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Where Are You From?

I am of Asian descent (which is completely relevant) and I work in a bookstore when these things happen to me:

I had grabbed a tall stack of books and on my way to putting them on the shelves when an older gentleman had stopped in the middle of the aisle (which were still wide enough for plenty of room for people to pass), put his feet together, and bowed at me. By this time, I didn’t have enough time to do anything about it, and if I had stopped, that would have meant the stack of books happening on the floor but I didn’t know what he wanted to accomplish with the act. In Asian cultures, the only time when we would do something like that would be whenever we’re introducing ourselves or another. Even in a retail setting, something like this never happens between two complete strangers; perhaps during a transaction when patron of a store may thank a customer for his or her patronage.

Not only this, I also get questions such as, “Where are you from.” I usually answer that I’m from Chicago, as I sometimes have the accent, but of course, this is not what they’re asking. Instead of being able to deal with the situation and say that I’d rather not say, as it can be considered poor service on my part and may involve complaints on part of the customer in addition to solicitations of, “why not”, I lie and say that I was adopted and I have no idea. On the one hand, I can see that they might be really interested. On the other hand, it makes me ask whether they want to know because of some weird illegal immigrant issue they want to bring up, their need to be nosey, or to show of what limited (and usually incorrect) knowledge they have of the language of my heritage by trying to say a few random phrases.

I’m always confused in these moments and never know what to do.    0810-10

In the situations you presented,  I would assume good intentions of the customers and play right along.  In the case of the gentleman, despite it not being the correct time to bow to one another,   had I been you and encountered the customer again after disposing of my stack of books, would have bowed to him while smiling, perhaps even laughing.  He may very well have thought he was showing respect to you or making an awkward introduction of sorts and sometimes it’s a kindness to recognize those moments and help the other person climb over their own awkwardness.

I’ve played along with total strangers at shopping stores or out and about and often that can yield these little gems of time,  “these small hours, little wonders, these twists and turns of fate” as the song “Little Wonders” by Rob Thomas goes.  Two total strangers, probably never destined to meet again, share a joke,  a smile or a laugh.  It’s my personal “flash mob” moment.  It makes my day and I think it adds to the enjoyment of others.

As for asking about nationality, I admit I am quite guilty of this.   I am my family’s archivist and genealogist so people’s history and family names interest me greatly.  An unusual surname gets my curiosity juices flowing and I’d love to know that person’s ethnic heritage.  Being aware that this could be construed negatively, I weigh the appropriateness of the question  in context of the timing, how I am relating to that person, etc.  When I do ask, I phrase it thus, “You have an unusual or interesting surname I am not familiar with.  What is the ethnic heritage of that name?”   My experiences are that people are very proud of their heritage and not offended at all.  It’s also can be a conversation starter into different areas of discussion.   I feel I learn something, too.

“Where are you from?”, is the sloppy, awkwardly abrupt way many people communicate an interest in another person or as a way to start a small conversation.   *I’ve* even asked that question simply because I’m hearing an accent I cannot place and I’m trying to figure out where the person is from…although I ‘m more likely to phrase the question with, “I can’t place your accent.  Australian? South African? Where are you from?”  I live in a Southeastern state where one would assume all Southern accents are the same but there are at least four different variants of a NC accent (and lots more I’m sure) that can place where a person is from.  Once they have your locale pegged down, the next question you’ll likely to hear in North Carolina is, “Who is your daddy?” (pronounced “deady”) as they try to mentally fit you into the community as they know it.

You mention you are Asian but I would submit that one reason people ask for clarification as to where you are from is because “Asian” is an extremely broad classification.   Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, Philippino,  Tibetan, Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, Nepalese,  Malayasian, Mongolian,  Thai, and Sri Lankan are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head and I’m sure there are even more I’ve forgotten.  I know from experience that Japanese, for example, would be offended to be mislabeled as Korean.  I believe, therefore, that it can be a sign of respect to ask for  a clarification of where one is from (a person’s ethnic heritage) so that further communication is based on understanding and a desire to not offend inadvertently.

{ 100 comments… add one }
  • ED August 30, 2010, 4:01 pm

    Oh, I get the, “where are you from?” or “what are you?” question all.the.time. I am a black American, but I guess depending on the season I can look: black American, Latina/Hispanic (usually Cuban or Dominican, but also several other countries), native Hawaiian, Indian (from India) or Arab (from a variety of countries). It does get old to constantly be asked these questions, but I do realize that most people have good intentions so I politely answer, “I’m from here!” or, “I’m American!” with a smile. It’s the people who do not accept that answer and press for more details or say things like, “but where are you REALLY from” that are rude. I also find that saying, “I’m black American” doesn’t satisfy most people who ask this question, and I get a whole lot of follow up questions and frankly, I don’t owe it to strangers to go into a whole lot of detail about my background.

