By RENE TSUKAWAKI
I cannot count the number of times I have been asked the question “Where are you from?” It’s a seemingly innocent question, one that’s in the list of questions people ask the first time they meet someone; along with “What’s your name?”, “Where are you from?” is a reasonable question to ask a stranger since both the question and the answer are simple and straightforward.
Except they’re not.
At least not for all of us. I personally am never quite sure how to respond to this question.
Usually whenever people ask me, they do not actually want my full background story and desire a one-word response. The question, after all, is merely a formality. It is like how some people ask, “How are you?” on passing, without ever even bothering to slow down to catch the response. Thus, I often respond to my peers that have asked me this question with one of my own: “What do you mean?”
“Be more specific,” I then say, because my answer changes depending on what the person asking wants to know. Sometimes, because I am a person of Asian descent, what someone really wants to know is where my parents are from, i.e. my ethnicity. But usually the person who asks me is stumped by my question in return. They aren’t sure what they want to know either. Is it where I was born? New Jersey. Is it what I write down for my permanent address? Tokyo. The actual list of where I’ve lived during the 20 years of my life? What I think of when I think of the word “home”?
I remember a club meeting during freshman year where I felt alone as all the students began to share where they were from in a circle. It was a chorus of “Westchester” and “Long Island,” with the occasional “Syracuse.” Everyone was cheering and shouting things like “hash-tag pride.” For them, there was someone with whom they shared an automatic bond, a sense of belonging. When it was my turn, I quietly said “Tokyo,” the answer I’d decided to stick to that evening, and knew without looking up that no one would be smiling because they were also from the same city. One person said, “Cool,” but everyone else stayed unresponsive as they waited for the next person’s answer.
I used to say “New Jersey” in place of “Tokyo” to avoid all of the “Are you an international student?” or “Can you speak some Japanese for us?” questions. But whenever I said, “New Jersey,” people began asking “Which part?” or would eagerly share which part they were from and ask me if I knew where it was or had heard of it. My answer was always “I don’t know,” and understandably, since I lived there until I was five and haven’t really been back since.
The problem with the question “Where are you from?” is its implication. There’s an underlying assumption that people are from one place and that place only. That’s true to an extent — we all know where we’re really from: our mothers’ wombs. But that’s not what people want to hear. There is a strong desire to put everyone into boxes, to label and shelve each person under different categories. We want to understand a person and size them up, quickly — but on our own terms.
I realize that most people ask this question to be polite. It’s just as much as someone’s attempt to connect with me as it is for them to put a label on me. If I say I’m from Japan for instance, many are quick to tell me about when they’ve visited (even if it was for just a few hours at the airport), or how they love Japanese food. But in many cases, it can be stressful. I know there are others like me who are constantly faced with the “But where are you really from?” question. It’s as if many people find it difficult to comprehend that it’s possible for someone with an Asian appearance to have been born and raised in the U.S., to feel and sound entirely American and therefore identify as such.
The reality is that the world is becoming increasingly globalized, and many of us move around frequently. Many of us are racially or ethnically mixed and speak multiple languages. The notions of “Where we’re from” and “hometown” can be complex. At times it can feel lonely to not have my roots in one place like so many of my peers. But at the end of the day, I really love that virtually anywhere can become my home. If you’re going to ask someone where they’re from, make sure you’re not asking it as a filler question or because you’re trying to stick a label on them. Please, ask me where I’m from — I’m more than happy to share. But if you do, also be understanding and stay for the whole conversation.