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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 }
  • Laura Ross August 30, 2010, 7:27 am

    That older gentleman could have been my husband’s uncle, who was suffering from dementia. He moved in with us because his caregiver, my mother-in-law, died, and he was always going up to anyone not-white and asking them where they were from. He had been in the Merchant Marines when he was young and he always wanted to talk about his travels to random strangers. But a lot of people got offended at this–I always thought less of those who did because he was obviously trying to be friendly. The man didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body.

  • Jordan August 30, 2010, 7:33 am

    I think you are 100% wrong about the matter of bowing, for once. I see no difference between bowing to greet a person of Asian descent and greeting every dark skinned person with ‘Jambo!’ Even if the person doing it is well meaning, it is a clear indication that they consider the person whom they are greeting to be utterly different than they are, so much so that they cannot even be said hello to in a fashion which is normal to their community and the area. They’re assuming the person’s culture based solely on their perceived ethnicity. This is a kind of racism, whether it is negatively intentioned or not.

    • admin August 30, 2010, 8:09 am

      I think you are misconstruing my comments. I did not advocate everyone bowing to strangers who happen to appear Asian. I did advise the OP to not presume that the actions of one old man indicate that he has nefarious intentions and that it is better to presume the best of people when they blunder rather than the worst. Your reply indicates that you are predisposed to presume poorly of people which is diametrically opposed to my perception of life and people. If I had your perspective, when I travel to places that are culturally and ethnically different than me, I should be offended when greeted in my own language of English in a westernized manner which happens to be different than the local culture solely on the basis that the other person is presuming to know my culture based on their perception of my ethnicity. But I don’t. I find it endearing and respectful and it prompts me to return the favor by trying to communicate back in their language. That is what breaks the ice, starts relationships which leads to discussions which leads to better understanding of each other’s cultures.

  • Ms. Shell August 30, 2010, 7:41 am

    Situations like this always confuse me. Has the gentleman in this story really never met an American-born-and-raised Asian person before? What does he do at the grocery store? The library? The swimming pool? The poor guy must be at right angles all day!

  • hot_shaker August 30, 2010, 7:44 am

    I have never understood why, in general, the “Where are you from?” question is so offensive. If I had a heritage, I would like to think that I would gladly want to tell others about it. Yes, I’m sure that there are certain situations where the question is meant in a rude and/or derogatory manner but barring those, why are people offended? I suppose if some just asked of the clear blue sky, it could be seen as invasive but if it’s part of a conversation, I don’t get why it’s a problem.

  • MamaToreen August 30, 2010, 7:57 am

    Laura, while I understand your viewpoint, I think the OP was more concerned about so many people sking that question when there was no other conversation going on. I have asked people about their nationality, but not as the first thing I ever say to them. I think that was the real issue.

  • SammyHammy August 30, 2010, 7:57 am

    I suggest that no one has the right to demand personal information from you, particularly when you are at work. There’s no need to be unfriendly, but there is also no need to give out information simply because you don’t want to be rude–to the person who was rude to begin with.

    I think your answer “Chicago” is perfectly fine. Just because a stranger is curious doesn’t mean you must automatically satisfy that curiosity.

  • Jila August 30, 2010, 8:04 am

    What? No, sorry, Admin- it is never acceptable to do something like bow when you see an Asian person. If an Asian person walked up to someone in the South and asked where his cowboy hat was and if his daughter was also his sister, would it be acceptable just because it’s a stereotype? Or perhaps you think it’s all right to offer someone of Afro-Caribbean descent a plate of watermelon and remark, “I heard you people like this sort of thing”? Good grief. It is NOT right.

    I’m an expat living in a country where I am a very exotic ethnicity. I do not like people asking me how many guns I have because I’m American. I do not like people silently stopping me and holding out their hand for me to shake when I am minding my own business and going about my day.

    Not to mention, the OP is from CHICAGO. Asian descent notwithstanding.

    The right thing to do in this situation was to smile politely and move past the strange bowing man. And nothing else. No adorable little bon mots can actually be gained from this.