    To the OP, I’d suggest continuing to say, “I’m from Chicago” and if people continue to ask just say, “I’m American, from Chicago” but drop the smile and say it in a way that indicates that the discussion is over.

  • Random August 30, 2010, 4:10 pm

    But, admin, there is a difference between being offended at something and reacting badly to it. Of course OP shouldn’t start screaming at the man, but it sounds like you’re saying people should not be offended at this at all. I disagree that someone can choose to be offended. Either you are or you aren’t, what really matters is how you react. I don’t think it’s fair to say that someone who is offended by this is a negative person who gets offended by everything.

  • Ginger August 30, 2010, 5:10 pm

    I love talking to people about their ethnic origins. My father is Polish so I am often asked about it when my last name comes up and I don’t mind at all. In fact, I rather enjoy chatting about it and I love it when people tell me about their ethnicity. But I live in Australia and I think we’re a lot more laid back here and don’t get offended as quickly. When it comes down to it, most people are looking for something to connect with another person about. You can either get offended about it or take it in the friendly spirit in which it was meant. I guarantee you’ll feel better on a daily basis if you decide to see it as a friendly gesture.

  • AS August 30, 2010, 5:16 pm

    I am sorry for posting once again, but as I have experienced similar situations first hand, I feel think I have to share my comment.
    Admin, it is true that if you are comfortable in your own skin, no one can get away by saying anything about your culture. But I have seen people having a condescending attitude as soon as they know I am different from them. I have had a shopkeeper explain something (in reply to my question) to me as if I was stupid, she seemed irritated and rolled her eyes when I asked her a question.
    As I said earlier, it is one thing to ask something just out of curiosity. I am proud to be an Indian and I have no problem in saying that. But when someone acts patronizing, it is obvious. As many people said, you don’t go and ask a stranger is she is pregnant even though it is obvious; neither would you ask what religion they follow, or if they are married or not – at least not as ice-breakers. I don’t see how the ethnicity of the person is in any way different.
    @Mona – no one will assume the worst if you start a conversation with another person in a normal way. I always start conversation with people, and no one is offended. I am not offended when people start a conversation with me either, as long as they don’t start patronizing me for being different from them!

  • sweet firefly August 30, 2010, 6:07 pm

    I think, for the most part, the “where are you from” question is just simple curiosity on the part of the asker. I wouldn’t say it’s rude, but it’s not necessarily good etiquette. I do however disagree with the Admin that the original poster should just play along when people bow to him/her. It only encourages ignorance, however well meaning and innocent. There’s nothing wrong with smiling or nodding and walking away.
    I’m of Italian descent, and even though I’m third generation, I look very typical of an Italian person (olive skin and dark eyes and hair). People ask me occasionally what my nationality is. I know they mean my heritage, so I always answer Italian American or of Italian descent. Sometimes though I get follow up questions like do I speak Italian (no, and neither do my parents), have I been to Italy to visit relatives (?), or do I make a lot of Italian food (not a lot by any means). While these questions don’t faze me, I would consider them invasive from a complete stranger. I do however get excited when someone guesses my heritage (and not just assumes I’m Hispanic).

  • TheOtherAmber August 30, 2010, 6:58 pm

    (Preface – I posted some comments on other entries recently just as Amber but obviously that’s going to get confusing so…)

    I think a lot of the sensitivity surrounding being asked questions like “where are you from” is because, as some others have suggested, you never know where that’s going to lead. A lot depends to some extent on where you are, but it’s sometimes really hard to tell if someone is asking just out of curiousity or because they’re harbouring racist sentiments. There are a lot of wonderful, curious people out there in the world, and it’s sad that some closed-minded and hateful individuals can cause people to be so guarded and cautious. But if being asked a question like “where are you from” makes you wonder if you’re going to be yelled at and threatened, then I can see uncomfortable with it.

    Several years ago I was visiting Australia. As a Canadian I sometimes had people ask about my accent. Most times they were just curious, aside from one person who for some reason didn’t like Canadians and told me to **** off and go back home. That only happened the once and it was pretty disconcerting, I can see being senstive about the question if I was a visible minority and encountered that reaction more than once.

  • Bellawitch August 30, 2010, 7:01 pm

    I have to side with the people saying the OP is overreacting. People are curious about other people, that is why people watching is so popular at malls.

    Having lived in Canada for over 20 years with a Southern accent I got asked this all the time. I had no problem telling people I was born in the backwoods of Alabama (the joke when I was growing up was we were so far in the country that sunshine had to be shipped in). People often guessed my heritage, I have been called English, Irish, Austrailian, and even South African. The only time I ever has a problem was in Saskatoon when a woman who thought I was from Austrailia was told I was an American. She looked me in the eye, and said that no I wasn’t, she knew the Austrailian accent very well and I was from Austrailia. She looked very stubborn, so I decided to just agree with her. lol!

