in Illinois, whether it was by the Bering Sea land bridge or covered wagon or steam engine or two weeks ago on an airplane. I think this is, like, one of the most interesting possible things to know about my state and the people in it, it's just fascinating to me from, like, a history and sociology standpoint.

That said, I totally realize it's not a "neutral" question and I a) wait until people know me well enough to know that I really am just dying to know their family's story, not to be judgey about their background or date of immigration; and b) phrase it carefully and in situationally-dependent way. Like around here, American-born people of Vietnamese and Indian descent are VERY frequently asked, "No, where you are FROM?" Whereas if you ask it as, "Where did your family come from originally?" it's a lot less loaded and it's a pretty normal conversation. However, you don't ever ask an African-American friend "Where did your family come from originally?" because now it's a jackass question where apparently you have not heard of SLAVERY and involuntary transportation and destruction of family histories. But you can say, "Has your family been in Illinois a long time?" and that's okay, and that gets you lots of interesting answers about the Great Migration and Pullman Porters (very common backstory around here). But if you ask "Has your family been in Illinois a long time?" to someone of Latino descent, it often sounds like immigration status fishing and now that's a jackass question.

Anyway. The key points are Context matters! and It's not actually my business! Most people are actually pretty eager to tell me their family background when they find out it's one of my fascinations, but nobody's obligated to satisfy my idle curiosity and busting into the middle of a conversation with "I JUST HAVE TO KNOW YOUR AMERICAN IMMIGRATION STORY" in any form is rude, and if it doesn't come up organically or it doesn't seem like it would be a welcome question, I gotta just let it go and not be a jerk.

(But I'm curious about immigration to my state to the point that I read scholarly papers about immigration to the Illinois Valley in the 1840s and farming methods introduced thereupon, so like really curious. And I've learned a lot of really interesting things over the years. Like someone said a couple years back, "My family's originally Swedish, they came to Illinois with this weird utopian sect --" and I was like "YOUR FAMILY WAS IN BISHOP HILL?????" and they were like, "You are literally the first person I've ever met who's heard of Bishop Hill," and I was like "TELL ME ALL THE THINGS!" Or, I've learned a lot about what specific regions in Mexico and India a lot of our more recent immigrants come from, by having these chats, so when I happen to be chatting with someone newly arrived who's just taken a job at the hospital here and they say they're from Gujarat, I'm like, "I've heard there's an unusually large number of just stunning temples there, and the local Indian community had one of the gods at the local Hindu temple specially made in stone from a quarry in Gujarat that they said is really well-regarded for that kind of statuary. I went for part of the dedication festivities and it really is lovely stone," and people are always very pleased that I've heard of their local quarries or cuisine or colleges or whatever. Anyway, meeting someone whose family immigrated to live in Bishop Hill is probably my biggest coup in terms of nosy questions about people's pasts, but I've heard a lot of really great family stories, more than a few of which involve insane utopian communities, which makes me so happy, I love weird history.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:55 AM on October 27, 2015 [33 favorites]


So can one ask, "Are you from around here?"

Depends on how you ask it.
posted by qcubed at 11:55 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I wonder if the social position you term "high status" makes the question seem less like talking down to you than it feels here in the States.

well, sometimes it can mean "why is your spanish so bad?", but there's a whole thing here about the whiter you are the better, so my "problem" is more about being uncomfortable with being placed on a pedestal (i hope this doesn't sound arrogant - it is uncomfortable, but the kind of problem where, if that's the worst you've got, life ain't bad....)
posted by andrewcooke at 12:00 PM on October 27, 2015


This is probably the right place to share this story. A few years back, my family was invited to a New Year's Day party at the home of one of my mom's patients: lovely people, but also white, older and extremely wealthy, so we thought we had an idea of what kind of crowd to expect. I also brought along my white, Midwestern-raised, then-fiancee, now husband.

When we got there, my family and I were the only non-white people around, aside from the servers. Our hosts, to their credit, were perfectly gracious and warm, but as lunch was served, I found myself seated next to an older gentleman who kept peering at me in a curious manner. We made polite introductions, which were immediately followed by this exchange:

"So what are you?"

"Uh, excuse me?"

"What are you? Chinese? Korean?"

"Oh, well, actually, I was born and raised in (next town over.)"

"Right, right, but are you Chinese? Vietnamese?"

"Er, well, my family is originally from Japan, but we--."

He visibly relaxed at this point and proceeded to launch into a long, rambling tirade about how the Japanese used to be behind Europe and the U.S., but had improved so much and were now so much better than the "backwards" Chinese. I'm pretty sure the guy was trying to compliment me, which only made it that much worse. My fiancee, who had really only encountered racism as a theoretical construct at that point, was totally horrified on my behalf. I just remember trying to melt into the floor, angry and sad that this wasn't the first and wouldn't be the last time I'd encounter situations like this.
posted by Diagonalize at 12:01 PM on October 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


I have a speech impediment that I have overcome at the price of sounding like I am from somewhere else. My last name is unusual. The gentle probing questions are funny to me and I find some delight in answering them as the questioner gets more confused.

My favorite was a curious Parisian waitress grilling me and then telling me that I neither sounded nor looked like an American. We were well off the beaten path and she had initially addressed us in Dutch, which had been happening all day for some reason. What do Americans look like? You know, white socks, camera, nasty 5 color shirt, fat. Oh did she have a list. She had to sit down with us to deliver the rest of it. I genuinely wanted to hear it.

We needed an umbrella and asked where to go and she said she was off in 15 and she'd show us and we ended up buying her drinks and talking about the Clinton-Lewinski thing. At the table next to us were 4 Brazilian students who asked me where I was from. I certainly could not be from the states.

We pushed the tables together and I told them about my speech therapy. How Mrs. MacDougal finally used a swab to show me what I needed to do with my tongue. It was odd to be in a foreign country with people who could not believe that I was born in Chicago.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 12:02 PM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think part of what makes it such a tough question in the US is that for one sort of American, it's a question you ask in solidarity with immigrants and to reinforce our shared Americanness -- my family* came on the Mayflower, your family came on a 747, but we're (almost) all immigrants and we all share that story.

But for another sort of American, you ask the same question for the exact opposite reason: to mark out and exclude more recent immigrants as "others" who don't belong.

For Americans who use the question to be like, "Let's share stories of Americanness! I love immigration!" it's sometimes hard to realize that other Americans are using it to be like "I AM AMERICAN AND YOU ARE NOT" and that the person you're asking -- particularly if they're a person of color -- has no way of knowing if you're the first sort or the second sort.

*I mean, not my family. But someone's family.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:09 PM on October 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


well, sometimes it can mean "why is your spanish so bad?", but there's a whole thing here about the whiter you are the better, so my "problem" is more about being uncomfortable with being placed on a pedestal (i hope this doesn't sound arrogant - it is uncomfortable, but the kind of problem where, if that's the worst you've got, life ain't bad....)

It doesn't sound arrogant to me; if that's your reality, that's what it is. In case you or anyone else isn't familiar with it, the term of art for this is "colorism", and it's especially prevalent in post-colonial countries. India, for example, is notoriously hostile to darker people, and skin lightening is a multi-million dollar industry there.
posted by Errant at 12:13 PM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I have many instances of where this question has been used aggressively against me here in England. These instances do not involve white British people, as you might think. They have involved (inevitably) older, Indian men.

Recently, it was after I interrupted a cab driver chatting with his friend to ask if he was free. He was free and he grudgingly took me on. Looking back in the mirror he just blurts out "Where are you from!?" I tell him I'm American. "Yes," he asks again impatiently," where is your family from?" I tell him my family is from Mexico. Silence ensues. No more conversation.

I gather he was trying to figure out where I was from in India, perhaps so he could put me in my place, I don't know. My point in bringing this example up is that those who think this question is neutral or a pleasant conversation starter may not see that it is used not only to assess race but also class, nationality, social standing. It is used to establish hierarchy. And if you don't understand that it is used this way, probably best not to use it at all.
posted by vacapinta at 12:14 PM on October 27, 2015 [12 favorites]


He visibly relaxed at this point and proceeded to launch into a long, rambling tirade about how the Japanese used to be behind Europe and the U.S., but had improved so much and were now so much better than the "backwards" Chinese. I'm pretty sure the guy was trying to compliment me, which only made it that much worse.

Jesus fucking christ with a broken pogo stick.

I've run into situations where older white dudes would try to talk to me about how I'm one of the good minorities (as opposed to [slurs]) and spoke English well, but I've never run into a situation where they were being racist to other East Asians after finding out what I was.
posted by qcubed at 12:16 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


qcubed: "Wait... what are orange Asians supposed to be?"

Boehner-Americans.
posted by scrump at 12:46 PM on October 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee, I am also fascinated by immigrant stories…but I get that if your story is still unfolding, than maybe it's too personal to discuss, and I won't ask you about it. It's pretty much "not punching down" in that situation, which I didn't understand until recently.

(Eyebrows, I would love to tell you about my cousins' century farm sometime. I mean, this obit and this obit and this book introduction are great American stories!)
posted by wenestvedt at 12:58 PM on October 27, 2015


It is used to establish hierarchy.

Absolutely. I get it all the time in the UK. Mainly because my answer drops me several notches in status from moderately posh white man to Brummie. And the person asking me stumbles and congratulates me on not having the accent. It ends up being a very telling interaction where I find out a lot about someone. I don't know how much they find out about me. And I don't lose anything of value by the awkwardness of the conversation.