    • admin August 30, 2010, 8:24 am

      My family hosted a 13 year old Japanese exchange student almost ten years ago. Not just him but his entire group had very entrenched perceptions of what it was to be American living in the South. I didn’t view any of this as offensive but rather relished the opportunity to educate him. One does not even need to be of a different ethnicity to be the object of negative stereotypes. Just the difference between Northern USians and Southeasterners can be profound with Yankees thinking all southerners are rednecks and Rebels believing those damn Yankees are the scourge of the earth whose ancestors raped and pillaged his community 150 years ago. You can either laugh about it and go on to build a relationship which will eventually dispel those stereotypes or one can live life perpetually offended at someone who happens to have not had the opportunity to get his/her perceptions readjusted.

  • Tiffany August 30, 2010, 8:25 am

    As for the bowing issue, simply because it’s the quickest, easiest way to be done with it, giving a quick little bob back is probably the best response. As to the, “Where are you from?” question, I think the OP’s answer of “Chicago”, repeated until the point is made, is quite sufficient, but her short-circuiting answer of, “I’m adopted” is also fine, I think. No stranger has the right to ask the OP for personal information of any kind, at work or elsewhere, and if it were me in her position, I’d feel extremely uncomfortable at being singled out for that sort of questioning.

    As a thought to the OP, has she (I’m sorry, I keep assuming “she”, my apologies if I’m incorrect) ever spoken to her supervisors at work, and maybe devised some strategies with them about how she may appropriately respond to that kind of question?

  • Cubie August 30, 2010, 8:46 am

    I do agree that you should give people the benefit of the doubt in these situations.

    But if you’re the one asking a someone where they’re from and they answer something like ‘America’, then you should let it go. I have a mixed heritage myself and though I’m white in appearance with a Southwestern accent, I don’t want to talk about my Hispanic heritage. Not only am I fairly clueless about it due to my distant relationship with my relatives (painful, thanks for bringing it up,) but I don’t want to talk about the immigration debate, or hear an awkward apology for the racist jokes you might’ve made months ago, or hear about how much you love your Chilean friend. I don’t care.

  • JS August 30, 2010, 8:58 am

    admin, with all due respect, there is a difference between having a single, prolonged interaction with one person where your ethnic heritage is stereotyped (and where you have a significant amount of time and a strong enough relationship to feel comfortable enough to educate that person), and being an ethnic minority where such stereotyping happens over and over and over again, with people with whom you have little to no relationship or comfort level. And there’s no way to educate every person in the span of these brief interactions, and even if there were, it’s exhausting to have to do so repeatedly. A few times, under the circumstances you describe, may be an enjoyable opportunity. Repeated, constant “drive-by” stereotyping starts to feel like a challenge to your ethnic background, even if it’s not intended as such.

    I’m not advocating rudeness in the face of such stereotyping. But I can see how people would not be predisposed to say “Hurrah! Here is today’s 9th opportunity to educate someone that I am not an Exotic Blossom/terrorist/Tribal Warrior/Noble Savage!”

  • AMC August 30, 2010, 9:02 am

    A college friend of mine was of Asian descent, but had actually been adopted as a baby in China and raised by caucasion parents in the US. She had no Asian accent and few ties to her country of birth. As far as she was concerned, the US was and always has been her home country. But this didn’t stop strangers from asking her where she was from. When she would answer “(US city where she was raised)” some individuals would insist “No, where are you FROM?” This irked her to no end because 1) these individuals were making assumptions about her and her citizenship rather than just taking her word for it, and 2) she had no interest in recounting the long and personal story of her adoption to complete strangers.

  • Amber August 30, 2010, 9:07 am

    I think, admin, that instead of following this advice to that it “probably meant nothing” that the LW should “play along” and that “these people mean well, even if ‘where are you from’ is sloppy,” I will follow older advice of yours that does not carry the implication that people of a certain ethnic decent should cater to those that don’t have that particular decent and are acting rudely (if well-meaning): smile, say something quippy that doesn’t share much info (“I’m from Chicago!”) and beandip (“How can I help you today?”).

    Also, claiming that these strangers have any right to narrow the LW’s ancesteral country (because “Asian” is broad,) well-intentioned or not, is off. Why would they ask, and why should she give them a pass for asking when their interaction is either a.) unsolicited by her (strangers on the street) or b.) purely professional (serving customers)?

