“No, Mr. Smith, I Mean… Where Are You *REALLY* From?”

This is a question I’m never asked, despite the fact I am an immigrant. I came to this country 25 years ago, and became a naturalized citizen 13 years ago (which is why I now spell “naturalized” with a “z”… which I still call a zed. What can I say? A leopard can’t change his alphabet). However, I came here from England; I’m white, and I look Western European, and English is my first language (albeit the Mother form of the American hybrid). Which, I believe, is largely why I don’t get asked that question. My original English accent has faded somewhat, but from time to time an astute listener will pick up on my enunciated “t”s, and that unmistakable sound of authority and intelligence, and infer that I’m not American born-and-bred. At that point in the conversation, the person might ask, “Where are you from?” But they often preface the question with a reference to my accent, and they never use “really“. Sometimes they hazard a guess that ranges from Australia to Scotland, with the more adventurous going for South Africa, though most of the time they figure it’s “the UK” or “Britain” (probably hedging their bets, just in case I’m actually from one of those weird sub-genres of English called “Welsh,” “Scottish,” or “Irish”). I don’t mind being asked, and I will talk quite freely and happily about my English-Irish-Scots-Welsh origins.

But not everyone feels that way. Especially if the person asked happens to have a non-English sounding name, and has English as a second, third, or fourth language, and is not white. I have to confess, I used to glibly ask people who don’t look or sound like me where they’re from, and would get a little frustrated when they would reply with some US city. I’m fascinated with foreign cultures and languages, and all I want to do is learn more about them first-hand. What’s the harm in that? After all, I don’t mind being asked about my British background!

To my surprise, there’s a lot of harm in asking. And I’m surprised that I’m surprised. Let me put myself in the shoes of someone who is a first generation immigrant to the US from a non-English-speaking country–maybe even non-white. I don’t look like everyone else, I don’t sound like everyone else, and all I want is to settle down, work, raise my family, and be treated just like everyone else. Then someone asks me where I’m from, and all of a sudden I’m different, foreign, maybe even not welcome. This feeling only intensifies if I’m second or third generation from a non-white country. I can sound like the natives, but I don’t look like them, and my name isn’t like any of their names. Still I get the “where are you from?” question.

Here’s my dilemma (speaking now as the white British-American dude): I want immigrants and their children to feel welcome, loved, part of society… but I also want them to feel good about their cultural roots, and be able to talk freely about being (or their family being) from China, Iran, or wherever, without at the same time feeling un-American. Watch Disney Channel for any length of time, and you’ll see their celebrities and viewers talk about their ethnic heritage, and celebrate cultural diversity. So why does this only seem to happen on television? How can I ask you “where are you from?” without making you feel uncomfortable?

The simple answer: I can’t. At least not when I meet you for the first, second, third, or perhaps even fifth time. The consensus opinion I have heard is that the only context in which I can get away with such a question is one of friendship and trust. I have to befriend you, so you know I care about you for who you are, that you are more to me than just an ethnic identity. Then, and only then, can we talk cultures and languages without anyone feeling judged. And the reason I don’t feel uncomfortable talking about my British heritage is thanks to a thing we call white privilege. That term is a hot potato in American society, but like it or not, in this case, it applies. Let’s be frank: because I’m a white English-speaking person, when someone asks me where I’m from, I’m not afraid they want to deport me, and I’m not afraid they think I’m a terrorist. The UK is a friendly country, and everyone loves the Brits and their wacky sense of humo(u)r and their Queen and Doctor Who and Monty Python, so I’m not going to get asked whether I’m from the “good” Korea, or whether I’m a communist, or what it’s like to live in a free country at last. The red carpet awaits me as soon as I open my mouth. Like it or not, that’s white privilege. I’m not happy about it. Not at all. It makes me boil, in fact. It’s sinful. But it’s real.

But what about my curiosity? People fascinate me, especially people who aren’t like me, and come from places that are strange to me. I want to learn. I want to understand. What’s wrong with that? Here’s what’s wrong with it: it’s fundamentally selfish. Is my curiosity more important than someone else’s feeling of security? Is my desire to learn more important than someone else’s desire to feel welcome and accepted for who they are? Maybe the answer is to treat people as fellow human beings first. When we love and appreciate one another as fellow creatures created in the image of God, maybe then we can celebrate our rich ethnic and cultural diversity without the shadow of fear and suspicion.

Just a thought. 🙂

PS: As I was considering this post, I came across an article on CNN.com by Tanzina Vega on the same subject. Here’s her take on “Where are you really from?”

6 thoughts on ““No, Mr. Smith, I Mean… Where Are You *REALLY* From?”

  1. AJ Blythe

    Colin, I confess, I am exactly like you when it comes to being genuinely curious about people’s “backstory”, their culture, their life experiences and so on. I was also surprised to learn it isn’t okay to ask. But I think a lot of that surprise (and I suspect this is very much the same for you) is because it just doesn’t occur to me that someone might ask for any other reason than being genuine and friendly or asking from anything other than a position where you consider the other person to be an equal.

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      Yes, AJ–I certainly did assume that anyone who asked did so from the same pure motive. Sadly, that’s not the case. It takes a lot of effort to hold my tongue now when that question jumps to mind (which happens every time I see someone ethnically different to me), but respect for that person has to come first.

      Reply
  2. The Silver Fox

    I think it’s a shame that we can’t indulge simple curiosity without offending. Having said that, I am aware of it, so I almost never ask where someone is from. Almost never.

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      I understand where you’re coming from Silver Fox. But to many people, asking this question is like asking a woman, “Are you fat or pregnant?” simply because you want to know whether you need to congratulate her. No malice intended, but there’s a whole world of hurt behind the innocent question. But it’s amazing how much people will open up to people they trust. Building that trust is hard, but always the better way.

      Reply
  3. Stephanie

    You have voiced so many of my thoughts and concerns.
    You speak English with an English accent (BBC or Masterpiece Theater or whatever)? I’ve just added fifteen points to your IQ.
    You are black, and you speak with an accent? Please, God, don’t let me see you through the glasses that tinge everything with hunger and ignorance and “different from me.”
    Because–
    Whatever your accent
    Do you care about your children?
    Me, too.
    Do you want to go to bed at night not worrying that someone you love will be dead when you when you wake up?
    Please, God. Me, too.
    Does it make you happy when you prepare a meal, and people eat, and they are satisfied?
    Me, too.
    We are so different.
    We are not different at all.

    Reply
    1. cds Post author

      Thank you, Stephanie. What can I say? Yes, we are so different, and not different at all. Excellent thoughts.

      Reply

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