This basic question has become one of my least favourite questions in the universe. I deplore it. There’s a whole YouTube video that completely illustrates why I abhor this question, so I know I’m not alone. When people ask me where I’m from, and they’re not satisfied when I say “LA,” I start to get really annoyed, because what they mean is “what is my ethnicity?” So, after I say “LA,” and they ask again, “No, where are you FROOMM?” I say, “Torrance.” Then they start thinking it’s funny, and keep pressing me, and I’m forced to tell them I arrived from my mother’s hoohaw one beautiful April morning in the Torrance Memorial Hospital, probably in a similar fashion that they came into the world.
As I’ve thought about this more and more, I realized that this simple question can really rather be an intimate question. It’s natural when you’re getting acquainted with someone that you ask questions, including “Where are you from?” Or here in LA, where most folks seem to be transplants, you ask "where are you from" out of curiosity as to where the other person transplanted from, and the mid-westerners bond together, the southerners bond together, and yada-yada-yada. However, that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about here is random strangers who stop me in the middle of the street to ask where I’m from, and when I finally tell them from where my parents originate—if we get that far, that is—they start spewing out ignorant statements that leave me equally offended and baffled. I don’t know whether to walk away and laugh, or storm off because I’m so offended by the person’s blunt ignorance. It's like a really bad pick-up line.
Oddly, this tends to happen a lot in large, diverse cities, where you may least expect it. In a small town out in the countryside, it may be expected, because it may be obvious that you do not originate from that neck of the woods. I had a friend, who upon meeting me, was apparently surprised when I spoke perfect English in a regular America accent, because he grew up in a place where people who look Asian were all immigrants. Yet, whether I’m in London, New York, or Amsterdam—that annoying little question seems to know no boarders, and it’s annoying, because then it’s followed by a string of stereotypical comments. With me, people start talking about China, and even after I tell them I've never been to China but here parts of it are quite beautiful and would love to visit, they still keep going on about China. I know very little about China, except bits and parts of its history, that it invented fireworks, that many of the factories in China are run practically like concentration camps for its workers, but it's the best hope for those workers and the factory does a good job of putting on a different face for visitors checking out the factories, that China still needs to greatly up its IP protection, and how the Chinese government treats women is atrocious.
After having a conversation with someone else who happens to also hate the question, "where are you from," I started thinking about the most common types of people who have been prone to asking me this question in the annoying way that makes me want to hit a snowman:
I admit, when I thought about it in this generic breakdown, it made me laugh out of amusement. We’re all just people with stories, each a piece of one large colourful mosaic that makes up this beautiful, crazy world.
I oft like to turn the question around on the other person, and sometimes it’s funny, especially when it’s another person of colour and they look at me like, “What do you mean where am I from? I’m from Amsterdam!” That has actually happened to me. At least he was able to give me good directions to what I was looking for, but otherwise he seemed baffled as to why I'd ask him where he is from.
Sometimes I wonder, why can’t we all just be one happy, rainbow family without having to draw lines of distinction? Of course, where we “come from,” and the backstories to our stories are what makes us so unique and beautiful. So you see, it’s really quite an intimate question, because if you ask me where I’m from, and you really want to know where I’m from, you better have a good pot of tea going, some biscuits, and a few good hours on you.
If I tell you my parents are Chinese and Taiwanese, I have a great-grandmother who is Japanese, and at one time in history when the Dutch conquered the world, they apparently also conquered the women in my family, that tells you something about me, but very little. Until you know how I was raised, where I've been, what I've seen, until you learn the ways of my mind, and my heart and what I value, you know very little about where I'm from. So, where am I from? That’s not such a simple question to answer.
While my ethnicity may matter in certain respects, what does it mean to a stranger? Nothing, really. So, that's what gets me. That's why it's annoying when a stranger randomly stops me to ask me where am I from. I’m a proud American, but I see myself as a global citizen. As I like to tell people, I'm as comfortable roaming the streets of Paris as I am hanging out on a bar stool in a honky tonk all night long.
I’ve walked a unique road, and I know you have, too. If you ask me where I’m from expecting to know my ethnicity, and then make some assumptions about me, you might not ever know that I grew up performing Shakespeare and musicals, trained by a little blonde Yorkshire woman with a not so little presence. You wouldn’t know that I love belly dancing, and salsa, and swing, and that I love jazz and country music as much as I love Elton John and Def Leppard. Where I’m from is more than the countries listed on my parents and grandparents’ birth certificates. Where I’m from is different from where my mother came from, beyond just different countries. Where I’m from is also different than where my brother is from, even though we were born in the same hospital and grew up in the same houses, because different things have shaped our minds and hearts, though we have many similarities. One might say, but you grew up in the same house, so how do you come from different places? Well, he may see how we were brought up differently from how I see it.
“Where are you from?” It’s a simple question with a far more intimate and intricate response than we realize, and I think that it can actually be a very powerful question.
BIG LOVE & HUGS