I cringe every time someone asks me this question. And it happens a lot on a regular basis. How am I supposed to answer this question?
I have now lived in Seattle for 7 years. Does that give me permission to say that I am from Seattle? Seattle is a city filled with people from other places though, so are they asking me where I came from before I moved to Seattle? So does that mean I should say that I am from Chicago? Even though I have lived less of my life in Chicago than Seattle at this point? Another place that is composed up of people from all over? I have lived in many places growing up, but in the back of my mind, I know what they are really asking. They want to know what Asian country that I am from…
The question, “Where are you from?” is rooted in racism and xenophobia. This is a question that is almost solely asked to east and south east Asians in the US. It is because we are viewed as different, and as outsiders. It isn’t a question that you ask white people from European backgrounds. White people are always viewed to be a part of the US.
And of course so many of us are born in the US, and despite that we are still asked this question. When we answer that we are from the US, people ask us further probing questions of what our ethnic backgrounds are.
I would go as far as to say that not only is this question rooted in racism and xenophobia, it is also that people view us as exotic items of curiosity in which they feel like they have the right to know more about as if we are objects in a museum.
This is not to say never to ask us about our cultural backgrounds. It is often an integral part of our identities. But if it is the first thing that you ask when you meet us, it shows that you are not really interested in knowing us as individuals but as stereotypes. It is okay to ask us about our backgrounds as you get to know us. Also, we will most likely bring it up as we tell you about ourselves as it becomes relevent.
If you don’t ask all of your white friends where they are from, so please stop asking us that question.
** People from other cultural backgrounds are also asked where they are from or not for many other reasons, but it is not my place to comment about.