Where are you from?

I’m lucky I’ve never really been aggressively abused because of my ethnicity (I’m a Chinese-born Australian). I’ve never been told to go back to where I came from, been called a terrorist or anything that awful. I don’t think you need to be so violently vilified to feel the whip racism, though. Racism is layered like any kind of prejudice and it can be subtle enough to dismiss.

A few weeks back, artist Suzanne Nguyen wrote a great blog post about why asking the question “Where are you from?” is kind of racist. The conversations on Facebook and Twitter about the topic were somewhat divided, but the general consensus was there’s nothing wrong with asking the question, depending on the intent and the context. I think this can be true to an extent. If you teach English to migrants, then the question might be something you ask you’re students.

In high school, I went to several university open days. I was waiting for my bus when this man started talking to me. He asked me where I was from and I said, “Doncaster” which was where I was living at the time. He chuckled and shook his head. He didn’t press the question further.

The more I think about it the more I dislike the question. It implies I don’t belong to wherever it is I am, especially followed up with ‘where are you actually from?’. I’ve also been getting a lot of “Are you local?” questions, which might even be more infuriating than “Where are you from?”. They’ve singled you out because don’t look like you belong to whatever environment you’re in, but something about you is “local” and it throws them off. Context does play into these situations though. I’ve been guilty of asking this question too (although I hope I’ve never asked someone if they are “local”) and I try not to ask this question.

This July, I was dropping Liam off at the airport. He was on his way to Vietnam for work. His work neglected to organise his visa for Vietnam and therefore was not allowed to check in. The woman at the counter made a flippant comment, saying, “You can’t board without a visa but YOU could easily”. By YOU, she was referring to me. Being Asian, she assumed I was Vietnamese or all Asians had a free pass into a fellow Asian country. I knew she didn’t mean any offence in making that comment, or most likely, she didn’t realise it was a bit racist. She should have know better because she works for an international airline.

During the Melbourne Comedy Festival this year, I went to see Michael Hing‘s show and he was talking about how he got a job because his employer thought ‘orientals’ were really hard workers. He was obviously terrible at his job and yet his boss kept promoting him. This positive racism is really messed up because its foundation lies in racial stereotypes.

What I’m trying to point out is racism doesn’t have to knock your teeth out or spit on your face. It’s a lot of ignorant, flippant comments, subtle enough for us to just dismiss, but it lingers around until it becomes part of the norm. I guess that’s why we should challenge it so it’s not hidden any more.


8 thoughts on “Where are you from?

  1. “The more I think about it the more I dislike the question. It implies I don’t belong to wherever it is I am.”

    The question does not imply you don’t belong, but you may infer it if you must. Questions don’t imply anything: a person asking the question does.

    I have asked the question. I asked Suzanne the question. I can assure you that it was not motivated by racism or any implication that Suzanne does not belong.

    In the future, I will certainly be more circumspect about asking someone with black or red hair, or who is much taller than me, or has a gecko peering out of their pocket, about their obvious differences to me. When someone is different to me, I’d don’t think they are inferior. I don’t think they are superior either. I think they have something of real value to me, something that can enrich my experience in life.

    You can’t have a discourse about and celebrate diversity without first noticing it. Perhaps we shouldn’t notice diversity at all, since it causes discomfort. Perhaps we should all wear sackcloth and go about with paper bags on our heads, lest we notice some of our fellow human beings aren’t identical to us.

    I guess literally any time a distinction is made based on race, such as when I notice you are of a different race to me, then that it is technically racism. But if I notice that your hair is longer than mine, but does that make me hairist? The bad stuff is the value judgments based on race and the ensuing actions. But if I simply ask you where are you from, how do you know what values I’m placing on anything?

    So if I notice a race difference and ask you about it, and then you notice that I am of a different race and go on to infer that I have inherently done something offensive, then who is racist?

    1. If you asked me where I was from and I answered “Australia”, would that be a sufficient answer? If not, then am I wrong for identifying “Australia” as where I’m “from”?

      Everyone is entitled to identify with whatever culture they feel they belong to. They shouldn’t have to defend or validate their answer. Most people asking this question don’t have any racial intent. Perhaps it’s just a matter of phrasing it differently.

      I’d argue hair style is different to race. You wouldn’t ask someone where they are from because they have different hair.

      I personally believe it’s no one’s business what a person’s ethnic/cultural background is. We don’t go around asking each person what their sexuality is. Why should racial background be any different?

      1. If you answered “Australia”, that would be sufficient. And welcome, really. I agree everyone may identify with whatever culture they wish. No one should have to defend or validate answers. In much the same way that no one should have to defend or validate questions.

        I agree that personal things are no one’s business. But getting to know someone is a process of sharing person-ality. It’s your choice what you share. My curiosity never implies an expectation or obligation of answer.

        I don’t “go around” asking people much at all. Perhaps some people make some kind of perverse hobby of that, but it’s more probable that no one “goes around” at all. It does your posiition little good to cast anyone like that. While I don’t “go around” asking people about their origin, or sexuality, or work, or what purpose they have chosen for their lives, but I am interested in those those things as I get to know someone.

        So, if you and I had met in a more corporeal medium and I had asked that question, and I had misread the timing of it, or not phrased it correctly, and you answered in a glib fashion designed to nullify the question, then that’s perfectly OK by me. Of course, we’d have very little report and little chance of acquainting further. And that’s OK too.


  2. “Are you local?” That’s a new one! A taxi driver asked me something similar “are you from Melbourne?” He wanted to know so he can direct a suitable conversation for his passenger. People are not defined by theirs looks, origin or their job. Better deep questions would have been – tell me what you like to do.

    Even Asians are racist too. I did another follow up post about all Asians are not Chinese. Beside the story in Vietnams airport, have you been labelled another asian race?

    I did another post about how most asian are automatically grouped as Chinese.

    1. Hey Suzanne, sorry for my late reply. I don’t really get mistaken for being a different race. Although when I was in Thailand, people thought I was Thai because I looked Chinese Thai. I can’t stand how people assume all Asians are Chinese. Once I was waiting for the train and this guy started talking to me in Chinese, just assuming I could understand him. Luckily I could, but it still annoyed me anyway.

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