    Further, I’m baffled by the sudden change in message. Etiquette Hell has often claimed that, even when well-meaning, rudeness need not be tolerated. There are plenty of examples in EHell’s archive of clueless, well-meaning people who none the less said awkward, embarrassing and off-putting things and so, for their lack of mouth-check, they are cast into EHell (though in the upper, less toasty circles.) Why is a mother who constantly quips at her child for not producing grandchildren embarrassing (to herself) and pushy, while a man who bows at an Asian person in the middle of a store with no prompting a “little gem of time?” Particularly when there are unfortunate implications behind the idea of someone fingering out a person as different based solely on their appearance, and then treating them as exotic and deserving only of exotic social mores rather than inclusive mores, well-intentioned or not.

    • admin August 30, 2010, 9:37 am

      Amber, I completely agree that in the context of a store employee interacting with a customer who is a stranger to her, there is no obligation to reply with anything more than perhaps a smile or the quip “Chicago” followed up with a serving of bean dip. If you have followed what I’ve written over the years, you’ll recall my advice to be gracious with the definition of that word being “extending kindness to the undeserving”, particularly if the action being perceived as rude may be nothing more than a well intentioned goof. We reserve tossing people into Ehell who make what I call “deep stupid” etiquette blunders as opposed to “shallow stupid” goofs. (I should write a blog post on the differences of Deep Stupid and Shallow Stupid someday.) My encouragement to the OP was to be gracious…extending the kindness of not presuming he has bad motives behind his actions.

      I would not equate a bowing little man in a book store with some of the subjects of this week’s upcoming stories whose behaviors include the very Deep Stupid actions of intentional foul language, tantrums, ugliness, and entrenched entitlement mentalities.

  • Anetka August 30, 2010, 9:19 am

    Maybe it’s because I’m from New York where we have ten houses on our block and eight or nine different nationalities, but I see no breach of etiquette in the OP’s story. I myself am Polish and have been asked numerous times in school and out with my parents “where we are from.” I was born here and even so proudly answer “Poland!” While its true that most often the interested party will then mispronounce the one or two phrases they know in Polish, I find that flattering rather than offensive.

    Personally, I think the OP is being a bit too sensitive here. The patrons in her store meant her no harm and asked out of geniune curiosity. While the OP may just want to blend in, I believe differences should be celebrated.

    And now I want to know where the OP is from! 🙂

  • Hanna August 30, 2010, 9:23 am

    Wow! Why would someone be ashamed of their Asian descent enough to lie about not knowing where they’re from?

  • Merrilee August 30, 2010, 9:24 am

    I have to chime in here also and say that I disagree with E-Hell Dame on this one.

    I work with women of Asian descent and the one question they get all the time, that I find rude and that they find offensive is, “What are you?” And they get this question because their features are distinctly Asian and people have no qualms about asking them this question. These same people would never go up to an African-American and ask the same question because it would be construed as offensive.

    I tell them they should answer “a human female” with a smile and bean dip. I think that people treating others differently on the basis of their facial features is rude, and akin to treating someone differently based on age, weight, gender, skin color. It may be done with the best of intentions but it is still rude.

  • Abby August 30, 2010, 9:25 am

    Add my name to the completely disagree w/admin regarding the bowing list. Racism is not always entrenched in bad intentions. And, yes, white people are not the only purveyors of stereotypes. As a southerner, I would guess that you would be offended if a stranger assumed that you were a member of the KKK just by listening to your accent, even if they thought that was cute.
    Bowing to a complete stranger does, in a way, marginalize them. “Where are you from?” to a STRANGER says “You are other. Not American.” Regardless of the intention.

    • admin August 30, 2010, 3:57 pm

      Abby, it’s worse than you think. If I were to publish some of the comments this thread has generated, one would presume I am offended at the accusations that I must be a racist solely because I happen to be Caucasian. You’d be wrong. I merely delete them.