  • Acadianna August 30, 2010, 9:11 pm

    I’m of European ethnicity (multiple countries) and my ancestors on all sides have been in the U.S. for quite a few generations. People do ask me where I’m from. What they mean is “where do you call home?” rather than “what’s your ethnic heritage?” Their intention is to use the question as a conversation starter, expressing interest in me, and not as an expression of curiosity about my background. In that context, I don’t think the question is rude at all.

    I wonder how often people misinterpret this question as being offensive when it isn’t always so.

  • lequinn August 30, 2010, 9:46 pm

    @TheOtherAmber–yes, I think being a “visible minority” makes a difference.

    For me, yeah, I know what you mean when you ask me my nationality, but the fact is, I come from and old German farm family that came over hundreds of years ago and a family whose American roots go back to black slavery. My nationality is American. Let me be clear, I believe that a US Citizen who was sworn in TODAY is as American as I am, 100%, but I am honestly about as un-exotic as you can get. If you ask me my nationality and act like I’m ignorant for saying “American,” don’t expect to hear the colorful stories of the farms my folks came from.

    Anyone who stayed half awake in American history should know, also, that there were many Chinese people who came here hundreds of years ago. I don’t know about other cities, but Philadelphia’s Chinatown is over 200 years old. Plenty of “Asians” have been here longer than many “Europeans.” And, you know, there are plenty of white Africans and black and brown English, German, French (etc) people. I do think culture is an fascinating topic, but the obsession with color and appearance seems antiquated.

    The old man bowing? Eeesh. It seems a bit presumptuous. If the person being bowed to is as culturally American as the person bowing, it’s awkward at best. Considering that the person bowing was quite old, I probably wouldn’t take offense, but the OP’s WTF? reaction doesn’t seem over-sensitive to me.

  • Rebecca August 30, 2010, 9:57 pm

    I live in a very multi-cultural city including many “Asians” who were born here (Canada). I can’t fathom going up to a total stranger and asking where they are “from.” If it came up in the course of a normal conversation, fine. I’m as Caucasian as they come, and I don’t mind telling people my background is British. What I do mind is total strangers, usually strange men, approaching me with, “Oh excuse me, where are you from? You have such interesting features. Are you Mediterranean?” (I have unusually dark hair with pale skin so I am on the receiving end of any number of guesses from total strangers).

    I just don’t like strange men coming up out of the blue and commenting on what I look like. I imagine if I had a different skin colour from the majority, I would like it even less.

  • Giles August 30, 2010, 10:26 pm

    My two daughters are Chinese-born and African-Canadian/Cree, so I’ve witnessed and been told many stories. With the first, it’s mostly tourists assuming she speaks their language. With the second, we’re always getting “And where was she born? Where did you adopt from?” The answer is, of course, foster care. Again with our oldest, it’s also assuming that she has the most stereotypically Jewish name one could create.

    I agree with the diversity of Canadian accents, however. My husband is French-Canadian and when we’re in the US, people always assume he’s from New Orleans. Even in Canada he often gets “Where are you from?”, mostly people wondering if he’s European or domestic, I suppose. My father, a German immigrant, also gets this a lot.

    So, I suppose if it’s not done in an insulting manner and you’ve actually been introduced to the person, “Where are you from?” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Bowing to someone unannounced is more than a little creepy.

  • Eve August 31, 2010, 12:20 am

    The admin is making the point that being grascious requires we give people the benefit of the doubt that they are simply misguided instead of trying to be rude.

    I work in a restraunt where a lot of the kitchen staff are from Mexico. On many occasions I have tried to speak Spanish, despite my limited knowledge , and flubbed words or accidentally said something rude. They have never been anything but kind and gently corrected me, taking the time to aknowledge that I was acting with good intentions and teaching me. They have encouraged me to continue trying to speak Spanish with them, and I am learning, telling me that it is the effort, not the execution which really matters.

    This is the attitude the admin is encouraging. If the man bowed, which is either a greeting or a sign of respect, he probably thought he was doing something nice. The grascious thing is to assume he was acting with good will and either play along, take the time to educate him, or simply ignore it.

  • MamaToreen August 31, 2010, 8:28 am

    Ok, the “What are you?” question has often gotten an answer of “Fine, thank you”. If they repeat it, I’d answer the American Hometown. If they repeat it yet again, beandip. It works for me. I get that type of question because I have an Irish first name, Italian maiden name and Polish married name. However, if they ask the origin of my name, I’ll answer it no problem.

