Why Asian Americans hate hearing “Where are you from?”

My brother Gary (on the right) and me at Kintai Bridge in Iwakuni, Japan circa 1965.

My brother Gary (on the right) and me at Kintai Bridge in Iwakuni, Japan circa 1965.

This has been a good week for sometimes contentious but bracing conversations on Facebook. The latest one started when I posted a link to an excellent Forbes article by Ruchika Tulshyan titled “‘Where Are You From?’ And Other Big Networking Racial Faux Pas

The article raises the oft-aired complaint by Asian Americans that asking “Where are you from?” (sometimes linked to the even more irritating “You speak English so well…”) is a social, racial no-no.

I certainly can’t argue with that. I’ve written plenty about this very topic. I once criticized Martha Stewart for pulling the “Where are you from?” card, and in the post also included the conversation from my book, “Being Japanese American” that so many Asian American are all too familiar with, which starts with “You speak English so well” and veers off into “where are you from?” territory.

The Forbes piece quotes a South Asian news producer making a point that many Asian Americans should learn by heart and recite whenever we’re asked the question:

“I’m American – just like our president is American, just like the actress, Mindy Kaling is American, just like Abraham Lincoln is American. I am also American. I think once people realize that being American doesn’t mean being white, then we can move the conversation forward and we can have a better dialogue about race.” says Shefali Kulkarni, digital producer at PRI’s The World.

Tulshyan offers these suggestions for more appropriate ways to learn about someone’s ethnic heritage (I generally ask people “What’s your ethnic heritage?”):

Asking someone where they grew up is a fair question. It’s likely you would ask that regardless of a person’s skin color. You may not get the answer you were looking for if they say “Florida,” but make peace with the fact that they identify as American.

You could try: “What is your nationality?” I’d approach this one with caution and wait until you know the person better. If they haven’t volunteered their background, chances are they don’t necessarily want to share.

It’s also a good idea to reflect on why you want to know a person’s background at all.

“The person who is questioning might want to pause and ask themselves how germane race is to the conversation. What is the purpose of them asking another person’s ethnicity in the first place? What will it add to the conversation if they ask,” says Kat Chow, who covers race and ethnicity for NPR’s CodeSwitch

Tulshyan’s commentary touched a nerve with Twitter followers. The negative comments were mostly sent directly to her, while supportive ones were posted on Twitter for her and everyone to see. And when I shared her commentary it sparked an interesting heated dialogue on Facebook that in the end was good to have, even if it got people (including me) riled up at times.

One white man who lives in Japan and is married to a Japanese woman wrote:

Is it possible some Asian-Americans are overly sensitive about the question? I asked a San Francisco limo driver of Asian American descent where he was from (because I like small conversation and California was a big state and he had said he wasn’t from San Fran) and he answered “From my mother,” ha haha. No, I meant, where in Cali or in the US … why is THAT such a bad question?

A Japanese American attorney friend on the East Coast responded:

The greater danger is that others are not sufficiently sensitive to the false premise typically motivating the question.

One Asian-born American noted a generational divide when it comes to his name:

Old white people love to ask me if “Harry” is my real name or if I have an “Asian” name. I’ve always found the question to be highly offensive and intrusive.

One Asian American woman was pretty righteous about asking about ethnicity, not nationality (as mentioned above, I agree):

This article suggests that one might ask, “What is your nationality?” delicately. Give me a break! If you’re a U.S. citizen, your nationality is a U.S. citizen, an American. Ask me what my ethnicity is, I’ll tell you I’m Japanese. Proud of it. An African-American neighbor of mine once asked me what my nationality is. I asked her what hers is. She answered, American. I told her, I’m American too. She persisted. No, What is your NATIONALITY? I told her I’m a U.S. Citizen , an AMERICAN. It told her that if she wants to know what my ethnicity is, I’m Japanese. Don’t go asking other types of Americans what their NATIONALITY is. It’s the same as yours! Gees.

One non-Asian woman said she asks where people grew up, and it’s just to be friendly and because she’s genuinely curious. Another replied:

When I ask where someone is from, it’s because I’m interested and it has always prompted a positive conversation. It is usually a persons accent that prompts me to ask them where they’re from. Heck, I often get asked because someone will pick up on my Texas accent, and I’m proud of being from Texas

One Asian American man brought up the concept of white privilege without naming it:

Some questions are often socially unwise to ask, regardless of our intentions. When you’re a kid, you can get away with asking all kinds of things that are considered rude: someone’s weight, someone’s age, etc.