I'm sure it's extremely alienating for people who don't benefit from my privilege, because I only very rarely get that sinking feeling of "wow, people really aren't taking me seriously", and knowing that your answer to a common starting piece of small talk will determine the success of your conversation with someone must be incredibly frustrating.
posted by ambrosen at 1:15 PM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


As a white canadian in a city that's pretty multicultural, I have stopped asking this question, because most of my firends find it on the spectrum between offensive and annoying, except, I've learned, other white people, especially Americans.

WHO LOVE IT.

We recently spent our honeymoon at a resort in mexico, and it was like a mass of loud drunk white people revelling in telling each other what city they live in, what city they were born in, what part of america those cities are in, and what mix their ancestry was.

"You're from Jersey!? My grandma was born in jersey, but we live in Dallas now, go cowboys! we're all Irish though, except my wife who is Norwegian on her mom's side!"

While I totally understand everyone who feels othered by the question and think their viewpoint is really the only one that matters and is how we need to act (ie: stop asking) I think sometimes this is just a clueless thing, where most people who have never had to feel othered by something, just love to talk about their places and their ancestry and how that makes them unique, or how they relate to other people through it. It was bizarre and interesting.
posted by euphoria066 at 1:22 PM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yeah, it took me a while to realize that non-white people in the US see this question differently. If I ask someone where they are from, I really do mean "where were you born" regardless of their ethnicity, but I guess too many people don't.

White people ask each other this question all the time, it's probably one of the most common "small talk" questions I can think of. But of course it's much less likely someone has weird racist assumptions when asking that way. (And the "other" question is usually stated like "What is your heritage" or "Where are your ancestors from" or something, assuming the person looks/sounds American).

Depends on context, I think, too. If you're getting to know someone (early stages of dating, for example) it's natural to ask about life history (where were you born, where have you lived, why did you move, etc). But asking a stranger about their history is a lot weirder (I'm deeply uncomfortable talking to strangers so this is never a problem for me!).
posted by thefoxgod at 1:31 PM on October 27, 2015


He visibly relaxed at this point and proceeded to launch into a long, rambling tirade about how the Japanese used to be behind Europe and the U.S., but had improved so much and were now so much better than the "backwards" Chinese.

I hear this complaint all the time, and, man, it sounds like the worst. As though the question itself wasn't bad enough, why does the person want to know? Oh, wait, it's because he or she has some horrible opinion about other races or nationalities that they are waiting for a prompt to express.

Wonderful.
posted by maxsparber at 1:35 PM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


sorry, is there a term for "nth generation (immigrant) where n > 1" (third culture is close, but seems to include moving between cultures, according to wikipedia)?
posted by andrewcooke at 1:38 PM on October 27, 2015


I had a weird experience at a friend's wedding, when everyone at the table decided to interrogate me on being Jewish and how long exactly my family had been there. (Longer than the bride's family or the groom's father -- but both of their groups were allowed to attend French schools.)

This was a complete shock to people -- Jews have been around since before the 50s, and they are English because they weren't allowed to attend French schools -- it's not like the poor Eastern European immigrants tended to know English OR French.

Otherwise I never get asked this, though for some reason my mother always does. (They just go around all the countries in the Mediterranean, where she has zero background, until they either eventually guess Jew or give up.)
posted by jeather at 1:40 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


where are you from originally?

The womb.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 1:43 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


[other white people, especially Americans] [...] love to talk about their places and their ancestry and how that makes them unique, or how they relate to other people through it.
posted by euphoria066 at 4:22 PM on October 27 [+] [!]


This is empowering to white Americans because they can choose to embrace their Irish/Italian/Russian/etc... heritage or not. They can decide for themselves how it factors into their overall identity and in what ways.

Whereas my ethnic heritage is: a) visible to everyone whether I like it or not and b) is interpreted by other people and used to make assumptions about my identity (ex: you must like doing karaoke, you know about the politics of China, you can define every Asian food item for me as I browse my menu, etc...)

Also, although you did not say this, but it was implied... You can be clueless and racist at the same time. Unintentional racism is extremely common.
posted by joeyjoejoejr at 1:45 PM on October 27, 2015 [16 favorites]


This is Conspire's comment on this issue from the mammoth MetaTalk racism thread.
posted by lalochezia at 1:48 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Similar to the folks from DC, since I moved to L.A., and almost no one is from L.A. (even the ones who are "from L.A." are usually from Orange or some shit). My default is to expect that everyone moved here from somewhere else — the only people actually from L.A. live in S.F. and Portland. But I can also recognize that it can be fraught — I remember asking some volunteer where he was from and he assumed I was trying to feel him out on immigration status. I had to clarify, "No, like, the Valley? West side? East side? Hollywood? Where did you drive from to get here? We try to give you turf that's in your neighborhood so you can just go home afterwards."

I do get asked where I'm from all the time, which usually means that someone has noticed my Michigan accent, or that they think I'm Jewish (I tick a lot of the Bayesian inference boxes). The Jewish thing is almost always from Jewish people, and while I'm honest about it, I stopped trying to correct people because almost invariably they just remember it as me being Jewish anyway. (Similarly, we found that canvassing for LGBT issues means that everyone you canvass assumes that you're LGBT and even if you tell them you're not, in a week they'll remember you as LGBT. People have lazy brains.)
posted by klangklangston at 1:49 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Leslie Knope: You're not from here, right?
Tom Haverford: No, I'm from South Carolina.
Leslie Knope: But you moved to South Carolina from where?
Tom Haverford: My mother's uterus.
Leslie Knope: But you were conceived in Libya, right?
Tom Haverford: Wow. No. I was conceived in America. My parents are Indian.
Leslie Knope: Where did the name Haverford come from?
Tom Haverford: My birth name is Darwish Zubair Ismail Gani. Then I changed it to Tom Haverford, because you know, brown guys with funny-sounding Muslim names don't make it far into politics.
Leslie Knope: What about Barack Obama?
Tom Haverford: Okay, yeah, fine, Barack Obama. If I knew a guy named Barack Obama was gonna be elected president, yeah, maybe I wouldn't have changed it.

posted by zutalors! at 1:52 PM on October 27, 2015 [17 favorites]


If you're really curious about somebody's ethnicity, just start talking about yours. People often chime in to talk about their family. Many people like talking about their family! They just don't want to be quizzed about it (usually).

I look white but I have a name that is associated with various waves of Spanish-speaking immigrants to the US (primarily consisting people of color). So I get a lot of "what are you" and because I'm of marriageable age, I get "is your husband Hispanic?"

The part that particularly annoys me is that people are interested enough to ask but then their eyes glaze over when I give them the real answer. Sorry that you didn't want a five minute lecture about the ethnic history of the southwestern US or whatever but it's basically the only reasonably accurate answer.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 1:54 PM on October 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


my mother always does. (They just go around all the countries in the Mediterranean, where she has zero background, until they either eventually guess Jew or give up.)

Yeah, some Eastern European-type features gloss as ethnically ambiguous. I've been surprised by how many ethnicities people have read into my face (I've gotten all the Med countries, and some from the Middle East, Latin America, parts of Asia).
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:54 PM on October 27, 2015


Ugh, okay, so I just got back from a meeting with a handful of white, educated, very well-traveled women. We were all chatting politely, when a newcomer arrived. She was black, visibly nervous, and didn't seem to speak much English. "Where are you from?" was literally the second thing out of their mouths, followed by "Ooh, how exotic!" at the poor woman's answer, and I just wanted to flip the motherfucking table. She seemed nice, and I hope she comes back, but I can't say I would blame her if she didn't.
posted by Diagonalize at 1:54 PM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


Oh god yeah, being Japanese totally means that crazy racist people take your ethnicity as an opening to shit on other Asians. I'm always like, "ok I guess I'm glad I didn't mention my Chinese grandpa* then, also goodbye forever."

My ancestors on my dad's side are from England and Germany. No one ever wants to hear about them, which informs my thinking on what is meant by this question.

*Not by blood. He was my grandma's second husband, but my mom called him Dad, so he's my grandpa. Hello, people have complex personal histories!
posted by sunset in snow country at 1:56 PM on October 27, 2015 [7 favorites]


(Also I tend to give the long answer about my ethnicity because I absolutely do not want to hear people talking shit about immigrants and the people who would talk shit to me about immigrants tend get confused by the long answer. GOOD.)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 1:57 PM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


And if no visible ethnicity is involved there's always still accent.

My first hairdresser visit in The Hague, 1979: "Are you coming from the farmers?" (Yes, the original Dutch also sounds awkward, so I picked a literal translation. "Kom je van de boeren vandaan?" is a drastically dumbed down way of phrasing a lame question, while also anticipating my not getting any of it [no... I'm 'from the Germans,' and shy]

These days, when people ask me 'where are you from,' I have to kick myself not to quip "right from the parking lot." Because the story is too long and relatively boring to interest anyone anyway. But reading internet fraud d., I might change my mind.
posted by Namlit at 2:06 PM on October 27, 2015


(not that these categorizations aren't imposed on variation within and across more or less arbitrarily assigned ethnic groups, or that "ambiguity" presupposes its opposite. i just mean that people obviously have stereotypes, and see what they want to see when features aren't focal within those stereotypes.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:06 PM on October 27, 2015


Oh god yeah, being Japanese totally means that crazy racist people take your ethnicity as an opening to shit on other Asians.