      I would submit that action of being offended has its foundations in a person’s self image. If I have convictions and strong beliefs, if I know who I am, if I am confident in who I am, what others say about me just kinda bounces off me. I’ve heard the KKK references before but more frequently the stereotype that all Southerners are Rednecks. I’m not fazed by this because I know the truth about myself and some odd person I’ll probably never meet or interact with ever again is not going to rattle me into an emotional state of being offended. (And incidently, this perspective works great for troublesome in-laws.) A little pat on the hand followed with, “Whatever floats your boat,” and I mentally dismiss them as irrelevant to me. In other words, I try not to allow anyone to live in my brain rent free.

      But actually uttering a false stereotype that being a Southerners must equate to membership in the KKK is miles away from some old man bowing. The former is a declarative statement that lives nothing to the imagination as to its intent to be ugly whereas there is doubt as to whether an old man’s bow is intentionally disrespectful and insulting so one gives the benefit of the doubt to the latter.

  • tinytx August 30, 2010, 9:26 am

    As someone who is married to a person who is not from the U.S., I can say that asking about a person’s accent gets really old. Even though you may be interested, keep in mind that you’re not the first person. It’s quite likely that the person with the accent would prefer to live their life without being singled out as an outsider/other. My spouse has worked really hard on having clear pronunciation and feels that when people say “you have an accent,” it discounts all the hard work he’s put into being well-spoken.
    In addition to this, I used to work in a place that was very public, with a veritable United Nations representation on staff. We would interact daily with people from all over the world. One co-worker was American, but his parents were from India. People would often ask where he was from, based on his appearance. He’d say, in perfect English, the name of the large, very well-known city he was born/raised in. They would then say, “no, where are you from BEFORE that?” He would answer with the name of the well-known city. Then, flustered, the people would ask “Well what about your PARENTS?” He’d concede they were from India, causing the nosy, rude people to rejoice that they were right, and had placed him as being “not from here.”
    The moral here is that although you may be interested, the other person likely just wants to live their life and not be routinely singled out for being different. We are a nation of immigrants, so we should be used to diversity by now, and shouldn’t feel the need to routinely spotlight it.

  • Moby Jane August 30, 2010, 9:45 am

    This is one that really drives me around the twist: the automatic assumption that someone who looks physically different from the cultural milieu in which they are immersed MUST be from somewhere else. I live in a large, very visibly diverse city (3+ million people); many of the inhabitants aren’t originally from this country, but just as many are 2nd- and 3rd-generation descendants of immigrants, who were born and raised here, so asking that question can really open a can of worms.

    This happens to my friend all the time, and she gets quite tired of it; her mother is Chinese and her father is Portuguese, but she was born and raised here in Canada. She’s even had people ask her “What are you?” and, while she knows what they’re asking, it comes across as incredibly insulting. She fixes them with a very direct stare and says, along with a friendly smile, “Human.”

    As the Dame says, a lot depends on the context in which such a question is raised. If you’ve been having a lengthy conversation with someone in which the topic comes up, then it’s quite all right to say something like, “Speaking of family backgrounds…” and so on. But if it’s the second question out of one’s mouth, or if it’s completely incongruous – and it sounds like the OP gets that kind of question a lot – then it’s not acceptable.

    It’s delicate. Handled the right way, it can be an enlightening part of a mutually beneficial dialogue; handled the wrong way, it’s grounds for offense.

    • admin August 30, 2010, 10:24 am

      Moby Jane,

      “Where are you from?” is, imo, merely an awkward way of asking someone what their ethnic heritage is. Even I have gotten that question clear out of the blue based solely on what I perceive is the questioner’s confusion hearing me speak. I use Northeastern idioms and phrases yet have a very soft Southern accent. I have a choice to get my hackles up choosing to be offended at the question or I can answer it as the situation deems appropriate.

      As for the “automatic assumptions” based on being physically different than the cultural milieu, what of automatic assumptions based on being perceived as the same? Rhetorical question for you…isn’t it equally rude to have an automatic assumption that people must be of the same cultural milieu and therefore must be from here merely because they all look alike?

  • ann August 30, 2010, 9:55 am

    Oh admin, the bookstore stranger may not have had bad motives, but after encountering several of these ignorant people in a short time span one might get just a bit exasperated.

  • Anonymous August 30, 2010, 10:00 am

    This goes the other way, too–I’ve worked with people who get very offended if others don’t automatically known their ethnicity. (Columbians, for instance, who get upset at being called Peruvian). Asking upfront can sometimes save a lot of headache.