  • skoffin August 31, 2010, 10:22 am

    I’ve always never quite understood why some people get offended about being asked where they are from. I have been guilty of this on occassion, I’ll be talking with someone and I’ll be curious as to their heritage and so I’ll ask about it. I love history and this sort of thing interests me, I certainly never mean offence. I’ve actually been asked this question quite a bit however, I am the whitest white girl that ever whited and I suppose I blend in rather well living in Britain. Except my first name is of welsh origins while my last name is an unusual one which derives from Normandy (although some have throught it was Italian and others thought scottish), meanwhile I sound Australian and I’ve been confused for Irish appearance.
    I don’t take offence to being asked about my heritage, however I do get offended when people do not believe me. (which has happened a number of times)

    I get that people have different experiences but all in all I think it better to assume there are no ill-intentions until proven otherwise.

  • Louise August 31, 2010, 12:16 pm

    Many of these comments are about people asking questions or making assumptions upon hearing an accent or seeing a last name. I think that’s different from reacting to someone’s physical appearance. I’m pretty sure the guy in the OP thought something like, “She’s Asian. I’ll bow because I know people bow in Asia.” The singling out because of her appearance doesn’t sit well with me regardless of the man’s intentions. I really don’t see how the OP overreacted or even had a negative reaction. She was understandably mystified.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily rude to ask someone where he or she is from, but in my experience, the questions don’t stop there. That’s why I dislike the question in the first place. I’ve never been able to answer honestly without getting two or three more follow-up questions. It’s one thing to have that conversation with someone with whom I have some rapport, but I’m not interested in having it with the clerk at the gas station, the cashier at the grocery store or the woman at the dog park I’ve never seen before in my life. I have no idea which of them won’t keep pushing to learn about my life, and I’m not going to open up to all of them on the off-chance one of them won’t.

    That’s why I disagree strongly with people who are saying it’s best to give people the benefit of the doubt and play along and maybe use it as some kind of teaching moment. When it happens to you every week, sometimes every day, sometimes multiple times a day, you get fed up with “flash mob” moments. I don’t want a 10-minute conversation in which I share “a joke, a smile or a laugh.” I want to buy a candy bar and leave. I give the answer I feel works best for the situation — my home country or the state to which I immigrated — wish the asker a nice day and leave. It may be anti-social, but I know it’s not rude.

  • Dina August 31, 2010, 6:09 pm

    Louise hit the nail on the head, I think – there’s a large difference between asking about an unusual accent or surname and making assumptions based upon a person’s race. I have a highly unusual Dutch surname, and people often ask me about its origins – I have no problem with that and am happy to tell them more. However, this whole thing is reminding me of stories my Indian-Australian friend told me about working in Texas. Even though A was born and raised in Australia, the people she worked with and encountered during her time there just couldn’t get their heads around the fact that she a) spoke English as her first language , b) wasn’t raised in India, and c) wasn’t Hindu or Muslim. And that’s where the rudeness comes in.

  • Cooler Becky August 31, 2010, 6:57 pm

    I’m guilty of asking people where they’re from all the time. I’m actually a foreigner where I live and I really enjoy asking people about their cultures and their home practices. I am fascinated by other cultures and the differences that they have.

    I’m pretty finicky about cultural differences, actually, but I think it’s cute when people bow to me, though it hasn’t happened very often. Usually, when it happens, I’ll tell them that that’s more a Japanese greeting and that my culture is very Westernised. If it’s an older person bowing to me, I do feel a bit awkward, though, as bowing in my culture is something that only younger people do to older people as a sign of respect (you won’t often get an older person doing the same to a younger person).

    That being said, the only time I’m ever irritated with people imitating my culture is when random people bellow “NI HAO MAAAAAHHHH” at me when I walk by. This is usually accompanied by jeering and laughing, so I think I can be forgiven for being a little irate when it happens.

  • N August 31, 2010, 7:36 pm

    There are four issues, IMHO:

    (1) Assumptions made on appearance. These assumptions may be positive or negative, rude or not rude, or just plain clumsy. For clumsy, or even silly, but not poorly meant assumptions, being kind is most graceful for everyone involved. I often am spoken to in Spanish – I am not Hispanic, but I guess look so. I try to be graceful and remember that it is meant kindly. I also try to be graceful when someone asks if I know one of a billion plus Indians worldwide (and, btw, it actually happened that I did once…)

    (2) “Otherness” of not being in the majority group, based on appearance. I can’t even count the number of times I have heard stories of small minority children wishing that they looked like “everyone else.” To look different is an otherness. It can sensitize certain issues of feeling outside the group. But the best way to handle it is politely. Asking “what do you eat” can be either (a) a assertion that you are some sort of strange thing outside the mainstream or (b) curiousity about authentic food. Pretending it is the latter, even when the former, diffuses the rudeness.

    (3) Where someone is really from. I have a strong regional American accent – when people ask where I’m from, I tell them, well, where I am from. 99% of the time that’s enough. If they have a followup question about my ethnic heritage, I will probably answer it. If they say “no, where are you reaaaaaaally from” then I will repeat myself, and ask if they are asking about my ethnic heritage – I will usually tell them, then excuse myself and avoid them. If someone wants to know my ethnic heritage, I will likely give it, unless it is rudely requested.