A friend's mother is British and her father is Chinese with a last name that is (weirdly) both a Swiss name and a Chinese name, and the amount of crazy racist stuff that her mother hears out of absolutely nowhere (after they hear her last name and confirm she's white) is amazing.
posted by jeather at 2:17 PM on October 27, 2015


I hate this question.
It happens a lot, to me, since I have an (uncommon) East Asian surname but don't look very (stereotypically) East Asian; I also have a speech impediment. I am tempted to found a micronation and claim citizenry of it.
posted by bad grammar at 2:19 PM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


My #1 "Where are you really from" story took place at Trader Joe's...

I was checking out and the cashier began engaging me in some small talk as TJ employees are wont to do. It was fine until we got to the dreaded, "Where are you from -- no, where are you really from?" dance. I answered reluctantly and he replied that it was "a good mix." (???) I took the opportunity to bring up Filipino food, which I actually do give a shit about. He was not interested in discussing this. Instead he said, "That's cool... you know I heard Filipino culture is kind of weird like... *whispering* they pierce the girl's nipples when they're really young."*

Why am I stuck in conversation where my answer implies whether or not my nipples are pierced?! At the grocery store?!?! I just wanted some jalapeno cheese crunchies (sadly no longer available, never forget). You literally could have said nothing to me and this would have been an A+ grocery shopping experience.

He coincidentally ripped his name off of the receipt while changing the roll--but I reported him anyway because I had the approximate time and register number.

*Really curious to know what his source on this was. Racist Bullshit Weekly? "In this issue, 10 CRAZY things to say to Asian women you've just met."
posted by joeyjoejoejr at 2:22 PM on October 27, 2015 [16 favorites]


The part that particularly annoys me is that people are interested enough to ask but then their eyes glaze over when I give them the real answer. Sorry that you didn't want a five minute lecture about the ethnic history of the southwestern US or whatever but it's basically the only reasonably accurate answer.

Yeah, I feel like if people are so curious, so goddam curious, then how come they know absolutely nothing about Indian or Indian American language, food, culture, etc. I cannot be the first Indian American person they've ever met.
posted by zutalors! at 2:26 PM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


sorry, is there a term for "nth generation (immigrant) where n > 1" (third culture is close, but seems to include moving between cultures, according to wikipedia)?

"Third culture" refers to the 1.5 (immigrated in childhood) or 2nd generation (first generation born in country)*, who are said to have three cultures: their parents, their society's, and the amalgam of the two that they experience. People don't tend to count much past the 3rd or 4th generation in terms of immigration or culture clash; at that point, your family and you are presumed to have assimilated fully into the surrounding society. The only specialized terms for immigrant generations that I know are Japanese: issei (the immigrating generation), nisei (the first generation born in the new country), sansei, yonsei, gosei.

*Some people, including myself, use the term "1st generation" instead of "2nd generation" to mean the first generation born to immigrant parents, but apparently this is not standard in the US.
posted by Errant at 2:40 PM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


I just recently had a conversation with my mother about why this isn't a great question, even if you are interested for reasons like Eyebrows McGee's. (Which my mother by and large is, I feel compelled by filial love to point out.) It really kicked in for her when I asked "well, do you ever ask white people this question?"

"Oh, um. No. No, I guess I don't."

"Well, why not?"

"Well, I guess I assume that white people are mostly all from here already."

"Mom, you are LITERALLY MARRIED TO A BRITISH CITIZEN."

". . . somehow I never connected these two sets of facts."

" Also, you know how he feels when people go on and on about how fantastic his accent is, right? Do you think it's possible that other people feel the same way about 'compliments' about their hair or their clothes or their native cuisine?"

"Well, I do NOW."

I did suggest "So, have you lived in Iowa City long?" as an alternative ice-breaker, both for all the reasons listed above and also because that way if it looks like it's going off the rails she can say "We actually moved here from Seattle about fifteen years ago, and I'm fascinated by all the other ways people end up here" and then that can spiral into all kinds of other conversations.
posted by KathrynT at 2:41 PM on October 27, 2015 [11 favorites]


Yeah, I feel like if people are so curious, so goddam curious, then how come they know absolutely nothing about Indian or Indian American language, food, culture, etc. I cannot be the first Indian American person they've ever met.

Well, everyone else says they're from South Carolina. ;)

More seriously, I think it's because Americans seem to view places like India as essentially a monoculture. They've gotten to the point where some are starting to understand that Korea, China, and Japan are all kinda different, but haven't gotten to the point of understanding that Cantonese is not Hakka is not Mandarin is not Putonghua, let alone that the Punjabi, Telugu, Bengali, and Gujarati are all different with different languages but still live on the Indian subcontinent (are not even close to a tenth of the different groups), which is about as much area as the US west of the Rockies plus Texas.

Except they don't know it's that big because the map projections they didn't pay attention to in school are bad.
posted by qcubed at 2:43 PM on October 27, 2015


*Some people, including myself, use the term "1st generation" instead of "2nd generation" to mean the first generation born to immigrant parents, but apparently this is not standard in the US.

I've always clarified by saying "1st Generation American, 2nd Generation Immigrant," not that it matters because nobody who isn't familiar with immigrant issues understands that.
posted by qcubed at 2:44 PM on October 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


I, a very white guy, was asked this in Philadelphia a pile of years ago, because I dressed in tweed jackets and doc martens as opposed to the typical Philly uniform. So I answered, "Over by Carpenter". Which of course wasn't the answer looked for, "No, where are you originally from?"
"Oh, Far Northeast, Parkwood."
Still, I apparently, didn't understand "No dude, where were you born?"
"Ah, Germantown Hospital."
"OK, where are your parents from?"
"Avenue C."
"C'mon man your not from America."
"Dude, I've never been out of the US."
I knew what was asked from the beginning, but it was fun to lead him on the merry chase.
Still he wasn't completely wrong, I hadn't spent my whole life in South Philly learning how to fit in.
In fact my life had kind of taught me that for me, there was no such thing.
posted by evilDoug at 2:50 PM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


I don't know if any other Chinese descent Mefites have had this experience, but in the last decade or so I've had to be careful to answer the "Where I'm from?" question in front of other Chinese descent folks as well.

I was born in Taiwan, but these days I usually don't end up saying I'm Taiwanese, because some Mainland Chinese seem to think that implies that Taiwan is a country and not a wayward province of China. And there's obviously some different of opinion among Chinese on this issue.

So these days I simply say I'm from California. If they press, I say simply I was born in Taipei (the capital of Taiwan, but I don't mention that part). That usually prevents any awkwardness or having to listen to the same snarky remarks trotted out.

Other than that, I never really ask where someone is until they ask me. There's already a number of other things to talk about. And I usually have an inkling of an idea as I learn more about someone anyways.
posted by FJT at 2:51 PM on October 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


My current plan is that the next time a white person at a party asks where I'm "really" from, I'll ask them how much money they make.
posted by brainwane at 3:19 PM on October 27, 2015 [11 favorites]


Wikipedia page for immigrant generations, but it does get kind of confusing.

The thing about folks getting their glee on about their Irish/Italian/etc heritage is that it's usually because they're now accepted under the 'white' umbrella. So cool, no one will challenge how genuinely Irish or Italian you are based on your vocab skills or because you don't know certain types of food or cultural things. But I'm never going to be thought of as white and I'm likely not going to have those luxuries. So I'd rather avoid the conversation for my sanity.

And ohhhhh boy, FJT. I haven't had any mainland Chinese get on my case about Taiwan, but I need to re-evaluate and sort out my issues as an American with the Taiwanese vocabulary of a baby. (Seriously. I'm hungry, I'm full, I'm sleepy, I love you. Wah. It's pretty sad.) Identifying or not identifying as Taiwanese feels like a political act, no matter what.
posted by zix at 3:19 PM on October 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


but I can't say I would blame her if she didn't.

It happens a lot (and I always get surprised by it) when white folks remind me I'm Asian by how fucking racist they are about it. I mean, I'm there for conversation, and then there's all this intense focus on my background, ancestry, family and whether or not I know how to speak Chinese.

But yes, second only to exoticism-seeking white people, FJT, it seems like Chinese folks, especially older Chinese ladies, seem to feel like intense scrutiny is the only possible answer to a highly assimilated Chinese-American half-breed.
posted by kalessin at 3:21 PM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]




"An informal poll among girlfriends confirmed that women often get asked this question at loud, crowded bars and on streets." <~ Bahahhaa yes this. The funniest/creepiest is probably that I once had a guy in a club chase after me when I was politely rebuffing his advances to tell me "LOOK I AM GOING TO COME CLEAN I AM JUST REALLY INTO ASIAN GIRLZ U R ALL SO BEAUTIFUL". I have also been told I am "so beautiful and EXOTIC" *eyeroll*

Above comments: I am Taiwanese and have stood pretty firmly about being Taiwanese and born in Taiwan. This hasn't really been an issue for me. I used to work at the American office of a Chinese company with a team in Mainland China and never had any issues about it. Never had any discussions about the whole "Taiwan is its own country / Taiwan is a province of China" controversy."

That said, when Mainland Chinese ask where I'm from and I say Taiwan, they tell me I don't have a Taiwanese accent to my mandarin ;) (years of living in the US have given me a telltale American accent)
posted by raw sugar at 5:04 PM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Damn, this thread is going so much better than when I posted about the topic in 2006.

Much appreciation for LobsterMitten, to the mods for policy changes, to thoughtful white people who give a shit about empathic listening, and most especially to my peers of colour who've done so much heavy lifting on the blue and grey since then. I wish we hadn't lost so many of us along the way.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 5:12 PM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


My husband is from Sweden, but his family moved to New Zealand when he was about seven year old, and he subsequently forgot all his Swedish. I learned Swedish at university and am passable, with a pretty good accent. I was for a while also fluent in Danish, which meant any errors in my Swedish tended to be the ones that Danes make, and together with my blond hair and blue eyes, makes Scandinavians sometimes think I'm from around there.

