is “Where are you from?” a relevant question?

earth at night

photo from NASA

“Where are you from?”

Seems innocuous enough of a question. For me, and for many who look “different” in the US, inquiring minds don’t typically accept the answer. The questions continue: “No really, what country are you from?”, followed by “You speak such good English”. The intent isn’t usually malicious and while simple curiosity is friendly enough, the basis for that curiosity isn’t. It denotes the perpetual foreigner syndrome or the “you are an outsider” problem that people of color face, no matter we’re first or third generation native-born. (I’ve never been asked this question by other people of color.)

It isn’t an issue I lose sleep over these days. If anything, it presents an easy IQ test or some mild amusement. (If I say Nauru or Kiribati does s/he know where that is? Or should I fake a nice accent?)

Thankfully a hyphenated identity no longer costs (too many) social points. But I still draw that question back home when I’m outside the major cities. People have an instinctual need to pigeonhole each other into neat little boxes. Most of the time this knee-jerk reaction is harmless. But think of the needlessly reactive fear in the past decade towards people from the Middle East, or of Islamic faith. Examples continue all over the world.

The impact on my parenting? Immerse the kids in a variety of cultures, and make these differences (religious or philosophical persuasions, skin color or ethnic roots, geographic origins) so commonplace they don’t mentally scramble to categorize people they meet.

Practically speaking:

The kids are still very young, but they could do with some anchor. We hope to make geography practical and not just a subject for them. They’re American by citizenship but they were born in Asia. They have paternal roots in Ireland and maternal roots in greater Asia and Spain. But we currently live in a country which none of us have blood relation to.

They are fluent in two languages neither their Papa nor I understand.

They read books or watch programs that feature people from diverse backgrounds. One thing I like to do is to augment their book reading, such that Cora (of Cora Cooks Pancit, by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore) likes to cook her Filipino dishes with her Hmong friend in her house in Comoras. We constantly change up the stories to keep the books interesting. No, they don’t get Cinderella fairy tales or Barbie dolls at home. They’ll be exposed to enough of that as they grow, but they will have a balanced cultural basis (which isn’t western-dominated) for their worldview before then.

They have globes, airplanes and ships everywhere so we can connect everyday discussion to places. They still can’t show us these countries on the globe, but one day they will. We love eating out, and usually it’s (what’s popularly known as) “ethnic” food. We bring them to Buddhist death rituals or to a Purim event. We talk about their friend Sam who went back to Cairns, that their friend Marla from Kassel sent them a beautiful book, or we’ll Skype with their Lola in Toronto and tell her we’ll see her in Manila at Christmas.

All this to instill in them a love of different cultures, and acceptance as the norm the many facets of each individual’s identity.

“Where are you from?”

That’s a difficult question for many people to answer.

Note:

I had two reactions to the theme “Where are you from”. This question often represents some form of discrimination for many people (I think of my experience in the US, but this can be applicable in other countries too). We (people of Asian or Middle Eastern descent, for example) are asked it because we must come from *somewhere*else*, even if we’re native-born speaking perfect English. We dread getting this question.

I find it interesting that in blog posts around the web or discussions with non-minorities, diversity in their family is celebrated, even bragged about – but this is also my second reaction.

It’s just an observation – I’m not making a statement one way or the other. Diversity is to be celebrated and I’m glad it doesn’t cost (as many) social points as it did in my youth!

Comments

  1. I agree – I also get this question every time I meet someone, and now that I’ve almost lived as long here as in my country of birth, does it really matter? I know the perpetual foreigner syndrome!

  2. Yes, I have a different reaction to it. For one, it’s such an everyday question in Singapore, where a lot of foreigners come and go. And I guess not being a minority it’s no big deal. But I think also the “perpetual foreigner” syndrome is a bit different in a younger country, such as Australia.

    • All over SE Asia no one pays me any mind, until I open my mouth. Then – “Where are you from?” I clearly am not “from” Burma or Cambodia, once you hear me talk, so this is a fairly normative line of conversation in tourist-frequented cities/states.

      Take the context of someone in the country of her birth, say Canada, being asked “where are you from?” That would give me pause. It implies that the person asking doesn’t think I belong, that I’m an outsider, that I’m different, that I can’t possibly be from here. In this context there’s some covert racism. Yes, we know it’s usually just curiosity. But being inundated with “innocent”-enough conversations where people clearly try to pigeonhole you makes it a bit tiring, suspicious or even downright offensive for those of us who get it often enough.

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