Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
The loaded question comes with cultural baggage for many immigrants and people of color.
At a convention in New Hampshire last week, Harvard student Joseph Choe stood up to ask Donald Trump something about foreign policy. But before Choe could finish, the Republican presidential candidate interrupted him with a question of his own: “Are you from South Korea?"
"I'm not. I was born in Texas, raised in Colorado,” Choe replied. The audience cheered, while Trump shrugged.
Trump’s inquiry was a variant of “where are you from?”—a seemingly innocuous question that we all have encountered under different circumstances. Most of the time, I get it when people detect my accent. In those cases, I’m happy to explain. But often, I’m asked where I’m from even before I’ve said a word—as a conversation-opener at a bar, on the street, or in an Uber. It irks me that in some of these situations, the question comes loaded with presumptions. And judging by the flood of responses I got when I asked people their reactions to the question on social media, I’m not the only one.
It’s obviously okay in situations where everyone is venturing answers: say, as a part of introductions in a classroom. And admittedly, I’ve also asked the question in some instances, and had some really great conversations. The point is, just as with any other fragment of language, context matters.
For minorities, the question carries historical baggage
For immigrants and people of color, including myself, the “where are you from?” question contains subtext. It often disguises curiosity about the ethnic background of the person being asked. And the people can see through that:
@Tanvim better than "what are you," but always a time-waster. I say "Maryland," they say "no, I mean..."— Svati Kirsten Narula (@svatikirsten) October 21, 2015
People of color are often singled out and asked this question, no matter how long they’ve lived in the U.S. or whether they have citizenship. (Trump’s phrasing is a good example.) This is strange because the original inhabitants of the country weren’t white; the very first “settlers” of America were Hispanic. The first Chinese came to the country in the 1500s; Muslims, a couple of centuries earlier. That somehow these identities are different from the mainstream—not American or American enough—is grating to many.
For Asian Americans, in particular, this assumption of foreignness has been damaging. Racist immigration, naturalization, and domestic policies have cost members of this group their rights to citizenship, and their homes, jobs, freedom, and privacy. In her new book, The Making of Asian America, Erica Lee recounts much of this problematic history. Here’s New Yorker’s Karan Mahajan quoting Lee’s book:
In the eyes of some, Asians in America are, Lee writes, “perpetual foreigners at worst, or probationary Americans at best.”
Of course, “othering” and its consequences were not exclusively borne by Asian Americans—it has justified violence and exclusionary policies at every level of government. From the erasure of native populations to the mass repatriation of around a million people of Mexican descent in the 1930s. The violence that African Americans encountered when they tried to live in white neighborhoods was a different avatar of the same monster.
So, when that assumption of foreignness creeps into a quotidian conversation, it’s not very inviting.* Here is how some people of color feel when they’re asked the question:
@Tanvim 2) I tire of having to "prove" that I am from in group (i.e. My hometown, my college, America) so that Q is unwanted from my POV— Luis André Vertiz (@lvertiz) October 21, 2015
@Tanvim 1) unwanted in the sense that the "asker" is from the in group and I am perceived as from the "out group"— Luis André Vertiz (@lvertiz) October 21, 2015
For “third culture kids,” the question is complicated
“Third culture kids” is a term coined by sociologist Ruth Uneem in the 1950s to refer to kids who’ve grown up in a culture different than their parents’. Writer Pico Iyer—who is of Indian descent, but has lived in America, Tokyo, and the U.K.—is a great example. In a TED talk from 2013, he described the confusion he faces when asked where he’s from:
They're expecting me to say India, and they're absolutely right insofar as 100 percent of my blood and ancestry does come from India. Except, I've never lived one day of my life there. I can't speak even one word of its more than 22,000 dialects. So I don't think I've really earned the right to call myself an Indian. And if "Where do you come from?" means "Where were you born and raised and educated?" then I'm entirely of that funny little country known as England, except I left England as soon as I completed my undergraduate education, and all the time I was growing up, I was the only kid in all my classes who didn't begin to look like the classic English heroes represented in our textbooks. And if "Where do you come from?" means "Where do you pay your taxes? Where do you see your doctor and your dentist?" then I'm very much of the United States, and I have been for 48 years now, since I was a really small child. Except, for many of those years, I've had to carry around this funny little pink card with green lines running through my face identifying me as a permanent alien. I do actually feel more alien the longer I live there.
The exact number of international transplants (military brats, missionary kids, and children of diplomats or international businesspeople, for instance) are hard to pin down, but Iyer puts it upwards of 220 million, similar to the 2013 U.N. estimate. “If you took the whole population of Canada and the whole population of Australia and then the whole population of Australia again and the whole population of Canada again and doubled that number, you would still have fewer people than belong to this great floating tribe,” he says in the talk.
For women, the question can come off as a creepy pick-up line
An informal poll among girlfriends confirmed that women often get asked this question at loud, crowded bars and on streets. In these cases, it’s not likely that the askers have a genuine interest in the woman’s geographical origin. For women of color, in particular, the question recalls a history of men projecting cultural and racial stereotypes onto them. It’s along the same lines of calling someone “exotic”: it might signal interest, but it’s actually not a compliment.
Well, how do you know where someone is from?
Cutting the question out of our conversation arsenal doesn’t make sense, but for me, it’s definitely not a great icebreaker. If the conversation is naturally veering toward a discussion of origins and there’s genuine interest, I don’t mind being asked where I’m from. I would prefer, however, being asked more specific questions—where did you grow up? Were you born there? Do your parents still live there? Where did you live before you moved here? These queries are more transparent to me, and permit me to give more concise, nuanced answers.
Instead of beating around the bush, I, like several of the people I spoke with, would rather answer honest, conscientiously framed questions that lead to productive conversations about race and identity. Of course, that conversation requires a level of comfort. (Like, I wouldn’t just initiate it with my Starbucks barista.) But if the motivation behind the “where are you from?” question is to sniff out my ethnicity, or confirm presumptions about my cultural identity, it’s probably best not to ask. Or you might get a reply like this one:
*This post has been updated.