  • Jillybean August 30, 2010, 10:00 am

    AMC – the fact that your friend was adopted and raised by caucasion parents, doesn’t actually change the fact that she’s Chinese. When people ask where she’s FROM – they are, of course, actually asking what her ethnic lineage is. I’m not saying it’s right and that the person isn’t rude for continuing the inquiry, but your friend is being obtuse if she can’t figure out that. Though she owes them nothing (including a long and personal story of her adoption), she could simply deflect the question with, “I’m from Pittsburgh, but I’m Chinese, if that’s what you’re asking.” She doesn’t have to, of course, but it would likely end the awkward insistance that follows her merely stating she’s from Pittsburgh. She could even follow it up with, “how ’bout you?” The point is, while she shouldn’t (and doesn’t) have to, is it less annoying to simply provide the info and avoid the inquisition or to take offense and be badgered? I was born and raised in Boston, but have a fairly rare last name (at least here in the US) and constantly have people ask about it. They always assume it’s Italian because it ends in a vowel. I’m happy to tell them I’m Finnish. They are usually very surprised and feel as if they have learned something new. And on the rare occasion when someone actually guesses correctly that it’s Finnish, I feel gleeful about it all day. 🙂

  • AS August 30, 2010, 10:10 am

    With all due respect, I beg to differ from admin’s suggestion, especially the first paragraph. Bowing to a person just because their facial features resemble East Asian decent is being patronizing. I am an Asian-Indian (for some unknown reason, only East-Asians are considered “Asians” in USA leaving India to Asian Middle Eastern nationals having no continent to describe themselves!) living in USA. Many people have come and asked me where I am from for various reasons, often it is because they may have a relative from South Asia, or have visited some of the countries and they don’t want to just assume I am from a country when about 7-8 countries in S. Asia having similar facial features. But it is obvious when people ask patronizingly in a tone conveying “I am better than you, but still being friendly”. Also, if the first thing a person wants to know is the nationality, like in the OP’s case, I too would be suspicious of why they want to know it (in my case, often the question is followed by “then how do you speak so good English?”!!! Well, India IS an Anglophonic country, and my first language was English!). As Jordan pointed out, are people of different ethnicity not even fit for normal greeting of the place they are in?

    Admin says that she has often asked the question to people as she is a genealogist. That is a different case, and if someone asks me that question saying the reason, I’d just have fun with it. I was once at the fresh meat section of a grocery store, and the sales person there just turned around when I said “hello” and asked if I was from a country using British English. It turned out that he just likes to associate accents with a person’s origin, and as I had a very mixed accent, it caught his interest (he wasn’t right about gauging my heritage; still it was a fun exercise).

    OP, in my opinion, it might just be a good option to stick to say you are from Chicago, and continue saying that. I can see your fear of people coming up with random and awkward phrases or heritage they think they know. They’d not ask a Caucasian or an African-American the same question, would they? Good intention or not, there is no reason to entertain them if they have no business in knowing your heritage.

    Admin, in your comment you say about the group of Japanese exchange students who had certain strange perceptions. I admit that before coming to USA, I had some strange perceptions of American life too (a lot of it is thanks to Hollywood), but changed drastically within a few months. Unfortunately, lot of my friends still have such perceptions and view my dating an American man, who is the sweetest person I have ever met on earth, to be a bad experience! It is one thing when people are willing to be educated. The Japanese students were willing to learn things, and hence it was a pleasant experience for you to educate them. I have met people who just don’t want to learn, and snub off anything nice you say about your culture, or turn good things into negative things.

  • Kathryn August 30, 2010, 10:13 am

    I’m quite interested in ethnic heritage, having discovered my own a couple of years ago – turns out I’m not just “white”; I’m Scottish, Ukrainian and German. My grandparents on my Mother’s side met in Scotland after fleeing Germany and the Ukraine after WWII. My Dad’s side is Scottish way back, but I’m sure there’s more mixed in there. Particularly in the culture we’re in these days, more and more people have incredibly mixed ethnic heritage, and I’m simultaneous fascinated and delighted by. What a turn around from 50 years ago!! (though we still have far to go).