As you mature, you learn more and more social cues, and take other people’s feelings into consideration. That’s part of growing up. It’s not “censorship” or “over-sensitivity,” it’s learning consideration and practicing empathy.

In this case, a large portion of Asian Americans are saying, “We get this question a lot, to the point where it causes us irritation and distress. Please don’t ask it, or learn to be more delicate when you do.”

If your answer is, “I don’t mean any harm so I’m going to keep doing it” then you’ve crossed over from naively doing something without malice and insisting that your way is the 100% correct way. One of these is a little rude.

Another Asian American man put it succinctly:

“Where are you from?” has always felt like an insidious question to me, particularly when it’s followed up by “no, where are you really from?” or “where are your parents from?”

It almost seems like a gentler way of saying “you don’t look like you belong here”

One white Facebook friend got defensive but in the end seemed to understand our issues:

I travel to Asia somewhere almost every month and they’re ALWAYS interested in where I’m from and ASK ME. I don’t get offended, I think its simply them taking an interest in me and I’m flattered. People in the US of type A need to CHILL OUT and stop getting so offended at the drop of a hat. It’s way better to answer a question that happens to annoy you than to be put in a concentration camp – give people the benefit of the doubt – this is their home, too, and I’ve thought for years someone should put together a cultural competency class – but none exists but the chaos of life. When I travel I go with an open heart and open mind and the locals forgive me my stupid mistakes and even help me out. I’m always so much happier when I’m NOT in the US. It’s just an angrier place here with all the freedom fascists mouthing off at the slightest provocation. So please forgive me for loving Asia, it’s people, language, culture, etc. And for coming more and more to dislike the entitlement disorder we’re breeding here in the US in all of us. When I meet an Asian American, I do wonder about you and want to talk to you and see what your life is like. Please forgive me if I ask wrong! But really, is there one right way to ask? I’m trying not to be racist, but to celebrate our minor differences so I can learn from you.

One of the Asian American commenters responded to the white man’s experience of being asked where he’s from when he’s in Asia:

…people in Asian countries asking you (or any traveler) where you’re from is totally different from your fellow citizens asking you that same question.

AAs take exception to that question because it implies that we’re seen as foreigners in our own country. I’m sure non-Asians who were born and raised in (and I emphasize “born and raised in”) Asian countries would express that same sentiment as well

I agreed wholeheartedly with this point.

It was interesting to note that unless the person lived in Japan (and therefore had a whole different experience and perspective on race relations), white people on social media tend to take the “you’re being too sensitive, people aren’t racist if they ask where you’re from — they’re just curious about you” perspective.

Asian Americans on the other hand, mostly agreed that the question is insensitive and irritating. The split was also very clear when a Japanese American friend of mine shared a link to the Forbes story and her non-Asian Facebook friends pitched in with their comments.

I pointed out to the white man on my wall that his experiences as a Caucasian traveling and living in Asia is not the same as an Asian American here in the US being asked the exact same question. At the core, the impulse may be the same — innocent curiosity.

But there’s a history that Asian Americans have lived that someone with white privilege doesn’t even have to think about, ever. And for the record, when I’m in Japan people know in an instant, even before I speak, that I’m American, not Japanese. And yep, I get the question, “Where are you from?” I explain Colorado and we often end up talking about baseball and the Rocky Mountains.

As a visitor in Japan, that’s not an offensive question. As an Asian American, I would feel much better if a stranger comes up to me and asks “Can I ask, what’s your ethnic heritage?” That doesn’t assume nationality or citizenship. It just asks what my background is.

Maybe it’s just a matter of asking in a better-informed way.

The Asian American Facebook friend summed it up well:

It’s frustrating to hear that our reactions to something we experience everyday is “wrong” by someone who has never or rarely had to experience those things.

Rather than policing other people’s emotions and labeling other’s reactions as “justified” or “unjustified,” just accepting that other people have different experiences should be respected would do a great deal to improve relationships between people.

If I say something out of turn that offends someone of a different background – black, gay, a woman, etc. – then I take that as a learning experience, not an opportunity to lecture that person on why my judgment of their experience is of greater value than their firsthand experience.

If the lesson you take from meeting lots of other people is how to fit their varied experience into the limited boxes of your own experience, then I think it’s a missed opportunity to expand your horizons a bit. And it’s a failure to respect that other people’s experiences can be different, can be drastically different than you imagine, and maybe it’d be best to accept it rather than to try “correct” their experiences to align with your worldview.

This back-and-forth conversation ended up with a confession of sorts on my part: My response to the question “Where are you from?” is a bit more complex than most Asian Americans.