When we lived in Denmark and travelled in Sweden, we used to love confusing the locals. We'd be having a conversation in a bank or shop, and I'd be interpreting for my husband, or he'd be muddling through a very basic sentence with a strong New Zealand accent, and I'd be speaking more fluently. After a few minutes, the inevitable question of "where are you guys from" would arise, and I'd say, "I'm from New Zealand, but he's from Sweden." Never failed to confuse (them) and amuse (me).

But of course I am aware that it is much more shitty question for someone who gets asked it because of skin colour or facial features, rather than accent, and of course it was a relative novelty for me, rather than something I've had to put up with all my life. So I try never to ask anyone else that question unless they clearly have English as a second language, or if it's at some event where everyone is away from home and we are all asking each other. Even then, I tend to phrase it as "Are you local?" rather than "where are you from?"
posted by lollusc at 5:22 PM on October 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


I also hate that when I do divulge my ethnic background, it's often used to fetishize me, like half-Asian women are some sort of box to check off on your to-fuck wishlist.

My wife isn't white, nor were some of my ex-girlfriends. I fairly often get people white guys asking me sotto voce questions that always boil down to wondering about genitals in oddly uninformed, but exceedingly interested, ways.

Where are you from, indeed.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:04 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


A combination of this question plus the "your English is great!" really bugs me. I am a recent immigrant, so I don't get to play the misleading game, and I did work really hard to reduce my accent and increase my vocabulary...but I guess I can hear the unspoken "unlike those other Mexicans".
posted by cobain_angel at 8:42 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


People just say racist stuff about Indians right in front of me, just for data. They don't seem to worry about comparing to other Asians or whatever.
posted by zutalors! at 8:48 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think it's so freaking odd that people ask this "no, really?" shit. Why the fuck is it important to you to nitpick that? What does it matter to you? You gotta pin everyone down like a dead butterfly on a display board? Seriously, I will only ask if it suddenly becomes relevant to the conversation, like if someone said, "Where I come from, unicorns run free across the playa," because I'd definitely want to find out where that was. Or at work, but that's more because I don't want to get anyone accidentally deported. *sigh*

"Anyway, three questions I almost never ask anyone are:
Where are you from?
What do you do?
Are you married (or in a long term relationship)?
If they want you to know, they'll bring it up."


Damn right! We've already covered question one, question two can lead to a pretty depressing answer most of the time (see other threads about Amazon, etc. and how the job world is going), and anyone who's with someone will probably blab that within the first five minutes of meeting you anyway.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:51 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Interesting. As a non-American at a US university I liked being asked this question, because it meant that I could answer it accurately (Pakistan) and hope that the asker would not assume that I'd have standard American assumptions, views and points of reference - this was around 9/11 so that difference was important to me.

Unfortunately the most frequent follow-up was usually the cataclysmically ignorant 'you speak such good English' so in retrospect my hope was probably misplaced.
posted by tavegyl at 10:26 PM on October 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


I almost posted this in the MeTa, but i have gotten the MOST RIDICULOUS responses to this question. I hate it, as do many others here, but holy shit.

So to set the scene of the most egregious one, i'm ravenously destroying the best meat crepe ever at my favorite crepe shop of all time(RIP in peace crepe cravers on the ave). Like, i was probably moaning and/or making the noises a dog makes when it's eating something it knows it's not supposed to ridiculously fast. I wasn't capable of thinking about anything but crepes.

So some guy walks up to me just to ask me where i'm from. I know this is probably going to be a shitty snail trail skidmark conversation already at this point, but i engage anyways...

Me: Oh, i'm native american, and i'm Suquamish so i'm actually from here.
Him: But like, where are your mom and dad from?
Me: Well my moms native, and my dads german
Him: But you don't LOOK like an indian, you look like jewish or middle eastern
Me: uh.....what?
Him: Hey guys, do you think this guy looks indian?

And at this point, his friends look really awkwarded out. Some of them are standing outside. But the fucking buttholes play along and all take turns answering.

Then he goes OUTSIDE THE RESTAURANT TO FIND HIS OTHER FRIENDS, MAKE THEM COME BACK IN, AND ASK THEM ONE AT A TIME.

My nearly orgasmic crepe consumption experience is irreparably ruined at this point, and i say something at the end like "So, what's your fucking point man?".

He endes up following me down the street to keep arguing with me and yelling at me. He didn't fuck off until i got to the bus stop.

This isn't the only time someone has gotten actually angry at my response. It's almost tied in how much it pisses me off with "Oh, me too! My great grandma was cherokee!". People get like, yelling mad like that sometimes though.

What the fuck? Writing that out i still kind of can't believe it really happened, but it totally did.
posted by emptythought at 11:17 PM on October 27, 2015 [24 favorites]


This is absolutely disgusting.
(Also sorry for the missed crepe experience)
posted by Namlit at 11:47 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


"I was born in Taiwan, but these days I usually don't end up saying I'm Taiwanese, because some Mainland Chinese seem to think that implies that Taiwan is a country and not a wayward province of China. And there's obviously some different of opinion among Chinese on this issue."

I always think of my next-door neighbor at an old place, Paul, who moved in after us. We had him and his girlfriend over for a party, and they brought us gifts (a set of Taiwan postcards and some of the best tea I've ever had), and I asked him about his new roommate, Dave.

"What's he like?"
"Oh. He's from China," said in the same tone people from Ann Arbor would say, "Oh. He's from Ohio."

With Paul working hard to get American citizenship so he could take an engineering job in Tulsa, Dave barely leaving the house except for class, and Paul's chipper-but-weird girlfriend Leelee, I always thought it had potential as a sitcom.
posted by klangklangston at 11:52 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


qcubed: "Wait... what are orange Asians supposed to be?"

Well, there are ganguro and yamamba in Japan, but that fashion trend has mercifully faded. But yes, orange. Very orange. Makes Boehner look pale and human-like by comparison.

I'd add a link, but phone is being weird.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:04 AM on October 28, 2015


I was checking out and the cashier began engaging me in some small talk as TJ employees are wont to do. It was fine until we got to the dreaded, "Where are you from -- no, where are you really from?" dance. I answered reluctantly and he replied that it was "a good mix." (???) I took the opportunity to bring up Filipino food, which I actually do give a shit about. He was not interested in discussing this. Instead he said, "That's cool... you know I heard Filipino culture is kind of weird like... *whispering* they pierce the girl's nipples when they're really young."*
I remember that the point when "where are you from?" jumped the shark for me was after I encountered my n-hundredth version of:

"oh, you're Filipino? My buddy's got a Filipina wife and she's smoking hot."

"oh, you're Filipino? My buddy's got a Filipina wife and she's a great cook. Like, she makes these great crispy fried rolls. What do you call them again?"

And this would often occur in places like California or New York where multi-generational Filipino immigrants are pretty common, and it just felt weird and terrible to be constantly reminded that these people probably encountered Filipinos on a relatively regular basis, but the only ones that stuck in their mind were the ones who were good cooks or fuckable.
posted by bl1nk at 5:05 AM on October 28, 2015 [10 favorites]


Oh, and just to further cement the theory that my half-Asian appearance is a fleeting, superficial trait that men glom onto, you should see the numbers on guys whose expressions turn sour/baffled/disinterested once I tell them that my other half is Ashkenazi Jew.

Bye, bigots!
posted by rachaelfaith at 5:33 AM on October 28, 2015 [10 favorites]


To elaborate a bit on my last comment, I live in San Francisco and I almost never get this question. (In fact I got it a couple days ago, while on vacation - "Where you from? China? Vietnam? JA-pan?" - and I was very taken aback by how completely furious it made me; I thought I was past that.) What I do tend to get are what I think of as 201-level microaggressions, where the person has learned one or two basic things and, in their well-meaning liberal goodness, try to proudly show off what they know and get it painfully wrong. (I think sometimes this is where the "let me say terrible things about other Asians" thing comes from.) One that bugs me is when they find out that I (Japanese American) am dating a Chinese American guy and are like "Are his parents okay with that?" (omg why would you ask that) because they know that historically the Chinese and Japanese don't like each other very much. Which, good for you, but I get the feeling that these are people who wouldn't ask a black woman dating a white guy if his parents are ok with it, because that would imply that the white people are racist! They're fine implying that about my fam, though. You know how those Asians are.
posted by sunset in snow country at 5:47 AM on October 28, 2015 [13 favorites]


Also cosigned on hating it when people use my answer to grill me on "how" Japanese I am based on markers like food or language.

I remember reading a discussion here, I forget what it was about exactly - something about Irish people getting annoyed when Americans with Irish ancestry say "I'm Irish." Someone said something like, "Ugh, stop going on and on about your connection to Irish culture when your only Irish blood is four generations back on one side." I bookmarked it in fascination because that EXACTLY describes my Japanese blood - four generations back on one side - and yet non-Japanese people get so weird about me not being culturally Japanese at all, as if it's a shame or a loss. I feel fine about it, I'm engaged in the Japantown community and I volunteer and those other cultural markers aren't the only way to be Asian American, but I think it's hard for people to get that.
posted by sunset in snow country at 6:13 AM on October 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


This isn't the only time someone has gotten actually angry at my response. It's almost tied in how much it pisses me off with "Oh, me too! My great grandma was cherokee!". People get like, yelling mad like that sometimes though.
posted by emptythought at 2:17 AM on October 28 [7 favorites +] [!]


lol at the extreme hostility some people show when you point out their clearly racist bullshit. In the first minute of meeting some guy, he asked if I liked karaoke. My response was basically, "No, what?!?!?" and he proceeded to flip out and argue with me that Asian people really do love karaoke!