    At a recent meeting of the Southeastern Asian Bar Association, someone commented that it was crazy to hear all these strong southern accents on Asian people. Almost universally the lawyers with strong regional accents grew up and were born in the US. So where were they from – well, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, etc. Skin tone doesn’t make anyone any less Southern.

    (4) Clumsiness versus racism. I think one should carefully, and meaningfully, evaluate whether someone is clumsy versus racist before getting offended. People who are not exposed to a variety of cultures, or people of a certain age, or people who are not very socially adept may simply be clumsy, though they intend no harm or mean to compliment someone (i.e. clumsy phrases of a supposed native language). Being offended there isn’t necessarily useful – minorities, of any kind, are not required to be educators of social grace, but whether one is an ethnic, linguistic, or cultural minority, it can be more beneficial to simply try to answer, or gently steer the conversation elsewhere.

    There are, however, true racists out there. They should be icily, and politely ignored.

  • Amazed August 31, 2010, 7:39 pm

    “On many occasions I have tried to speak Spanish, despite my limited knowledge , and flubbed words or accidentally said something rude.”

    As in “Estoy embarasada”? Which means you are pregnant, not embarrassed.

  • Keyana September 1, 2010, 1:40 pm

    Okay. I’m going to try to explain why ‘Where are you from?’ makes me uncomfortable.

    I’m Japanese-American. Asking ‘where are you from?’ is not rude to me. A tad nosy, but not overly rude. However, it has a high likelihood, in my experience, of turning rude when…
    1. People do not accept the answer given. I’m am from Pennsylvania. I have never been to Japan. My parents were born in the States. So when I answer ‘PA’, I often get the unavoidable ‘No, where are you really from?’. Pennsylvania is where I’m really from.
    Sometimes, for whatever reason, I might decide I don’t feel answering this question. I have a right not to. ‘I’d rather not say’ is an acceptable answer. It should not be followed by …
    a. ‘I’m just curious, geez!’
    b. ‘But I just really like exotic people.’
    c. ‘Come on, just tell me!’
    2. Repetition
    Do you know how many times I am asked this curious question? I’d rather not spend ten minutes explaining my ethnic heritage at each place I visit. I can do errands at ten different places a day and be asked this question each time. It gets a little old when I begin to feel like just putting a label on my shirt that says ‘Hi, I’m Japanese-American!’
    3. It can be followed by a bigoted statement. Anything from ‘I hate Japs’ to ‘God, I love the Japanese. You girls are totally into to older businessman like me, right?. It can include ‘Japanese people are so cool. I love everything you do.’ There is no Japanese hivemind. I’m more proud of the fact that I’m an individual than a caricature of what you think a Japanese person should be.
    4. I am not your hobby project. If you are interested in learning about different ethnicities, cultures, dialects, and/or accents you need to take some initiative to learn on your own. Take some college courses about what interests you have. Check out some books from the library. Read some internet blogs. I shouldn’t be part of some ‘Exotic People Met Quota’ you have. Intent is not a magic bullet. Even if it’s ‘FOR SCIENCE’ it can still hurt me.
    5. It ‘Others’ me. Most people would not ask anglo-saxon white people without exotic names this. Just those of us unlucky in the ethnicity, nationality, accent, odd-sounding last name category. Different is wonderful, but putting people in the ‘so different from me I must know about this person’ is not really a good feeling. I am proud of my Japanese heritage. But it gets a little old having most people see me only as a Japanese person.

    I apologize here for any grammar or spelling mistakes.

  • ED September 1, 2010, 4:30 pm


    You put it so much better than I could ever have.

    On your points:

    1. Absolutely, rare is the person who accepts, “California” as an answer. They often follow up with, “Where are you REALLY from?” OR, “Well, where are your parents from?” (The answer, “Texas” usually doesn’t satisfy them either.)

    2. Yes, while I always try and be gracious, it does get really old to be asked these questions, especially because you know that they are only asking because you look different from them.

    3. Fortunately, I have not had to deal with bigoted statements often. I am so sorry that you do, even if they are ‘cloaked’ as positive ones.

    4. It’s great that people are interested in other cultures, but to assume that everyone who looks a certain way, or has a certain type of name is from the culture you’re interested in AND that they are interested in or have the time to speak to you (general) about it is an interesting assumption if I’ve ever heard one.

    5. I don’t think that many people realize what it’s like to walk through life as an “other”. I am proud of who I am and my families background, but I don’t need complete strangers constantly reminding me that I look different from them with their intrusive questions.

  • Jillybean September 1, 2010, 5:17 pm

    Keyana (and others), I’m curious if you’ve every followed up your response with a question, such as, “Pennsylvania, why do you ask?” I’d be willing to bet that a lot of people would be stumped by the question, because they were just making idle chit chat and your “otherness”, as you put it, was just something they could easily pick out as what they think is a you “specific” question. Obviously – the rude people wouldn’t be stopped by it, but it might just make other people take a minute to think twice before asking it again.