I’m tricky, because I was born… wait for it … in Tokyo. My dad was in the army (U.S. Army, hellooo) so I was a military brat, and our family moved stateside in the mid-’60s. We lived in Northern Virginia (I delivered the Washington Post!) and then moved to Denver during high school in the 1970s. That’s where I’m from!

So I’m bi-cultural in a way that many JAs are not. My Japanese language skills suck, but my accent’s decent enough.

I remember the Japan of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when American fast-food chains like McDonald’s and KFC hadn’t yet arrived, and US military presence was still significant. Many of the bases that used to house GIs throughout Japan have since been closed (except for on the island of Okinawa, where a huge portion of the US military is still stationed). My family lived for a little over a year in the city of Iwakuni near Hiroshima, where the photo above was taken by a famous bridge (which was originally built without any nails) because there was an enormous Marines Air Base in Iwakuni, and I attended elementary school there.

And yet, when I’m in Japan now as an adult, I stand out like a sore thumb as an American. It’s in the way I dress, the way I walk, the way I make eye contact. And my crappy Japanese, even though my accent’s pretty good.

So it’s doubly irritating to be in the US and have well-meaning but clueless people asking me where I’m from. It’s as if I’m not officially and wholly accepted in either one of my cultural homes.

The question is an acknowledgement that the person asking is assuming I’m foreign and “other.” See, when I meet another Asian American and I ask about their ethnic heritage, I’m not asking because I consider them an exotic “other.” I’m acknowledging that I’m like them, and want to get to know their details. Maybe it’s the same motivation for white people meeting Asian Americans, but they come out ham-fisted with that “where are you from?” line.

(A related but common situation is when non-Japanese come up to me, say, at a conference where I just moderated a panel, and call me “Gil-san” or say “Konnichiwa” — “good morning.” This assumption of my foreign roots irritates me every time, even though it’s done with no disrespect meant.)

I like meeting new people — of any color and ethnic background. But I’m always sensitive to how I come across as I get to know them.

It’s not just bowing to political correctness. It’s being polite and inclusive. It’s showing a level of personal respect.

And it’s building stronger bridges to other cultures in this connected, shrinking world of ours.

6 Comments to "Why Asian Americans hate hearing “Where are you from?”"

  1. Isami Yoshihara's Gravatar Isami Yoshihara
    March 20, 2014 - 10:40 am | Permalink

    Aloha Gil! I volunteer as a docent at Punchbowl National Cemetery of the Pacific here in Honolulu, and I welcome many people to our quaint visitors center. I always ask them “What part of the country are you from?” in the course of our conversation, and their responses not only cover all of the states but many foreign countries as well. I find it a great way to find possible connections between us.

  2. Lee's Gravatar Lee
    May 2, 2014 - 12:17 am | Permalink

    I can see both sides of this issue. I live in a town that is almost entirely “come here”s – College Students, Tourists, and Retirees; and a significant international presence – rather than “from here”s. Asking somewhere where their from is always a loaded question. There’s always an offensive way to consider the question. It seems better to ask specific questions that presume a certain degree of “native-ness” (“How long have you lived here?” or “Your a local, right?”) and let people correct me and/or fill in the blanks. It’s sort of nonsensical, but it usually prompts an explanation from the other person that in turn starts up the conversation. Or, I get a flat, one or two word answer “yes”, “seven years” that then serves as a guide to what sort of follow up questions might be appropriate.

    The minority students and/or locals who are American nationals get offended if they think you’ve assumed they “aren’t” American, the students sometimes get offended because they’re “From the city. I’m just in this one horse town to get my degree” and the people who were born here are almost impossible not to offend. You have to have an apologetic follow up at the ready.

    All very confusing/tiring for all parties involved, but there doesn’t seem to be a polite way out of it.

  3. Chris Peters's Gravatar Chris Peters
    June 18, 2014 - 10:43 am | Permalink

    I’m a white American who’s lived in Japan before. There is a Japanese equivalent to the “where are you from” question. While Asian-Americans in the United States are generally assumed to be “foreign” — all white people in Japan are automatically assumed to be American. I had Canadian and Australian roommates who were constantly annoyed by *that* assumption.

  4. Ken's Gravatar Ken
    July 15, 2014 - 8:46 pm | Permalink

    Chris Peters it is not equivalent because they are not being told that they are foreigners in their home country. What I, Gil and many other Asian Americans find insulting about the question is that it is not simply a case of mistaken identity but that we are being told that we are not American.

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