Me on the inside when that happens.

Also sad about your crepe experience. Racism can prevent people from enjoying crepes and therefore, it must be stopped.
posted by joeyjoejoejr at 6:41 AM on October 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


My favorite unwarranted assumption story is, back when I had an american girlfriend, we were in Milwaukee meeting some relatives of hers and one of them, I think some sort of bro-cousin, said "hi dude, try this" and puts a spoon in my mouth, with like the hottest hot sauce I'd ever tried. I got red and started coughing and sputtering and he's all like "I thought latinos ate really hot food!" 5 minutes and 3 glasses of water later I informed him A) that Chileans do not, in fact, eat especially hot food, certainly less than your average gringo bro does, and B) to ask before sticking food in people's mouths in the future, ok?
posted by signal at 6:55 AM on October 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


Being both a first generation American and a second generation global nomad/third culture kid I have this whole no-I'm-not-from-around-here-I'm-not-from-anywhere that covers the past forty years of my family's movement in about twenty seconds.

Until about half an hour ago I was kind of annoyed at my mother for training this reflex in me -- we don't owe them our life story, Mom! -- but between the cultural appropriation thread/race meta and this one I've just realized that she probably started doing that spiel because the, "Wow, what an interesting life!" responses, however tired, are still better than, "Oh, so your husband is an American soldier [unspoken: who saved you]?"

Which, to be clear, a lot of Vietnamese women have married American soldiers and I fully support their life choices. The problem is that when white people ask my mother that question it's not really about clarifiying the details of her stated life story as it is creating a narrative for her which makes a lot of assumptions about her agency, life experience, education and class level, politics, etc etc etc. that doesn't leave any room for her to be her own person. A person, for instance, who met the man she married via a disgustingly saccharine grad school meet-cute that movie critics would deride as too implausible, rather than a tragic war story.

Sorry, Mom.

Anyway, I don't particularly mind respectful inquiries about how long I've lived in this town or whatever, but I could do with a lot less of the, "Oh, you're part Asian? I did think you looked a little exotic!", or the unsolicited speeches about the attractiveness of mixed race people (I keep meaning to respond to this with "I'm also really good at math!" even though that's kind of a lie), or the white guys who think I haven't noticed that they're suddenly looking at me differently from the way they were thirty seconds ago. Not gonna happen, dude.
posted by bettafish at 8:04 AM on October 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


"Are his parents okay with that?"

Ugh, my siblings and I have all gotten weird comments like this. For whatever reason, people can get creepily concerned when they find out we have non-Japanese partners, from all kinds of angles. I've gotten folks worried about the aging Japan-issue who think it should be our duty to pump out Japanese-blooded babies (thanks, totally inappropriate great-uncle) and jerks who mostly want to convey how heinous they believe Japanese imperialism was (half my family was from a marginalized and oppressed population in Japan, hence the reason they came to the U.S., but I so appreciate you whitesplaining why you think I should be ashamed of my ancestry, random party jerk).

I will also never understand the people who think I wasted my college education by getting a degree in English, but then swoon approvingly when I mention that my brother majored in Japanese, particularly when we were literally in many of the same classes together.
posted by Diagonalize at 8:09 AM on October 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


People always say "Oh I thought your parents would forbid you from marrying a non Indian man" which is not something I'd ever say since it's never been remotely true.

"I thought you said that."

"No, never."

"But they'd prefer it."

"Yeah, probably. Right now they'd be thrilled with anyone."

"Oh don't worry you'll find someone!" (whole other awkward topic begins)
posted by zutalors! at 8:14 AM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm a doctor in the Atlanta suburbs. Here, 90% of the people grew up somewhere outside of Atlanta. And I pretty much ask everyone, "where'd you grow up?" This goes for Yankees and Southerners and Mexicans and Indians and Brits and people with light skin and dark skin and I really am just trying to make conversation and get to know them. Maybe I'm not attuned to it, but I don't feel like anyone has ever flinched at this question. I don't need to know this info, but I need to talk about something to build report and not just come across as purely clinical.

But based on the comments in this thread....maybe I should just ask them something else instead?
posted by robstercraw at 8:15 AM on October 28, 2015


(Although I suppose that most of the folks here who have taken issue with the question had been subjected to unwanted advances, violence, harassment, and not genuine interest it seems)
posted by robstercraw at 8:22 AM on October 28, 2015


I have an acquaintance who thinks it's appropriate to address people in whatever language she thinks is their mother tongue, and nothing dissuades her from doing so. She makes a ton of assumptions, and it's probably going to get her killed eventually.

A few years back, we were in Chicago, and she decided to address our taxi driver - whose tag said his name was Mohammed - in Arabic. He pulled over and screamed at us to get out of his cab, and commenced to what I can only assume was cussing us out. In FARSI. I pressed money into his hands, apologized profusely, and dragged her down the street. "Don't be a racist dumbfuck!"

She is persistently clueless. She tried to speak Arabic with my FIL, whose family came from Syria. Teta was pregnant with him when they came over, he was born here, and Teta forbade the speaking of anything but English in their household. She was just astounded when he looked at her and said "I only speak English." She asked a guy on the bus where in Africa he was from, because he had a bag with a silhouette of the continent on it, as was confused by the response of "I'm from Windsor."

Elder Monster, who does speak Arabic, has tried to explain why she, a white girl, should not assume that everyone who looks vaguely like him will welcome Arabic coming out of her mouth. She does not listen. I don't spend time with her any more.
posted by MissySedai at 8:30 AM on October 28, 2015 [9 favorites]


The thing with not seeing someone flinch is you don't know that nothing flinch-worthy happened, you just know you didn't see a flinch. Sometimes people don't flinch because learning to suppress that flinch is one more thing they've had to deal with to get along on a day to day basis. So they:

- have to hear a familiar and grating question
- have to feel the flinch, and
- have to do the work to keep you from seeing the flinch so that they don't have to also deal with your feelings being hurt by the flinch or with you needing an explanation from them of the whole phenomenon

That's not everybody, that's not all the time, and that's not saying anything about your intent. But not knowing something bothers someone isn't the same thing as it not bothering 'em, so our own perceptions of whether we're missing the mark with stuff like this aren't super reliable as a guide.
posted by cortex at 8:35 AM on October 28, 2015 [16 favorites]


Maybe I'm not attuned to it, but I don't feel like anyone has ever flinched at this question. I don't need to know this info, but I need to talk about something to build report and not just come across as purely clinical.

Well, it's also super dependent on context, too, is what some are saying. If a doctor were asking me, it'd be less of a "oh, another white person askin'" leading to the "Etlanna" answer, and more a "maybe he needs this for some Dr. House-level diagnosis," which leads to, "Born and raised in Etlanna, then moved up to Sh'caago."

But also, it's not always a physical flinch. Most of us who look different, well, we get used to being "polite" and non-threatening if we can, so.

I gotta ask, though. I hope the handle's because your name is some form of "Robert"...
posted by qcubed at 8:35 AM on October 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


roberstercraw, the problem is that genuine interest does not preclude white people from making racist assumptions, plus what everyone said above about hiding the flinches.

Although like qcubed, if a doctor asked me that question I would probably assume it was part of getting my history for medical purposes rather than (hopefully) deciding what box to stick me in.
posted by bettafish at 8:39 AM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


robstercraw: If my doctor asked me that during an office visit, I would think that s/he wanted to know where I grew up in case it was relevant to my medical history. Like, if I'd gotten all my shots, or from a part of the world where certain diseases are more prevalent.

However, that's also making a lot of assumptions about one's background from any place in the world. I'm leaning towards if it's not relevant to medical history, it's probably not a welcome question. If it's important to find out whether I've gotten all my shots, or have travelled internationally recently, then please ask those questions directly.
posted by cynical pinnacle at 8:40 AM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


robstercraw: "…had been subjected to unwanted advances, violence, harassment, and not genuine interest…"

The thing is, when you get The Question over and over and over and over and over again and then 3 times more this morning, the genuineness of the interest in person #123123871's mind isn't really your foremost concern.
posted by signal at 8:44 AM on October 28, 2015 [8 favorites]


robstercraw, I live in Boston and my general social circles tend to be people who came to the city as students / job-seekers / etc. Usually, when the opportunity comes up -- and it's almost always taken as a cue from the conversation where someone else might mention something like "the first time that I arrived in New England, I had to (learn how to deal with snow / get over how frosty New Englanders are / adapt to the Mad Max style traffic patterns)" -- then, I'll take that as a cue to ask either "oh, what brought you to Boston?" or "oh, where did you live before coming here?"

Then it's up to them to divulge as much of their background as they want, sometimes they just do the bare minimum of, "I went to grad school in Baltimore before moving up here for a job." or the full monty of "I went to grad school in Baltimore, but my parents are from Bangladesh, and I was born and raised in Richmond." Regardless of the degree of data that they choose to offer, I just go with what they answer.

I find that assuming the person is a native until they express otherwise, and then asking something specific about why they moved to the area is a relatively safe way to express interest in their background while also allowing them the latitude to define what that background is without feeling like they're being judged.
posted by bl1nk at 8:45 AM on October 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


robstercraw, I'd say most of the people asking are genuinely interested in my background. That doesn't mean it's any of their business, and it also doesn't mean that what may be a totally benign and well-meaning question isn't tiresome after the umpteenth time hearing it, even if I'm too polite to say so. Doctors usually get a pass on all kinds of prying questions though, so like everyone else, I would just assume it was relevant to my medical history.