  • Shayna September 1, 2010, 9:02 pm

    In my experience, a lot of problems that arise from the “where are you from?” question isn’t necessarily about culture, but simply the fact that a lot of people don’t understand the difference between culture, nationality and ethnicity, and in some cases, you can toss religion into the mix. Being born and raised in Canada, into a multi-ethnic family, you can imagine how much I’ve seen this, as have others here. People just don’t seem to get that culturally, I’m a “Newfoundlander” (yes, the culture in that province is completely different from that found elsewhere in the country), ethnically I’m Western European and Aboriginal, nationally I’m Canadian, and religiously, I’m Christian rather than Native Spiritual. It is annoying to be asked the question “where are you from?” on a regular basis, and for sure it is upsetting when you do really have someone who is rude asking that question. I do tend to agree with Miss Jeanne, though, that in most cases, no rudeness is intended, and it’s simply a matter of ignorance about definition of each of the words I listed above.

  • Keyana September 2, 2010, 12:47 am

    Exactly. 🙂 I try not to be rude back, but I have my moments where I feel like slipping.
    @Jillybean – I have never tried that before. Thank you for your suggestion. Crossing my fingers it will at least startle people into a different thread of conversation.

  • jenna September 2, 2010, 8:36 am

    That’s…hilarious. And as a Caucasian (ie not Asian) American who lives in Taiwan, I am really more amused than anything at the customer’s clumsy, awkward bow. As someone who deals with the reverse issue (locals in my country of residence who ask me where I’m from and try to use what words of English they know) I just play along, have a laugh, and get on with it.

    However, OP (because I do hope the OP reads this), my reaction to this:

    “On the other hand, it makes me ask whether they want to know…to show of what limited (and usually incorrect) knowledge they have of the language of my heritage by trying to say a few random phrases.”

    I can feel you on this – if you’re Chinese or Taiwanese, you’ll get a lot of random people who think that knowing how to say “??!” qualifies them as experts in your culture…same for any of the other races/ethnicities/cultures of Asia. It stinks, and it’s annoying, just as how half the people I meet have incorrect assumptions about where I come from or think shouting “HELLO! How are you?” in English to a stranger qualifies as communication, when really it just makes them look silly.

    That said.

    I would never ask a complete stranger what their race is or the dreaded “Where are you from? No, I mean where are you REALLY from?” That’s just not on. It’s rude, prying, awkward and inappropriate and honestly not information that a stranger needs.

    But if I hear a stranger speaking Chinese (not to say that you are Chinese, I am talking about in my life), especially Chinese with a Taiwanese accent, I may (depending on the situation – next to me on the bus, sure…in other cases where it’d be weird like at a bookstore where they may be shopping, probably not) turn to them and engage in conversation. In Chinese. Which I speak more or less fluently. I’ve lived in Taiwan for four years and China for one, so I feel at this point I do have something to share from a cultural perspective, not just “limited (and usually incorrect) knowledge” of their language and culture. It’s a chance to maybe make a friend, maybe just have a nice chat, and to share that hey, I’m American and white, you’re Chinese/Taiwanese, but not all Americans are completely ignorant of Chinese culture. Sometimes, we really do understand! Not EVERYONE is a doof pretending to be culturally savvy.

  • jenna September 2, 2010, 8:37 am

    My two Chinese characters didn’t process – it came out as “??!”. Hee hee. It was supposed to be “ni hao” written in Chinese. Oops. Guess this site doesn’t support Chinese characters.

  • Bint September 2, 2010, 2:47 pm

    I’ve only ever asked this and heard it asked when someone has an accent that others can’t place. As in, where are you from in the literal sense. To answer ‘Chicago’ would therefore be the kind of answer people would expect.

    I have never even heard anyone ask this to get someone’s ethnicity! Can’t people tell by looking anyway? Is there really an ethnicity that others think ‘woooo, I have no idea what ethnicity that person is! I HAVE to ask them!’ Sounds very weird to me and I’ve lived in huge multicultural cities and on small remote islands 100% WASP. I don’t think anyone is asking to really find out. It’s pure nosiness about the person in general, surely.

    On the bowing thing – as others have said, it’s annoying to have constant assumptions made about you from your physical appearance that you can’t change, and even the nice ones get grating after a while.

  • Bint September 2, 2010, 2:48 pm

    PS And I mean any accent from anywhere – anyone with a regional British accent will be asked that question at least once when they go to another part of the UK. I get asked it all the time.

  • Linda September 3, 2010, 1:03 am

    It is awkward because…nobody that I know of (from my Asian family and friends) greets witht a bow anymore….it is too formal and very traditional. Maybe you will find it in Asia but not in America. To be asked “where are you from” is understandable (as long as it leads to a pleasant conversation), but it irks me that this bowing stereotypes exists.

