Why I’m tired of being asked ‘where are you from?’

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.


“Then where?”

“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.

More in:Thoughts


  1. People are shit & I’m sorry you have to endure this level of stupidity!

    Unfortunately, I can’t really relate as my ancestors are London-ers as far back as we can work out, I was the first one to be born in Essex… and I don’t think crossing one English county border is that exotic

    Hoping to head to Wales soon – and I’m gonna need some Cardiff advice from a local (something that you exactly are)!

    Danielle /

    1. Thanks Danielle – I’m glad you can’t relate and I hope nobody has to in future! I’ll happily share some tips for when you visit my neck of the woods 🙂 I’m working on a Cardiff post too actually!

  2. Yes ,you’re brave and bighearted. I agree that you are well worth respecting and trusting.

    1. Thanks Maggie

  3. I can’t believe the nerve of that guy! I’m sorry you have to put up with that. 🙁

    1. Thanks Clazz, thankfully people like that are in the minority, but it still happens more than you’d believe.

  4. To be honest I still say I am from The Philippines even though I came to NZ when I was 11 and I am 36 now. I wasn’t born here but grew up most of my life so technically I am not originally from here. And that should also be in similar scenario to you. You weren’t born in the UK. I think you should be proud of your ethnicity and where you originally came from. You don’t need to get offended. It would have been a different story if you were actually born in the UK and have never been to China.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Maria, but this isn’t the point I was trying to make.

      I’m glad you’re happy to say you’re from the Philippines, but that’s completely your decision as this is mine. It’s not about me being offended or embarrassed by my ethnicity, it’s that I’ve long placed my roots here in the UK and it’s where I truly identify as my home. This is where I grew up and where I connect to, and it isn’t for you or anyone else to decide otherwise.

      The other problem with what you’re saying is that it wouldn’t be a different story if I was actually born in the UK, because even when I do tell people that, they still won’t accept it as an answer. Why? Because I’m not white. And so for some, I will never be considered British or anything other than Asian, no matter where I was born or where I grew up.

      Identity is a complex issue, but the ultimate point I was trying to make is that the colour of our skin continues to be seen as our identity above anything else, and that perhaps we should accept people as an individual first, instead of who we think they are based on their appearance.

  5. I’m sorry you deal with this too. I’m constantly harassed by strangers while I’m minding my own business. My whole life I’ve been asked: “where are you REALLY from??”. It’s incredibly insulting and it makes me feel like an outsider in my own country. Thanks for writing this! I hope others become more aware of their actions.

    1. So sorry to hear you experience the same, Karina. And I couldn’t agree more with what you said – it completely makes you feel like you don’t belong. I too hope people will be more conscious of these type of questions in future.

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