    That being said, despite my fascination, I refrain from asking such things unless meeting people in a friendly context and there’s something unusual about them. Like an Asian friend with a thick American accent (I’m in Australia). But as for my many other Asian friends, although it’s a part of their identity, most of them have grown up here – so I just assume that’s the case for everyone else. In fact, the only reason I’d ask ANYONE (white, Asian, African, whatever) is because they might have an accent, and even then, it’s a conversation topic rather than demanding to be educated on their ways.

    So I agree with the Admin. She’s advocating responding graciously to this man’s blunder, not encouraging everyone to go out there and treat people stereotypically according to their skin colour. And with all the hate out there on the internet, we could all use some encouragement to be gracious.

  • Lizajane August 30, 2010, 10:29 am


    No, bowing to an Asian person IS NOT the same as saying “Jambo” to an African American. Bowing is proper in some situations, as the OP described. I can’t think of any situation where Jambo would be proper, can you?

  • miss anpan August 30, 2010, 10:38 am

    I know that through experiencing very ethnocentric Asians have colored many peoples view of them but please, please do not presume all Asians are racist.

    I remember being asked if I were Chinese by someone who happened to be Asian American herself. When I responded that I was Japanese by descent, she said that she was sorry since I must be insulted by being presumed Chinese.

    This shocked me and it upset me to no end that someone believed that I was racist. It was completely absurd to think that a whole culture that your culture owes a great deal is somehow inferior.

    Then I remembered that many people have met with a highly ethnocentric Asians that react strongly to being presumed as another ethnic type (now, historically speaking, I can see why some of these exist, i.e. the Japanese atrocities during WWII).

    So the only thing I can add is that it’s best not to inquire into a stranger’s background. The woman, who asked me that question, never met before, yet that was the first question and response to me. To this day, I can’t forget that incident and it has changed my answer to that sort of question (my father’s family is from Okinawa so now I am Okinawan-Japanese. Just so people do not think I am racist).

    Oh, and in regards to the bowing, I really do not find it offensive. Granted it does cater to a stereotype. Perhaps that is the rude part? I would probably just nod to the person who is doing the bowing. I am not obligated to bow back. If a stranger is verbally offensive, I do not acknowledge.

  • Jamesy August 30, 2010, 11:11 am

    I agree with a lot of opposing positions on this board. Amber and Jordan, I am totally feeling you. Anetka, I get it.

    Upon reading the post, I was as perturbed as the OP. At the same time, people frequently ask me, “so, what are you?” And I am a pasty white girl. In truth, they want to know: Irish? Italian? Jewish? Eastern European roots? Do we have a common past? What angle can I use to build common ground? Sometimes, it can be annoying if it’s the wrong person with the wrong intentions. Other times, it’s ok, because it’s just two people trying to get to know each other.

    From the OP’s perspective, it’s sounds intrusive. I would be surprised and offended by a man bowing to me, but I’m the kind of person that loves to tell mortifying stories over and over to every single person I know. “You will not believe what some crazy, ignorant man did me today….”

  • Shayna August 30, 2010, 11:20 am

    I am a firm believer that asking a person about their cultural, ethnic and national background should be perfectly acceptable. Racial lines divide us because we don’t take the time to learn. There will ALWAYS be racial differences, because that’s how we’re made. I take great pride in my heritage, and love to say I’m a Heinz 57. I can claim roots to England, Ireland, France, and Wales, and to the Inuit and M’iqmaq people of North America. I think we all should take great pride in who we are and where we come from.

    I love to learn about the background and histories of the people I meet, and I’ve heard many stories from people from all walks of life. I’ve met a young Iraqi lady who immigrated to Canada with her family when she was 14. Her mom and dad are educated, intelligent, and own a business. Her siblings and her are all university-educated professionals. The smile on her face shows that she is very proud of who she is and where she comes from, but her face becomes saddened when she talks about how all of her family had to leave their home out of fear for Hussein and his regime.

    I’ve met a Syrian man who lived and worked in Afghanistan. Tears streamed down his face as he talked about how many of his family members were killed by the Taliban, but his face beamed with pride when he talked about visiting Syria earlier that year.