Context and intent certainly matter, but it's not like there's a clear and foolproof guidebook for how to be a decent person. My husband was squirming as he was reading through this thread last night before looking up with an expression of anguish, "Have I been doing something wrong? I ask people where they're from all the time at work, and people ask me too, but I always assumed it means 'What university are you affiliated with?'" And I had to laugh and reassure him he was in the clear, because he was totally correct.
posted by Diagonalize at 8:45 AM on October 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


I don't feel like anyone has ever flinched at this question

Maybe replace your quest for detecting the flinch with trying to look for a carefully studied blank expression. That at least is what did it for me.*

At nineteen, just arrived in Holland to study, and all excited about the multicultural mix there, I asked a fellow student where he was from. He looked Indian to me (for whatever that is worth). He straightened his back, looked me in my eyes, unsmilingly, and pronounced very clearly "I grew up in Brasil." I learned my lesson there and then.
posted by Namlit at 8:52 AM on October 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


But based on the comments in this thread....maybe I should just ask them something else instead?

If a physician asked me that on the job, I'd assume it was for some kind of screening purpose and rattle off DC-Germany-Florida-Arizona-Germany-Florida-Virginia-NC-Texas-NY
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:47 AM on October 28, 2015


If a doctor were asking me, it'd be less of a "oh, another white person askin'" leading to the "Etlanna" answer, and more a "maybe he needs this for some Dr. House-level diagnosis,"
posted by qcubed at 8:35 AM on October 28

I have a story about this! So recently I went to see a therapist for depression and anxiety issues entirely stemming from some health problems I had been having recently. One of the first questions I was asked was where I was from.

The therapist was absolutely insistent on linking my depression and anxiety with my status as an unmarried South Asian woman in her 30s (she was also South Asian, but from her accent born and brought up in the UK). She kept saying things like "Ah well your parents must be very disappointed, that must really depress you, especially when all your peers are married at this age" etc. I kept trying to tell her that my unmarried status wasn't really a stressor at the same level as the health problems I'd been experiencing, and also that, by the way, that my family are pretty cosmopolitan and don't give a rat's ass about my being unmarried, and most of my friends are single. She seemed amazingly resistant to this!

I never went back to her. This continues one of the most annoying cases of race-related pigeonholing I have yet encountered (and it came from someone from the same race as me!).
posted by Ziggy500 at 9:58 AM on October 28, 2015 [7 favorites]


Maybe I'm not attuned to it, but I don't feel like anyone has ever flinched at this question.

Given your username, I'm not sure I'd rely too much on your attunement to these issues.
posted by jaguar at 10:02 AM on October 28, 2015 [11 favorites]


I'm a mixed White- and (fourth-generation) Japanese-American, born and raised in Seattle. With my Pacific Northwest accent, European surname, and ambiguous face, nobody is very surprised to find out I was born here. I mostly get the question from Asian immigrants; sometimes they also ask more directly, “Are you Chinese? Japanese?”

For them I’m usually willing to explain a bit of my ancestry, since I think many of them just want to find out whether we have a common bond or some shared history. And I know they receive these questions a lot more than I do.

Personally, when I know someone well enough that we’re starting to share personal history with each other, I tend to ask “Where did you grow up?” or “Did you grow up here?” to make it clear that I’m asking about them personally, not about your people.
posted by mbrubeck at 10:38 AM on October 28, 2015


Omg Ziggy500, something similar happened to me when I saw a therapist years back. I was having some pretty intense issues with my mom and the therapist kept asking me if it was because of her culture. She's third generation American, so, uh.
posted by sunset in snow country at 10:46 AM on October 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


Ziggy500, I am so sorry that happened to you. I gnash my teeth on your behalf, and hope you find a therapist who will actually listen to you.
posted by MissySedai at 12:32 PM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


*waves* One more person here with a similar story. For me, medical treatment was disrupted because the professional treating me assumed and misremembered my birthplace as being elsewhere, not here.
posted by brainwane at 12:55 PM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


I learned to ask this question when getting to know somebody new in my first few weeks of university, when all of us were displaced from the places where we'd grown up, and everybody had an answer to it. The companion questions, "What are you studying?" and "Which college are you in?" became obsolete once I graduated, but this one did not. I would accept any answer, because my purpose was to start a conversation and it never occurred to me that, "Where are you from?" could mean anything like what it apparently so often does. (Obviously, I am white and a bit naïve.) If someone wanted to tell me about the city district they'd just moved to, or the town where they went to high school, or the country they were born in but moved away from as a toddler, it was all good to me.

Then, one day, I asked a new colleague where he was from, and he replied, "Do you mean where I grew up? Or where my parents are from? Or where their parents came from? Because I'm from Town W, my mum's from Country X, and my dad's family come from Y but they're ethnically W ..."

I flustered and panicked and was horrified that I'd effectively asked a question so offensive and so different from what I'd intended. I've been a lot more careful when making small talk since then. I wish it hadn't taken that stupid conversation to make me.
posted by daisyk at 12:59 PM on October 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh man. I just remembered that adult strangers (like parents ofother kids at the playground) used to ask me that all the time. And because I was little, they could demand that I answer them. I was powerless and disturbed by the force of their interest. Grown ups were never actually personally interested in what I said, they merely humored me and I sensed that. But this question...man. They would hyperfocus on me and I...I was shy, I tried to step back and run away but I was also trained to be obedient and they wouldn't let me get away or stay silent or not answer. There was no escaping that question.
"No, come on, tell me. WHERE ARE YOU FROM."

Hilarribly, due to a superficial phonetic similarity, they always misheard my answer as "Tunis"...and accepted it. Though I looked Chinese. Back them, Tunis was a popular cheapo holiday destination (which is the reason the simpletons who questioned me were familiar with it) while China was known for cheapo restaurants. I am neither. So not only was I immediately cast in an inferior light, it was usually also the wrong light!
Sometimes I corrected their mistake. I had to yell to do so, the sound of their own preconception was too loud in their ears. Then they'd look at me blankly. Sometimes, I'd let it slide so I could be dismissed from the questioning. I could never decide which was worse.

This thread is not dredging up good memories! I thought I'd gotten to the point of rolling my eyes, but looks like I'm still kind of hurt inside.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:50 PM on October 28, 2015 [4 favorites]


Thanks for all of the responses, guys! It's pretty interesting to hear everyone's perspective and this is what makes metafilter great.

Given your username, I'm not sure I'd rely too much on your attunement to these issues.

What a barbed comment! i do understand what you're saying. I've used this name since I was 11 years old, which was way before I had any clue that some new English speakers have trouble with r's and l's. I just thought it was silly baby talk. Furthermore, why would you attack me for honestly trying to become more attuned to "these issues?" If the name makes anyone uncomfortable I'll change it. Pm me.
posted by robstercraw at 3:02 PM on October 28, 2015


My ancestors on my dad's side are from England and Germany. No one ever wants to hear about them, which informs my thinking on what is meant by this question.

That's been my experience, too. I'm a fourth-generation American on both sides on my family, but my dad's grandparents came from Japan, and my mom's grandparents came from Russia, Poland, and England. Nobody is ever interested in my mom's family "immigration story." There are actually some really interesting stories on my mom's side of the family, too.

Also, nobody stops my white mother on the street to ask her about her "immigration story." The only time she gets any questions about her origins is if someone recognizes that she has a Japanese last name. Meanwhile, I get random questions from people on the street, grocery clerks, TSA agents, etc.

I guess this is a good a place as any to tell a story about doctors asking questions about racial/ethnic background.

A couple years ago, my husband developed a herniated disc in his back, and the pain quickly became so bad he couldn't sit or stand comfortably. Due to a lot of stupid delays, mostly caused by his primary care doctor, my husband had to wait two weeks before he could see a back specialist about this pain that was keeping him lying flat on his back all day, and disrupting his sleep.

Then when we finally saw the back specialist, he recommended a cortisone shot in the back. Only problem was that the back specialist didn't provide those shots, and he was going to refer us to a pain management specialist. It was late in the day and I was horrified that we'd have another major delay in getting my husband some pain relief. But the pain management specialist agreed to stay late that afternoon to get my husband his shot.

We went to the pain management specialist's office. The doctor is Korean-American. My husband is white.

The doctor talked for a while about the procedure and what the side effects are, etc. Then out of the blue, no segue whatsoever, he said to my husband: "Your wife looks half-Asian."

I said, "That's because I am half-Asian."

Then he interrogated me about the specifics of my ancestry, and then asked, "Where did you grow up?"

I said, "Just outside Phoenix, Arizona."

The doctor said, "That's not a great place for a half-Japanese kid to grow up."

I ignored all of the shitty memories that particular sentence dredges up, and said, "No, it wasn't."

I think he mentioned that he had a couple of half-Asian kids at home. Then he just as abruptly went back to the medical side of things.

This was very much a hilariously awkward interaction for me, and the very opposite of rapport-building. I felt kind of obligated to answer this guy's questions as politely as possible, because he was about to jam a needle in my husband's spine. The only reason I wasn't massively annoyed was that this doctor was the first medical professional to treat my husband's pain as the emergency that it was.
posted by creepygirl at 3:44 PM on October 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


I've used this name since I was 11 years old, which was way before I had any clue that some new English speakers have trouble with r's and l's. I just thought it was silly baby talk. Furthermore, why would you attack me for honestly trying to become more attuned to "these issues?" If the name makes anyone uncomfortable I'll change it. Pm me.

