Monday, November 22, 2010

So...where are you really from?

Whenever I meet people, I often get asked the question: so where are you originally from? The exchange is usually something like this:

A: So where are you from?
Me: Los Altos. It’s a small town in California.
A (showing total disinterest): No, I mean, where do you come from?
Me: Los Altos?
A (impatiently): No, I mean, where are you originally from?

Oh, how frustrating! Does it really matter that my great-grandfather was a chain-store owner whose warehouses were bombed by the Japanese in World War II? But this, rather than my stories about the sleepy Californian town of Los Altos, is what seems to interest most people that ask me the Question. It's never enough to be from the Bay Area, or California - I always have to dig deeply into my roots and expose them in order to pacify the curious individuals that ask me the Question. This is probably a common experience for many people on this blog, especially those that physically appear “ethnic” and therefore somehow less “American”.

A couple days ago, I came across Michele Serros’s “How to be a chicana role model”, where she describes an incident in which she, tired of being asked the question “Where are you really from?” over and over again, actually turns the tables and persistently questions a Caucasian stranger about his origins in the following exchange:

“Me: And where are you from?
El Other: From here.
Me: Oh…the Midwest?
El Other: No, I’m from here. You know.
Me: What do you mean, here?
El Other: I mean, I’m from here, here.
Me: Oh, I just meant originally. You look like…I don’t know – different?
El Other: What?
Me: Oh, never mind.
El Other: Different? Different as in how? That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard! No one has ever said I looked like I was from somewhere else! I’m American – American, from here, here!”

It’s interesting that El Other in Serros’s text becomes perplexed and deeply upset when Serros snubs him in such a manner; his reaction reflects the obvious racism embedded in the common greeting: So where are you really from? I’m assuming that many people don’t realize the racism in such a question – after all, I don’t think they’d ask that question so readily and frequently if they realized its inherent racism. But the offense that El Other, an unaccented Caucasian, takes to Serros’s question reveals the double racial standards that are associated with that question.

This is my opinion: It might seem perfectly normal, even expected, for someone who is unaccented and lacking any particular ethnic physical features, that is someone who appears physically and generically “American” to ask and individual from a minority group this question after all, this is the expected social order, no? However, when a person of color asks this questions in return, it’s as if their actions have usurped the acceptable social order – that individuals is seen an outsider/visitor/intruder is daring to question the origins of a “true American”. What do you all think?


  1. I am asked these same questions all the time! I have been asked by many people, even other people of color, 'Where are you from?' with the same dialogue. I say, 'I'm from Oklahoma', and they ask a second time, 'No, like where are you from?' I say, 'I'm from Oklahoma.' Then they ask, 'Where are your parents from?' I say, 'My mom's from Oklahoma and my dad's from Arizona.' Again, 'Well, where are your grandparents from?' Really, it's an endless cycle. I think that people who look "exotic" to others, even when they don't have a "foreign" accent (as I do not), are asked those kinds of questions because around the world American is synonymous with white. However, I don't think this question is always stemmed from racism. We also can't ignore the obvious racism in Michele Serros’s conversation, but I think sometimes people are just curious to know who you are and where you come from.

  2. I actually met Michele Serros last semester, and we sort of talked about this. In my case, I get asked a little bit differently, "What part of Mexico are you from?" Although I admit that my parents are from Mexico, it's pretty sad that sometimes people assume that I'm Mexican. I found it really interesting though, that Serros switches the question and then as I was reading another question arose. What does it mean to be a "True American"? and that question in itself is indeed very problematic.

  3. I feel like whenever someone who isn't a person of color asks me where I'm from I always answer with "I'm Mexican" if it is a person of color I just say I'm from LA. Although that doesn't always workout I feel like we develop ways of dealing with ridiculous questions people ask us sometimes so we kind of let go of the racial implications. I think more people should ask white folks where they are from we definitely need to stop letting people believe whiteness is normal and everything else is not.

  4. I get asked that question all the time as well! But I never thought how it would be like if someone turns the tables around and ask a Caucasian the same question. It makes sense, I do see some sort of racism there in asking minorities where they are from. It saddens me that to be considered a "true American," one must acquire whiteness. America is very diverse, filled with all kinds of ethnicity that are Americans. Because the dominant culture is white, that is perceived to be THE race of the country with no regards to minorities at all. Minorities are usually ignored or not conceived as Americans so there is a sense of detachment, which frustrates me at times but I've accepted the fact that more people that I will encounter in the future will ask me where I am from. But then again, my view on that question has changed. So when people ask me where I am from, they are simply asking about my ethnicity and not saying that I am not American.

  5. I have encountered the same experience. However, what is interesting is when people begin to argue with me what my roots actually are. Whenever, I'm asked "Where are you from?" I make it a game and ask them "Where do you *think* I'm from?" I've had interesting responses from partially white (whatever that means), Mexican, Indian, Spanish, Italian, and African American. I always toss in the fact, "Oh and my last name is Elithorp" to throw them off even more. After being tired of being looked at with squinted eyes of confusion, I decided to hear out how others may perceive me and why they think the way they do. Often after I tell them my mother is from El Salvador and biological father is from Mexico, my last name gets questioned which is another slew of information. Such questions end up being intrusive and instead of an ice- breaker type of question digs deep into a personal history. I consider myself American as that is what my experience has been, and what right does anyone have to question that?