    I met a young Quebecoise lady living in Alberta who left home because she got tired of listening to the Separatists talking about leaving Canada. Her face beamed as she said “I’m proud to be French, but first and foremost, I am a Canadian.”

    I’ve met a black lady who told me about her parents leaving Trinidad and Tobago years ago to emigrate to the Prairies, who laughed when I gave her an odd look and said “Are they crazy? Why would they want to leave such a warm, sunny place for this icebox?”

    Sometimes, we have to give people the benefit of the doubt. If someone is really trying to be racist, there is no subtlety about it. It’s in your face.

  • Abby August 30, 2010, 11:23 am


    Well – “Jambo” is a swahili word meaning hello. If you’re speaking to a friend you know to be from a Swahili-speaking nation, it would be an acceptable, if somewhat stilted greeting. You could also say, “Habari? or Habari gani?” (how’s it going?).

    But to say Jambo to any black stranger on the street assumes that they are from a Swahili speaking region, or community, AND that they still use that language (marking them as “other” or “not from here”) and would be rude. Similar to the assumptions you make when bowing to an asian stranger.

    The difference between the the situation that admin describes (bringing an exchange student into their home and using assumptions as the basis for teaching) and what the poster describes is that the first is an active choice. It should never be any one person’s burden to educate the majority about their heritage or how to ask race-based questions. If she chooses to do so, good on her, but she should feel free to answer (or not) however she sees fit.

  • JS August 30, 2010, 11:26 am

    “I have a choice to get my hackles up choosing to be offended at the question or I can answer it as the situation deems appropriate.”

    Admin, wouldn’t the same be true for a well-intentioned person who asks an obviously pregnant woman “Was it planned?” I’m honestly confused here, because it seems that if the well-intentioned-but-inappropriate comment relates to ethnic heritage, the questioner gets a pass based on good intentions. But if the comment relates to other topics, it’s EH-worthy? What if it’s a question about religion? Patriotism? Sexual orientation? Where’s the line?

    • admin August 30, 2010, 3:20 pm


      People ask me quite frequently, or often presume, that because I own a web site about etiquette and write about it every day, that I must be in a perpetual state of being offended at all the ill manners I see. On the contrary, I’m rarely offended by much of the “Shallow Stupid” things that pop out of people’s mouths. Do I recognize that these comments can be rude? Yes. Should we educate people about the stupidity of those comments? Yes. Do I get all hot and bothered about it? No. Primarily because I recognize that as a fallible human being, it is just a matter of time before I will say something just as equally stupid. Anyone who says they do not or will not ever utter a rude comment is either a deity, deceived or a liar. A little old man in a bookstore who bows to an Asian employee just doesn’t even register on my Ehell scale-o- meter for worthiness to be cast into Ehell. I try to emphasize the *behavior* as being EHell worthy, not necessarily the individual (which is why there are rules for publication that restrict privacy).

      A consistently discussed philosophy of Ehell focuses not solely how the person behaves that may be deserving of Ehell but how *YOU* (or *I*) will react. We can choose to react in ways that either diffuse the potential offense, or we can choose to facilitate someone’s rudeness (while often engaging in our own retaliatory rudeness) or we can choose to react in such a way that is mutually edifying to both parties. Some fans of this site are entirely too wound up living their lives in a perpetual state of hypersensitivity to being offended about something their fellow man has done to them. It’s as if they look for ways to be offended every morning when they wake up. They don’t get it that etiquette demands even more of them to reciprocate with graciousness (that “extending kindness to the undeserving” thing again) to whatever rudeness they perceive to be the recipient of. That’s why my advice to the OP in this story is still spot on, imo. She can choose to be offended by what I see as a minor bump on the etiquette road or she can choose to smooth over the bump with a civil interchange that serves to build them both up.

  • summer August 30, 2010, 11:27 am

    First of all, I love it that admin is finally chiming in and helping to flesh out some of these stories and thoughts on etiquette, rather than just having to read comments.

    I agree that the bowing man meant no disrespect, I see that all the time, and living in a small, rural community with NO diversity at all, it’s just something that a particular group of older people seem to do. I like it!

    Living close to a large university town, we ask each other what their heritage is all the time too! We love to swap stories about who we are and where we’re from.

