Where are you from? It seems like such an innocent question, but it’s one that still makes me a little uncomfortable to this day.
I came to the UK in 1998, and have lived here for the majority of my life. I went to school here, made friends, grew up, had jobs, bought a house and a car, and met my other half here in the UK – my home. I love that I can call it that, and feel as close to this place as someone who was lucky enough to have been born here.
But you can’t tell that from the colour of my skin.
‘Where are you from?’
People have been asking me this my entire life. I still don’t quite understand the fascination behind the question, but having answered it more times than I can count, I’ve grown tired of the same routine.
It goes something like this.
On the way back from a trip to Lisbon last summer, I found my return flight to Bristol delayed by 4.5 hours.
After being told the bad news at the boarding gate, I walked out towards the food hall among the group of disgruntled passengers, and in the flow of people, a white, middle-aged man appeared next to me and asked, “are you going on holiday?”
A little confused at why he might think that, I replied that no, I was going home.
“Oh, you live in Bristol?” He asked.
“No”, I said, “I live in Cardiff”.
“Ah, Cardiff – my mother’s Welsh”, he explained, “She lives in a place called Bridgend”.
“I know Bridgend”, I said, “that’s where my boyfriend’s from”, and looked to Dave standing beside me, the both of us unaware of where this conversation was about to go.
“And where are you from?” The man asked me.
“Cardiff”, I replied, like always.
“No you’re not”, he said firmly and without hesitation, “your face is oriental”.
Taken aback by his brazen response, I tried to reiterate, “yes, but I’m from Cardiff”.
“No”, he repeated, “that’s where you live, but where are you from?”
“Cardiff”, I said again.
“Is it Singapore?” He persisted.
“Cardiff”, I said one last time, before turning in the opposite direction to remove myself from this infinite circle.
The man chuckled at my apparent naivety, and carried on walking.
Sad but true
The problem I have with this question is that I’ve been asked it many times before, with varying degrees of offensiveness.
I’ve been asked ‘where are you from’ by other strangers just like that man, who if they weren’t satisfied with my answer, would continue their line of questioning with ‘where are your parents from? Your grandparents? Your ancestors?’ I’ve been approached by guys in bars with the opener, ‘Chinese or Japanese?’. I’ve had someone joke that I look like another Asian colleague, despite us coming from completely different countries, and I’ve been asked very sincerely by a taxi driver whether I could tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese people, because he definitely couldn’t.
So yes, I put up some barriers now to avoid having these types of conversations again.
But I haven’t always. I used to answer up front. After all, I’m not stupid; I know what they’re really asking me. So I used to tell them – I was born in China. But the replies to this were usually just as problematic as the original question.
“Oh cool, China! I went to Hong Kong once.” Good for you.
“Jackie Chan’s Chinese right?” I don’t know.
“How do you say [insert any phrase]?” I don’t know.
“What animal is it in the Chinese calendar this year?” I don’t know.
“Wow, your English is really good.” Um, thanks?
Even after all these years, I’m still astounded by some people’s lack of self-awareness. Do you not hear what you’re saying, or do you just not care? I know a lot of people see it as harmless small talk, but I’m tired of entertaining their curiosity. Regardless of how they might see it, racism, however ‘casual’, is wrong. It’s wrong to accept it, tolerate it, or worse, deny it.
You can think I’m being defensive if you want – I suppose I am. But frankly, if you haven’t dealt with this line of questioning your whole life, had racial slurs shouted at you in the middle of the day, been called cock-eyed by strangers in the street, or been stared at in rural towns, you don’t get to judge me for having such a low tolerance for what seems like an innocent question.
Don’t get me wrong though, I don’t have an issue with everyone asking me this. I have no qualms with friends, colleagues, or even people I’ve only recently come to know asking me the question, because at least they’ve gotten to know me a little as a person first, instead of fixating immediately on my ethnicity (i.e. our differences).
It doesn’t matter where I’m ‘from’, because first and foremost I’m a person just like you, and my appearance doesn’t define who you think I am.
So to the man at the airport – the next time you think about questioning a complete stranger on where they’re from, ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve first. Or at the very least, take their answer as the right one, because it’s their choice what they want to share, not yours.