Buddy, sometimes intent is less important than the face that we choose to put forward. Sometimes we send signals that we don't intend to send. It's what happens when you become aware of sending a signal that is unwelcoming to others that matters--and again, that will be a signal in and of itself.

Your username is, whether you understood it or not when you took it on, mocking the accent of Japanese speakers who are learning English as adults. It plays into a long history of Americans and English speakers mocking Asian English speakers, especially ethnically Japanese English speakers. When you choose a name that has those connotations, you send a signal about your level of clued-in ness and your willingness to hear those issues, whether you intend to send it or not.

Furthermore, what you're doing here is a) digging in when called on that and b) insisting that someone open themselves up to you to help you process the fact that you're sending a signal that is kind of racist before c) you bother to change the signal that you're sending. I get you didn't mean it, but you're still sending that signal, and no one who sees your username now is going to automatically get that you've had it since you were 11. That context will not follow you, and it is not the context that the people who see that username have.

Worse, the defensiveness that follows that comment is honestly sending a signal in and of itself--"I'm really a good person, you calling me on this is an unfair attack!" So anyone who is uncomfortable with your behavior now has to tread carefully around your feelings lest you wail further (if they are "too mean") or don't do anything at all (if they aren't obviously upset enough for you to notice; if they don't visibly flinch). Respectfully, this is not a good signal to send to people who already incur people being frequently but unintentionally rude to them.
posted by sciatrix at 3:54 PM on October 28, 2015 [27 favorites]


The thing with not seeing someone flinch is you don't know that nothing flinch-worthy happened, you just know you didn't see a flinch. Sometimes people don't flinch because learning to suppress that flinch is one more thing they've had to deal with to get along on a day to day basis.

1000x this.

But also, to elaborate, you are not allowed to take the question negatively at all. Ever. It was asked in Good Faith*, and they were being totally calm/nice/curious. If you get upset it was Totally Out Of Nowhere.

This is doubly true if you're a woman, obviously. I've gotten annoyed at it(or at people FUCKING TOUCHING MY HAIR WITHOUT ASKING when i had long hair, including fully grown ass adults when i was like 13) and had it not result in anger or seeming looming violence. If my mom, or other women of color i know/have known react in anything but a totally receptive positive way while also wasting their time to answer the question, people INSTANTLY get angry. Even other women. It's a mix of the whole entitlement to minorities everything thing, and hey, you're not womaning right!.

Another thing i've noticed is i only get these questions from white people, whereas i've seen my mom get it more than once from men of color. Sigh.

But seriously, if you react in any way negatively or try and show them that it was a rude or completely out of nowhere question they should feel bad about it IS suddenly your fault. It's never "oh... uh sorry". Never. Ever. Ever. You're the fun ruining dickhead asshole little bitch.

And ugh, the dumb self aggrandizing rants i've sat through about how someones families weird white savior shit relating to helping natives, usually started by how their great grandma was native and bla bla bla. And if you interrupt that, yep, suddenly you're the asshole. Even if you're late to an appointment or this is your stop on the bus or your phone is ringing and it's your boss or whatever. "Oh call them back!".

*This is my primary reason for HATING the whole "assume good faith" thing that's gone back and forth on here. Fuck your good faith, i'm taking your question/statement at how it reads and how it relates to my past experiences and i'll sink with that ship. Enough.
posted by emptythought at 4:21 PM on October 28, 2015 [13 favorites]


Because I grew up where I did, I will say I can't ever hear "Where [are] you from?" without mentally appending "Who you wit?"
posted by klangklangston at 4:29 PM on October 28, 2015


Noted. I'll change it and if I have to create a new account, I'll do it. Sorry guys!
posted by robstercraw at 4:41 PM on October 28, 2015 [6 favorites]


Rob*,

sciatrix nails it on the head here. It's something anybody of East Asian heritage has gotten to deal with, the r/l thing, which is the cheapest, most obnoxious way Americans fake, not even remotely convincingly, an Asian accent. Most of us, encountering that, try not to make a big deal when it's something like an online handle--it was only because I had to look at it that it made me raise an eyebrow.

Which is unfortunate, it seems like you've had that name for a while; hopefully there's another way of resolving this other than dropping the account and restarting.

*I'm going with my initial benefit of the doubt and assuming your name is Rob because that's pretty much the only way I can make that name acceptable in my head.
posted by qcubed at 4:50 PM on October 28, 2015


i wouldn't be surprised if the mods can change the username without you creating a new account and losing history. contact them.
posted by andrewcooke at 4:53 PM on October 28, 2015 [3 favorites]


Ahahaha, you guys I literally just got the "where are you from?" question again while getting my caffeine fix at the local coffee place. When I was all "...uh, California? Or do you mean--" and the guy at the counter clarified, "No, I meant, your name--" "Oh, it's Persian." "So you're Persian?" In the span of a couple seconds, an answer involving the complexities of Indo-Iranian and Afghan ethnic groups and how speaking the dominant language of the region does not, necessarily, indicate ethnic affiliation as Persian, passed through my mind to be immediately discarded in favor of the blunt, "I'm Afghan." At which point our transaction was completed and I extracted myself from this awkward conversation to wait for my tea.

The coffee guy was black, so it didn't so much feel like "explain to me why you are not Anglo," as it can when others ask, and as forays into the "where are you really from???" conversation go, I mind questions about my name the least because I'm a nerd about language.

At this point I'm wondering, SHOULD I give people an eye-glazing mini-geography and history lesson when they ask this shit?? Will it dissuade or encourage more people? Never mind, I'm not here to give a 15 min seminar to everyone who wants to know about my specific form of not whiteness. Anyway, this is all to say: DO NOT DO THIS THING. Now I'm going to feel weird every time I go to my coffee place.
posted by yasaman at 5:22 PM on October 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I am part Hawaiian, and my name is a Hawaiian name. We were on the Big Island in August, and it was so wonderful and restful to not have to give my "coffee name" (my Anglo middle name) when we were stopping for coffee or getting takeout. The first time, I almost gave my coffee name and then remembered where we were and gave my actual first name, and the woman wrote it down without a hitch and without asking where I'm from.
posted by rtha at 6:12 PM on October 28, 2015 [5 favorites]


robstercraw: "And I pretty much ask everyone, "where'd you grow up?""

Contrary to some of the other commentators in this thread, I'm not going to come out 100% against this as an icebreaker. In my experience, the appropriateness of this question depends a lot on what the follow up questions are.

As a Canadian-born person of Chinese extraction living in Seattle, I've noticed two main ways these kinds of conversations go:

Version 1:
"So, where are you from?"
"Canada."
"Oh really? Like, Vancouver?"
"Nope, actually Montreal."
"Oh! That's in the French part, right? Do you speak French?"
"Not very well. Much worse since I've been living in the States for so long."
etc...
Version 2:
"So, where are you from?"
"Canada."
"No, where are you from really?"
"I was born in Canada and I grew up in Montreal."
"C'mon, you know what I mean. Where are your parents from?"
* sigh * "China."
etc...
In Version 1, the questioner is showing genuine interest in where I'm from, where I grew up, etc.. In Version 2, the whole point is to pin down exactly what kind of East Asian I am because clearly that's the most relevant thing about me. Never mind that my Chinese is even worse than my French, that I've never even been to any part of Asia (nor have any real desire to), and that I don't really consume any Chinese pop culture (aside from old Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies from the 1980s and maybe Kung Fu Hustle). Never mind that I grew up digging snow forts in the backyard, watching Mr. Dressup and The Friendly Giant, and saving up quarters to get slushies at Provi-Soir. Nope. None of that is relevant. Clearly, the most important thing is to figure out exactly which ethnic group I should be slotted into.

If anything, the phrasing "where'd you grow up?" seems to me that you'd be leading more towards a Version 1-style conversation rather than Version 2, assuming that you really are asking about where the person grew up and not actually trying to puzzle out someone's racial make-up. However, given the potentially fraught nature of this line of conversation, and given that your interlocutor doesn't really know if it's going to be a Version 1 or 2 conversation until the follow-up, maybe it's best to switch it up. I dunno.

Interestingly, I've gotten a lot more of Version 1 here in Seattle and a lot more Version 2 when I was still living in Canada*. Go figure. It could be a function of time and/or age (I've been in the States for the last 15 years) or it might be something else.

Bonus Version 2b:
* sigh * "China. But my father emigrated young enough that he started kindergarten in ..."
"Oh, so you're Chinese. That's funny. I thought you looked more Japanese/Korean/Vietnamese/whatever."
Like, wtf is that even supposed to mean?

* When I was in Canada, I would answer the "where are you from?" question with "Quebec". In Quebec, I would answer "Montreal". In Montreal, I would answer "Brossard".
posted by mhum at 6:21 PM on October 28, 2015 [12 favorites]


yasaman, you're definitely not required to give out any information. If you're feeling chatty and informative, go for it. If you're not, one approach could be to honestly say, "It's really complicated issue" and redirect. ("There's not enough time to get into it now, so hey, baby animals are so damn cute, right?")

That's another angle about this stupid question that's so aggravating - that no matter how often I've prepared or dealt with it, most of the time I feel like I'm still doing conversational improv because there's so many different ways the small talk could go. emptythought's comment is so damn true, you get blamed if you call folks out on their lack of good faith/racist comments. At any time, the conversation could go straight to "oh god how do I gracefully nope out?" or "how can I politely get them to shut up and talk about other things because I can't leave this party/dinner/visit/whatever". The mental gymnastics are exhausting.

