Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Why do you want to know where I'm from?

Recently I was asked to give a talk about race and diversity, specifically to talk about my own experiences as a woman of color in higher education. So I drew upon some of the themes that I've discussed previously in this blog--about the definition of race as we know it (in terms of the "racial pentagram"), the difference between "institutional racism" versus "individual discrimination," about my own identification as an Asian American woman, and about the question that every Asian American person I know has been asked at least once (and usually many times), namely: "Where are you from?" with the implication, oftentimes, that a person isn't looking for your current home address; rather, what the questioner wants to know is what your ethnic ancestry is.

The talk was really fun--and the question and answer period, which I used more as a general discussion, was the best part, because it was an opportunity for people to talk to one another, albeit through me. In other words, I didn't want to just stand up as the "race expert" because I think everyone has their own experiences, and hence expertise, when it comes to race. And really, after one person has been talking for 40 minutes, the last thing anyone wants is to keep hearing the same voice answer questions.

However, one very good question was posed to me directly. In response to an anecdote I had told about the Staples guy (click here) who insisted I had to be from Hawaii because I looked Hawaiian and who kept wanting to know where I was from, a person in the audience asked this question:

"Is there any kind of question that you would prefer to be asked with respect to your background/ethnicity? Was there a way that the man who insisted you were Hawaiian could have asked his question without offending you?"

I thought about it for a moment and then did the teacherly thing that I sometimes do, which is to flip it around and look at it from a different perspective. Because the thing is, there's nothing wrong in asking someone where they are from or, if it is the ethnic ancestry you are interested in, there's nothing wrong in directly asking someone, "What is your ethnic ancestry?" I've done it recently with a student in my class who appears to be South Asian but had indicated through different references that he might have Indian heritage, and so during office hours I asked him directly what his ethnic heritage was because it was in relationship to a conversation we were having about people taking off their shoes before entering one's home--and it was a point of common cultural practice between Indian households and Chinese households (and I dare say a number of other cultures do this as well, like Korean and Kenyan).

So what I said to the questioner was that it wasn't so much how it was asked or what was asked but it is the motivation behind the question that I'm interested in. For example, a nurse who was inserting a needle in my arm during a blood drive once asked what my nationality was. I am not sure if it was the tone of her voice or the fact that she was about to stick a needle into my arm, but I didn't get defensive or reactionary (for example, I didn't scream I AM AN AMERICAN CITIZEN IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MY ETHNIC HERITAGE THEN JUST ASK) instead I simply said "I identify as a Chinese American." She got very excited and started to tell me about her Chinese American granddaughter--and at first I wasn't sure if her son had married a Chinese/Chinese American woman or had adopted a girl from China, but it soon came out that it was the latter and that her Chinese American grandchild was always asking her grandmother (who worked for the Red Cross) if she met any Chinese people in the largely homogenous (read white) area of Western MA where we were having this conversation.

In other words, for the white American Red Cross nurse, her motivation in asking me my nationality was very personal and rooted in finding resources for her granddaughter in discovering her ethnic heritage. For the Staples guy? It seems as if his motivation was simply to tell me I should get to know my culture better and to show off HIS expert knowledge about China and Chinese society. And quite frankly, I have all the patience in the world for the nurse and none whatsoever for the "China expert." Because the nurse seems to desire a true interaction and a conversation whereas the China expert seems to want to talk at me rather than with me.


Elly said...

This is a really useful post - I appreciate the insensitivity of "what are you" interrogations but on the same hand always wonder about people's ethnic backgrounds. My motivation is both because I have an interest in my own (I used to make pie charts of my background when I was a kid) and also to become a more aware person (for example how can I learn to recognize that a person is Korean American rather than Chinese American if I never know the background of those people I do know - hope that makes sense).

CVT said...

I've had this conversation a million times, and it basically comes down to this: if you ask the question in a straight-forward manner, out of honest curiosity and a desire to know (and learn), then it's all good. Every time.

However, if you don't come from that angle, or hedge around it ("what ARE you?" or "where are you from?") then you can just ---- yourself. That's it.

An African-American friend of mine once put it this way: often, white people (or others) treat race as if it's a disability - like a humpback. They try to avoid mentioning it even though it's f-ing obvious, because - to them - it's something BAD. But it's not something BAD. It's something intrinsic to our identities (EVERYBODY, including white folks), and so tip-toeing around it is more than just silly - it's insulting.

So if you want to know what my ethnic background is, ask me. Straight up. And then have a conversation with me about what that means.

But if you want to assume, or tell me, or talk about how "exotic" I am or what an "interesting look" I have, just be prepared for me to break your nose.

Jennifer Imazeki said...

This post rings so true for me! I get really defensive whenever a white person asks me about my ethnic background, no matter how they word it, because I have NEVER heard someone ask a white person (with no obvious accent) where they are from, what their nationality is, etc. There have been a couple times when I have later felt bad because, like your nurse, the person had some specific personal reason for asking, but most of the time, the question is based in ignorance and just rubs me the wrong way. I tolerate it because I figure at least ignorance is better than overt racism, but depending on how the question is worded, I'm careful to say that my ethnic background is Japanese, or to stress that I am Japanese-American.

But it's something I've thought a lot about because you're right that there is nothing inherently wrong with asking. I'm slightly less defensive when other Asians ask, because I can imagine that they are wondering if I am the same ethnicity as them, but even then, it can depend a lot on how they word it. For me, I guess the thing that really sets me off is when there is any indication that the questioner thinks I am less American because I am Asian ('where are you from' is the worst!).

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate this post and it's good to hear how other Asian(Americans) handle this. I've found personally that it depends on the person who asks me, and just how I feel about them.

I can't really describe it, and maybe it's because I tend to be a fairly private person. I get very defensive if a male (especially black male, I hate to say) asks me what I am.

It's doubly worse that I am half white, because I get that side-ways look from people trying to figure me out.

Your post was quite interesting to me, because I hadn't really put into words what it is to be talked "at" versus "to" and it's just good to hear someone talk about it.

Jennifer said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. I think for anyone (and those of you identifying as Asian American I'm SURE have had to deal with this) who gets asked on a regular basis "Where are you from?" you just feel prickly and sticky and sometimes you just don't want to have to deal with that question, because I don't want to have to internally ask myself: Is this a teachable moment? Should I try to educate this person about all the ways in which he is stereotyping me and thus making me feel uncomfortable, or do I just want to make my photocopies and get out of dodge?

I do think my experience with the Red Cross nurse, and other similar interesting conversations I've had with folks of various ethnic hues about race is important to remind me to have patience because I DO want to dialogue about race and like CVT, if someone asks, even awkwardly, about my racial or ethnic background, I'm pretty tolerant and generally happy to have this conversation. Most recently this happened with an Asian American student at the library who asked about my nationality. I didn't correct her, I answered like I did with the Red Cross nurse, but I swear when she found out I taught Asian American studies, she literally BEAMED at me and said she had always wanted to take a class and she disclosed her own background (Filipina American) and we chatted for a bit and that was really pleasant.

And honestly, she caught me in a moment when I was so tired and cranky that I *almost* snapped at her and said, "I'm American--don't I look like it?" which would have been WRONG on so many levels, esp. because it was Southern U.'s library and she was clearly a student and I'm a professor and should know better.

But I'm also human and get tired of being asked these sorts of questions, even by well intentioned Asian American students.

However, as Yoda said to Luke Skywalker, "Patience young Jedi"--and although I'm not a Jedi, I can always aspire to be greater than I am and to have more patience, because I don't just stop being a teacher when I leave my classroom, even if sometimes I need a time out.