Saturday, July 09, 2005

Where Are You From? - Les Regles Des Jeux

If you are Asian American, you know that one of the most awful, awful cocktail party questions that anyone can ask you is "Where are you from?," especially if the person who asks the question persists after you have given a locale in the United States. But I'm here to say that this question might not be that "awful, awful," and if it is that awful, perhaps we, both Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans, can make it less awful. Perhaps we can think more critically about when and how the question may be posed.

So, in this spirit, I'm proposing and discussing a list of standards on the "Where are you from?" question to Asians in America. Some of the standards may be cool. But some may be way off-base, but hey, someone's got to start somewhere. And I'm not really proposing standards in some of these points but merely raising issues based on my own empirical observations. In general, however, this list represents my own little "hints from Heloise" for the asking of the "Where are you from?" question.

1. One Time Only: You can ask the question once, as you can with all other folk. If you ask the question once, and the Asian American responds with an American city, you should, in most circumstances, not ask the follow-up, "But where are you really from?" or any question of that nature.

2. The question is NOT "What country you are from?": You shouldn't word the question this way, of course, because you would be presuming that the Asian American is from another country. You can't tell with anyone -- even Asian-looking folk with heavy accents may be Asian Americans who have recently become citizens.

3. Having Lived/Travelling Abroad and Curiosity: One exception the "one time only" rule is if you have been, or about to, go abroad. On a related note, you may be particularly curious about one Asian country or more for other reasons and think that the Asian American that you come across would know.

There is a tactful way to go about things here: explain your own personal reasons for asking the question before asking it. And don't be overly blunt and command, "But where are you really from?" or "I meant, which Asian nation are you from?," or "Give me an Asian nation." Say something like, "Would you mind if I asked you what your ethnicity is?" and then go from there. If the Asian American person gives you her or his ethnicity and seems receptive, then you can ask "What generation Asian American are you?" Chances are, you'll get more info than single word responses.

4. Strangers vs. Friends: The better you know the person, the better it is to ask these questions. You'll also have the advantage of being familiar with cues to tell whether you're making the other person uncomfortable and whether to press on. This one ain't rocket science. It's the same with all types of questions that you ask friends vs. strangers.

5. Context: If you are in a crowded room with only one Asian-American who is a stranger, you probably wouldn't want to go up to him or her and ask the question. Conversely, if it someone that you know well and it's a comfortable, informal, one-on-one setting, then you can go up and ask the question. Just basic ettiquette again.

6. Asian Americans vs. non-Asian Americans asking the question: This one is difficult. I've noticed that Asian Americans asking the initial "Where are you from?" question often get more of a pass than non-Asian Americans asking it. One could then argue that Asian Americans themselves are feeling unduly and unfairly uptight about non-Asian Americans posing the question.

If you are non-Asian American and have been following the standards thus far, though, you should be ok, and the burden falls on the Asian American if he or she gets uptight. Some Asian Americans will get uptight at a non-Asian American asking the initial question. It is your choice whether to take it personally, though you should understand that the Asian American probably just anticipates that you're about to give her or him the third degree about being a foreigner, and your thus perceiving yourself as more authentically American, based on negative past experiences.

7. Socioeconomic status of person pressing on the question: This one is also difficult. It's not too politically correct to say, but often the people who blurt out, "What Asian country are you from?" to an Asian American are not exactly people of the highest socioeconomic and educational levels. Even if one might call them less worldly or less tactful, that doesn't mean they're xenophobic people or people out to embarass Asian Americans in any way. I don't have an answer here, unfortunately, and one party or both parties are typically left upset by these exchanges.

8. Reciprocation: Regardless of whether you are Asian American or non-Asian American, you're asking the question allows the same question to be asked to you. One way to think about the question is to ask yourself how you would feel if you were in the position of the person being asked. Again, it ain't rocket science.


Blogger GJPW said...

Hi Roger,

I chuckled while reading this post (and sighed) because it's a topic I know well. I always answer "Boston" or "Tampa" when I'm asked but quite often people don't get the hint.

If at times (depending on the person) I decide to say "Venezuela" then it's often disheartening to see a blank look on a face, as in "Venezuela, what's that?"

I've been enjoying your reviews of specific poets here. Best wishes,


3:36 AM  
Blogger Neil Aitken said...

I usually answer "Saskatchewan" which leaves most people confused -- much like Guillermo's experience with "Venezuala"

I have discovered that answering Regina (which in Canada is pronounced "REE'-gi-na") has the unfortunate side effect of creating an awkward silence and some amount of embarrassment. Evidently the average American tends to mishear this as something else!

The best response to mishearing "Regina" I've ever heard was "Well, aren't we all?"

Being mixed adds another layer of confusion to this question. Sometimes I just ask them to guess and see how far off they get :)

10:26 AM  
Blogger Bryan Thao Worra said...

I usually take it in stride. At least they're curious. Of course the ultimate question is really, where is anyone from? How far back do we trace a root?

And even if we trace it back to the prehistoric origins of humanity, do we feel such a true connection to our origins to cite it as integral to our true being?

Or do I even have a reason to say: "My ancestors came from the primordial pit that was once Southern Pangea- they were really nice microbes once you got to know them. Although they were horribly prejudiced against certain classes of protozoa simply because of the way they reproduced. Ah, it was a different generation back then..."

Hmm, boy, this comment is probably going to get taken waaay out of context in the years to come.

How far back is far enough? (At least, from a cynics point of view, they're not asking, "When are you going?" or "Are you still here?"

6:41 AM  
Blogger Lee Herrick said...

I hate that question, but the most annoying is "What are you?" I like Bryan's answer. But sometimes I just want to say something like "I'm about to smack you."

I do not mind it as much when a) another Asian person is asking, or b) when the person has a reason for asking and (as Roger suggests) does with an iota of tact.


5:11 PM  
Blogger pam said...

Oh, agreed. "What are you?" is definitely one that crosses the line, whichever way you draw it. For me, the challenge has always been to discern whether my questioner is being clumsy in an objectifying way (in which case my response is usually a brush-off), or just clumsy in a "I want to get to know you but don't realize I'm royally stuffing my hoof in mouth" kind of way. The second scenario depends on a lot of nonverbal subtext and can be hard to define. Nowadays it usually happens to me with people who are somewhat older than me and/or haven't gone through the sanitized PC training of a 4-year college. If I trust my sense that the person doesn't mean any harm and is mostly just clumsy from a lack of experience with someone like me, the conversation can get interesting. The directness and crude honesty can be refreshing.

But to return to the point, I think Roger's rules of thumb are right on.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Thanks a lot for the posts, everyone! It's always really helpful when people share their own personal experiences on the matter, because sometimes you can't be sure whether you're in the minority in having these views or whether others have had different experiences.

You've given me quite a bit to think about, and I'll have more to say about this topic, either here in comments or in a (new) future post.

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