I feel like there's a whole other level to the conversation when you're dealing with obvious immigrants or other nonwhite people, but it's kind of beyond the 101-level of the article. I know the thread's touched on it, but I'm honestly not comfortable expanding on it on MeFi right now.
posted by zix at 6:27 PM on October 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


I get to be Asian and fairly tall, which seems to confuse people. Once a guy who I'd seen around before but never talked to just casually looked over and said, "Korean, right?" Which, well, wrong. And sometimes people know better than to ask but somehow it will come out that I've known them for years and they've been assuming I was Korean this entire time. And there's nothing wrong with being Korean, but apparently the stereotype is that if you're Asian you're small, unless you're Korean or Yao Ming.

But sometimes this also means that some people just try to casually slide in a, "So ... what percent Asian are you?" And then it's a very awkward, "Well, I'm 100% Asian, why ..."
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:55 PM on October 28, 2015 [2 favorites]


emptythought: "My nearly orgasmic crepe consumption experience is irreparably ruined at this point, and i say something at the end like "So, what's your fucking point man?"."

Reading this pissed me off so much that the next time you're in the SF Bay Area, I am going to find you and take you out for crepes. Because fuck that guy. Shit, I'll buy you crepes remotely. MeMail me the name of the place you were eating, or your favorite local creperie.

Dead serious.
posted by scrump at 11:44 AM on October 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


"So ... what percent Asian are you?" And then it's a very awkward

I don't know what kind of answer they're expecting with that question.

> "I'm 92.756% Asian, +/- 4.258% margin of error. I'm at least 6.524% Vulcan, pre-Romulan schism, and 1/16th Cherokee. My great-great-great-grandmother was totally Cherokee. Like, really."
posted by qcubed at 11:58 AM on October 29, 2015 [4 favorites]


There is a guy in Kip Fulbeck's excellent art book Part Asian, 100% Hapa whose written answer to the question "What are you?" is "I am 100% Black and 100% Japanese." I mainly remember him because in my Asian Americans of Mixed Heritage class* in college (which used the book as a text) the professor said something about "My lawyer friend, who's in the book..." and some girl was like "OMG you mean the hot one???" and the prof fixed her with a stare of death and it was really uncomfortable and also hilarious. But anyway, I think of that guy whenever people try to get all in my face with percentages and shit.

(Also I had never heard of this tall Koreans stereotype, except for once when my tall handsome Korean friend asked me if I was scared of all the giant Koreans when I was in Korea and I thought he was just being a weirdo. The more you know!)

*yeah this class really exists and I took it, San Francisco State is awesome and I'm super spoiled
posted by sunset in snow country at 12:40 PM on October 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


Yeah, tall Korean is a new one on me. And I'm Korean.

The only thing about height that I know of w/r/t Koreans vs. other Asians is a slur used against the Japanese, who apparently have short legs. Which is not true, given the fact that several of the Japanese friends I've had have been taller and with longer legs.
posted by qcubed at 12:47 PM on October 29, 2015


Yeah, tall Korean is a new one on me. And I'm Korean.

One of my good friends is Korean (among other things), and he is a very tall, well-built fellow. I had never heard of this stereotype, so I asked him, and he said yeah, he's very familiar with it, and that South Koreans are reputedly the tallest of the Asian peoples. He attributes it to the fact that Koreans apparently eat more animal protein on average than other Asians, although the Japanese are catching up. So I learned something new today.
posted by Errant at 1:43 PM on October 29, 2015


"Ahahaha, you guys I literally just got the "where are you from?" question again while getting my caffeine fix at the local coffee place. When I was all "...uh, California? Or do you mean--" and the guy at the counter clarified, "No, I meant, your name--" "Oh, it's Persian." "So you're Persian?" In the span of a couple seconds, an answer involving the complexities of Indo-Iranian and Afghan ethnic groups and how speaking the dominant language of the region does not, necessarily, indicate ethnic affiliation as Persian, passed through my mind to be immediately discarded in favor of the blunt, "I'm Afghan." At which point our transaction was completed and I extracted myself from this awkward conversation to wait for my tea. "

Huh. One of my friends growing up, who was later a roommate in the early 2000s, was someone who identified as a Persian and was born in Afghanistan. Came over in around '83, '84, when he was four or five. That Southeast Michigan has the most Arabs outside the Middle East meant that the distinctions between Arab, Persian and Afghan came up pretty regularly — especially after 9/11, but also before. He had tried to get back over to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban after they blew up the Buddhas, but his older brothers (like, 15, 20 years older — he was always the baby) put the kibosh on that, and then he wanted nothing to do with Bush's adventurism.

I remember that his ethnic background sparked a good two or three serious fistfights per year (like, assault charges serious) and the regular difficulty he had with racist cops. Like, getting pulled over and having some asshole assume that he was an Arab-therefore-terrorist — is that really when you want to tell them you're a Persian from Afghanistan?
posted by klangklangston at 2:43 PM on October 29, 2015 [2 favorites]


My last name is a homonym for a very common Asian last name -- think, like "Leigh" and "Lee" or "Chien" and "Chen" or something like that. (My last name is so unusual -- it got misspelled during transatlantic migration -- that I'm related to everyone who has it, there's probably not more than 100 people in the world with this particular spelling, so while everyone knows of the Asian spelling, my spelling is much more humble.)

So whenever people HEAR my name but don't SEE it, they're surprised when Conan-O'Brien-looking-me shows up, which I've been used to since I was a very little girl and I always took my cue from my parents would reply, "Oh, yes, people are always surprised when they meet me!" or "Yes, the spelling is different," or sometimes, "Yes, we're the Irish branch of the Lee family." I've even learned something about the family history of the Asian version of the name, because sometimes people I meet with the Asian version of the last name are SUPER disappointed when I turn out not to be a compatriot. Anyway, it's one of those things like always having to spell an unusual name that you don't think about too much and it fades into the background noise of your life.

Except after I got married and started wearing a wedding ring (but didn't change my name), people would start asking me all these strange questions about where my husband was from ("Florida" "No, like where his parents are from," "Um ... Michigan, I guess?"), and whether he was a doctor or an engineer ("Um ... he's a lawyer, like me?"), and whether he worked for [certain local employers with lots of H-1B employees] ("No?"). I'd have these uncomfortably long conversations where they guessed wrong things about my husband and I didn't know why ...

It took me the longest time to twig to the fact that they were trying to suss out whether my husband was Asian and that's why I had an Asian last name while appearing obviously white, without directly asking if my husband was Asian.

I have to confess that now that I know that's what they're doing, I take a certain amount of delight in offering deliberately non-responsive answers. It would bother me less if they just asked, "Lee -- is your husband Asian?" It's annoying that they want to know, but they think it's impolite to directly ask, but not impolite to fish and indirectly ask? Like they know they're breaking a social taboo, but trying to skirt around it, which somehow makes it worse? I don't know.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:11 PM on October 29, 2015 [10 favorites]


Oh yeah, you can definitely ID as Persian and be Afghan. I personally don't; my family's a enough of a mix of ethnic groups that I just shrug and offer up what cities my family is from when other Afghans or Persians ask. (And I mean, my accent in Persian will tell you quickly enough what cities we're from.) If rando non-Middle Eastern or Central Asian person asks though, it's like, I'm not breaking down the history of the Afghan nation-state to tell you about the ethnic groups of Afghanistan, you know? I don't get mistaken for Arab though, I get "Are you Turkish?" Which, fair enough, go far enough back and my family is in fact Turkish.

And man, part of me longs for the pre-9/11 days when literally no one even knew where the fuck Afghanistan was, so my family would just get polite incomprehension when we said we're from Afghanistan. Those were the days! No one asked follow up questions beyond "...where is that?" because no one knew enough to even know what questions to ask! Now all the follow up questions boil down to some version of "but you don't look brown enough???? my preconceptions, let me show you them, and demand an excessive amount of detail!"
posted by yasaman at 3:15 PM on October 29, 2015 [6 favorites]


"Oh yeah, you can definitely ID as Persian and be Afghan. I personally don't; my family's a enough of a mix of ethnic groups that I just shrug and offer up what cities my family is from when other Afghans or Persians ask. (And I mean, my accent in Persian will tell you quickly enough what cities we're from.)"

I should ask him sometime about accents, since while his mom still primarily speaks Farsi, almost all of his Farsi he learned in the states (I wonder if he speaks Farsi with the Northern Midwest nasal vowels). He was born in Kabul, but I don't have a sense of how long his family had been there — I know he has cousins he talks with regularly both in Tehran and Kabul. And I know that his relationship to his extended family is kind of complicated by him being so much younger than all his siblings and that his dad died when he was really young, a couple years after they moved to the states. So, like, "Call your dad's brother on Nowruz" sort of relationship. I also get the sense that (even just from doing the math) his mom must have been really young when she married his dad, so when his dad died, while they have some family around the area she kind of embraced the freedom — she's never been all that into talking about her life prior to coming to the states; she has her own interests and hobbies, why look back? Apparently her main comment when he'd ask about that stuff was, "I miss your father; I don't miss marriage."

(This thread has kinda made me wonder about his name too, since I know he and his parents are culturally Muslim atheists, but he's got a really Zoroastrian first name.)
posted by klangklangston at 4:15 PM on October 29, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah, tall Korean is a new one on me. And I'm Korean.

My wife is Korean-American (well, Korean-Mexican-American), and her Korean-American cousins are definitely Tall Koreans. They tower over their parents who grew up in war-torn and post-war-torn Korea. Growing up with lots of milk and protein obviously makes a difference.
posted by notyou at 11:46 AM on October 30, 2015




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