"Where Are You From?" (Race vs. National Identity)

Monday, June 13, 2011

I went through many of my old posts this week to make my new About Me page, and was struck by The South Asian Question in a New York Minute, a post I wrote on the conflicts within South Asian American identity. In the year and a half since I wrote that post, I have found even more to say on the topic. In particular, I want to focus on the intersections and conflicts between racial and national identity, which often duke it out in the question "where are you from?"

Where are you from?
Right over there.

I have gotten the question "where are you from?" too many times to count. Depending on a number of different factors (my mood, the person asking, the temperature of the situation), I will answer in a number of different ways. A) I go to school in NYC, but B) I am from Seattle, and C) I was born in Bangladesh. Usually I will give just one answer and feel out the reaction - I ask myself, is that really what they wanted to know? Usually I get a positive response, but sometimes there will be a person who insists that my answer was not the one they were looking for, and may I please answer again. Other times, they will half-smile and say "cool" in a way that lets me know they really wanted some other information that they're too embarrassed to ask directly for.

Either way, it makes me angry.

First, I feel some level of righteous indignation: what gives them the right to know these personal details about me? Or, if they wanted to know where I was born, why didn't they ask that? But there's also the feeling of disappointment. I must not have read their tone correctly (I berate myself). Then it zips back to the anger: why should I have to read their mind to know what they really meant by that?

So why do I feel like this? Simply put, "where are you from?" is not an aggressive-sounding question. But as a South Asian American, I am put on guard when I hear those words. I feel exoticized when asked that; by virtue of my brown skin, the person assumes that I could not be from here. So, although the question is often posed innocently, it brings up many hidden connotations: that my overt racial identity negates any possible national identity I might have, that the person asking wants to receive a primer in everything South Asian, or that the benefit of my being here is so they check off that they know someone from yet another obscure country.

Though it may sound like an overreaction, this question brings into stark relief the racial politics of the black/white binary - any race in between those two must be a foreign entity. And my awareness of this plagues me to no end. The new question becomes: what's there to do about it?

Most of the time, I'll just answer Seattle and leave it until someone pushes back. I identify with this country, I am an American on most counts, and I feel that my national identity need not be questioned solely because of my racial signifiers (skin, hair, eyes). But I have no clever response for when someone pushes me on it; I generally answer that I was born in Bangladesh and answer all the requisite questions about where that is located and what language we speak. While I may feel anger inside, I often just bite my tongue and hold off to complain later. Because I don't know a better way to go about that question without being rude or having to further explain my reactions. Perhaps if I repeated my first answer, it would be more apt.

Does anyone out there have a clever response that they use to this question? Or do you even react? Do you get the question often or is "where are you from?" pretty rare for most situations? Let me know your experiences in the comments.

If you'd like to read more of my opinion pieces, check out Discrimination and Mixed Metaphors and Oops, Your Islamophobia is Showing.