  • Tom B September 3, 2010, 11:16 am

    1- When the person bowed or someone asks where you are from (without overly prying), usually they are just trying to make a friendly connection. As such, it makes sense to acknowledge their friendly effort by at least being cordial. Likewise, the man who bowed was just trying to show respect by acknowledging the Asian culture, within his limited and ignorant capacity.

    That said, although the effort is friendly, the question is annoying, because you’re having to answer this question for the millionth time. It is further annoying when you’re asked a follow-up question, or the question is followed up by a remark, as this question/remark is likely to be superficial and stereotyped. So, although the intent is to create a friendly bond, the result is often the opposite. It’s something to consider if you’re wondering if you’re going to ask a question like this to a stranger in public.

    I can envision exceptions to this. For example, if the person is advertising their heritage on a printed t-shirt or a pin AND you can follow up with a conversational question that is not culturally stereotyped or obvious, the result could be good. Otherwise, just don’t open that door by asking the question.

  • EH September 3, 2010, 2:39 pm

    I’m an American-born Asian, and I’m not usually offended by questions like this, as people are generally just curious and trying to make conversation. I do, however, like to have a little fun and answer the question literally (where I’m from), rather than giving them the answer they want (what is my ethnicity). When asked where I’m from, the answer is “I live in the San Francisco area.” Some people take it further and ask me where I was born, and the answer is “Washington state.” Once they get to where my parents were born, I’m tempted to lie (Minnesota is where they met), but I usually give in and acknowledge that they’re from Taiwan.

    I get many fewer questions like this in California, probably because Asians are very common.

  • Kushelkitten September 6, 2010, 4:24 am

    Im US American and live in Germany. When I married I hypenated my last name. My maiden name was originally Swiss and is pretty rare in the US as well as Switzerland, and my husband’s name is extremely rare in Germany so I get lots of questions asking where I am from. Usually they realize I am American due to my accent but want to know my heritage.
    I am also very pale with dark hair. This gets me mistaken for most everything from Irish, Welsh (have some of both in me), Spanish, Italian etc. One day I was coming home from work at the airport and there was a little old couple who sat across from me. I often saw this couple as like me, they rode the same U-bahn train every day. I was surprised though that in an empty train car they sat across from me. Suddenly the old man said something to me in Spanish. I replied in German that I do not speak Spanish. His wife then slapped him on the shoulder and said in German, “See I told you she was Italian.”

  • Rockie September 6, 2010, 5:37 pm

    I’m Asian American, and I don’t mind being asked “Where are you from?”, as I’ll usually answer, ask the question back, and go from there. However, I DO mind when the person refuses to accept my answer and follows up with something like, “No, I mean…what ARE you?”. I hate that, because it feels like they’re treating me like I’m an alien being, that I will always be a foreigner despite being born here and having lived here all my life. I feel similarly when someone comes up to me and goes “NI HAO MAAAAAAAAAA” or “WO AI NIIIIIIIIII”. If they’re genuinely interested in the culture or language, fine. But an approach like that just make it seem like they’re trying to mock me, which I don’t appreciate.

    One time a friend and I were conversing in Chinese, and a man asked what language we were speaking. When we told him, he replied “Uh…I like Chinese food?” I know he wasn’t intending on being offensive, though it did leave me a bit mystified as to how to react (I’d probably feel the same if someone bowed to me). On the other hand, when I spent a summer in China, I had some people talk to me in Chinese, then switch to English when I answer them (and their answer made it clear they understood what I just said, so my pronunciation doesn’t seem to be the problem). So…I guess I’m just an outsider no matter where I am, heh.

  • Me September 7, 2010, 1:28 am

    Rockie, I imagine it would be your accent. I’d had a friend whose mother was from the north of Italy (my friend was born in Australia) and even though she’d never been to Italy, sometimes Italians could pick up the accent that, I guess, she picked up from her mother.

  • L September 11, 2010, 1:45 am

    When you’re in an unusual situation a question about accent can be made to make you feel like you have an “otherness” too.

    I live in the southeastern US. I was born here very near where I currently live. But I grew up in Arizona, where I picked up a basic lack of an accent.
    I get a lot of,
    “Where are you from?”
    “I live in [insert local township].”
    “But where are you REALLY from?”
    “[insert local township of birth]”
    “Why don’t you have an accent?!” / “You have a strange accent” / just staring like I grew a second head

  • Michelle P September 11, 2010, 10:16 pm

    I have a friend (Caucasion American) who married a Japanese American man, and they have a beautiful little boy. She dealt constantly with questions as to if she’s his mother/nanny to “Where did you get him?” She finally started answering, “My uterus.” Shut them up every time. A casual where are you from is one thing, but don’t take it any farther.

  • Maryann September 13, 2010, 1:29 am

    People make mistakes. It’s not the end of the world. I’m somewhat dark and have curly hair, and I live in Southern California, where obviously there’s many people of Latino, Hispanic and Mexican heritage (and I’ve been told that there is a difference between these terms.) People sometimes walk up to me speaking Spanish. It just happens sometimes. One has to be forgiving of mistakes that have good, or at least benign, intentions behind them.

  • Maryann September 13, 2010, 1:30 am

    PS: To clarify, I meant to say I’m of French heritage and I speak only English. =)

  • JenWulf September 16, 2010, 7:01 pm

    Having red hair, I am often asked “Where are you from?”, “Are you Irish?” or “Are you Scottish?”.

    In fact, I’m not, but I’ll often agree with whatever they ask. Why? Because I’ve noticed that my answer isn’t what they want – they frequently have no interest in me. What they WANT is to talk about whomever they know that is from their country of preference. Some of the natives of said countries sigh longingly… and tell me about their birth place.

    Mostly, it seems that people just want to relive their past lives or remember a loved one for a bit. I’ve learned to ask them questions about themselves and then smile and let them talk.

  • jenna September 24, 2010, 7:17 pm

    “Can’t people tell by looking anyway?” – Bint

    Well, no. Can you tell a Taiwanese person from a Chinese, Japanese or Korean? I live in Asia and I can’t. Can you tell a Bolivian from a Tibetan? You may think you probably could but really, certain south Americans and certain Asians look strikingly similar. At first glance many Indians, Filipinos and Hispanic people are difficult to tell apart and the same for Indians, Pakistanis and Bengalis. How about a Kenyan from an Ethiopian or an African American from someone who moved to the US from Africa? A German and a Swede or a French person from an Italian? Can you distinguish Armenians, Greeks, Georgians, Abhkazians and Turks (in some cases yes, in others no)?

    Not that this is a reason to ask people this question…there’s never a reason if you don’t know someone well or have a specific event-related reason (at a Pan-Asian fair, planning a trip that requires everyone’s passports etc.)

    Just sayin’ that no, you cannot always tell.

    Rockie and EH, I’m sorry that people do that to you, and yes, I know that they do. They make all the rest of us look bad…those of us who in fact are interested in Chinese or Taiwanese culture, have spent time in China or Taiwan (I currently live in Taipei, for one) and speak Chinese (or, more rarely, Taiwanese, which I do not speak beyond a few words).

    BTW, people in Taipei ask me where I am from all the time – not only the country but the state, and then wonder aloud at how a white girl can speak Chinese…with a Taiwanese accent! I just answer and laugh, because it’s just not considered rude here. Something to think about: if you have relatives in the country of your descent who would ask the same “where are you from” question to a laowai, maybe that’s a good incentive not to judge everyone who asks it of you.

  • David October 3, 2014, 1:10 pm

    I am an EU citizen speaking 5 languages and I have moroccan descent. Since I AM NOT muslim, I find it hard to answer the question where are you REALLY from since people will assume that I’m muslim especially other muslims and giving me hard times. I feel like I’m a stranger everywhere!!!
    What I hate the most is when people ASSUME I’m from somewhere a targetting me like someone who really COMES from there.


    • admin October 3, 2014, 2:50 pm

      Shortly after 9/11, a local eatery was targeted by some very ignorant people who assumed that all Arabs are Muslims. The local newspaper did an admirable job of informing the community about Egyptian Coptic Christians.

  • Wendy October 11, 2014, 5:16 pm

    I have always had an exasperating time with the “where are you from” question. I’m white. I have lived for 25 years in the city where I attended college. I moved here from a different part of New York State. Everyone has a hard time understanding what region I am referring to, and there isn’t anything famous enough in the immediate region for people to recognize. Using Rochester or Buffalo as landmarks are horrible compromises because they really aren’t that close. People aren’t content with a general, regional answer, they HAVE to know the specific locale, and they simply have never heard of any of the dozens of towns I can name that are near where I grew up. People often act unsatisfied and skeptical, as if my region of the state simply doesn’t exist because they cannot connect it to something they are already familiar with. I feel like I should have been carrying around a map of New York State from the moment I set foot in this city. Thus “Where are you from” is an unintentionally awkward question that puts a lot of work on the respondent sometimes. Sometimes people are using the question to intentionally “other” us, but sometimes they think they are starting a converstaion properly and have no idea they are putting a ton of explanatory work on us when they ask where we are from and are unaware they are unintentionally “othering” us in the process.

    • Wendy October 11, 2014, 5:19 pm

      to clarify, when I said “Rochester and Buffalo really aren’t that close” I should have ended the sentence with “where I used to live.” I think it would have been clearer. If there had been an option to edit the comment, I would have put that it just for clarification.

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