  • Janet August 30, 2010, 11:40 am

    I have dark skin, hair and eyes and can pass as a member of a wide variety of middle eastern , hispanic, southeast asian groups and I so get asked that question by strangers at least once a week. I know people don’t mean it as offensive but it is a personal question, and off-putting when its asked abruptly or without context (for example, that they’re studying genealogy, that I look like a cousin of their’s, etc), there’s no response to my answer (often they just say “oh” and walk away leaving me to wonder why they wanted to know or exactly what my answer meant to them), or it becomes a launching pad for a monologue on their part (immigration policy is the big issue currently). I am proud of my ethnic background but don’t need to discuss it with any/every stranger, the same way I don’t need to talk about my salary, family history, or other personal information. So when asked where I’m from I assume they want to know where I grew up and I tell them. If they follow up to ask where I’m from *really* or where my family is from I’ll politely ask if they’re asking what my ethnic background is and say I’m happy to talk with them about it but first I’m curious why they want to know. Knowing that information allows me to focus my answer on their question (often they don’t need to know my background but really want to know if I know Spanish, if I know a good Indian restaurant, etc) and even if its my ethnic background they still want it allows me to have much more of a discussion and teachable moment that the admin describes rather than what often feels to me like an (albeit unintentional) conversational hit and run.

  • kero August 30, 2010, 11:45 am

    Being Asian myself, I have come across this many times (not just by curious people, but also racist jerks and guys using it as a pickup) and can relate. The curious folks who ask this question usually do not continue the conversation OR is politely adamant that I’m not from the US. This one incident is when a man asked me where I was born which I replied “California” and continued the conversation with “Have you ever gone BACK to China?” My reply was, “How can a person go back to a place to where they have never been?” He ignored me and asked the same question again. (We were on a plane and the earlier conversation was that it was my first time traveling out of state).

    I have to disagree with EHell admin on this one though. I don’t think it is useful to “play along” with a stereotype when it can potentially offend someone. When somebody bows to me or says “Ni Hao” (not my language, but I understand it), I usually wave and say “hello.” The reason why I get partially offended when random strangers ask me is because my parents escaped a traumatic past and immigrated to America. We are so proud of our heritage, but also to be Americans and anyone who questions it will make some sparks. While the initial “where are you from” does not bother me, strangers who press the issue or assume that I am “fresh off the boat” will be ignored.

  • livvy August 30, 2010, 11:48 am

    The thing that’s tricky here is that you theoretically need to be able to figure out someone’s intent to be able to decide if it’s rude or not, but there’s no good way to do that.

    I think most people are just curious – even when they’re being pushy & nosy, they are more likely genuinely curious – are they descended from multiple generations who’ve lived here since their family fled China during the 1850’s? Or are they newcomers attending the local university?

    Granted, there are those idiots who are looking for some platform to speak about their beliefs on immigration, but I think they are very likely in the minority, mainly it’s just curious people.

    For the OP, I think the answer of “Chicago” is fine. She doesn’t have to get into extended discussions. As for the bowing man, I think I’d have raised my eyebrow, and said, “Can I help you sir?” Again, even if misguided, it seems to have been meant in a friendly or respectful way.

  • Pokey August 30, 2010, 11:49 am

    I’m 100% Korean, but was born in the United States. I think that Admin makes a valid point that this isn’t quite the same as yelling at a cashier, but questions like “where are you from?” are still faux pas.

    In this respect, I concur with Amber. No matter how well-intentioned, there are very limited reasons for a person to be prying into the ethnic backgrounds of their retail salespeople. I recall seeing stories in which people are blasted for asking a pregnant woman about a baby’s sex or name. I believe this falls into the same category of etiquette hell–It’s not a universally welcomed query; therefore, refrain from addressing unless OP brings it up. Otherwise, ask at your own risk.

    As for the bowing, I would have bowed back with a wink, but if this happened on a regular basis from the same person, I would have a private conversation with the offender.

  • Moby Jane August 30, 2010, 12:05 pm

    Admin, I definitely think that any sort of behavioural assumption based on physical differences or similarities is rude; I try to take people as I find them! After having worked in tourism and various kinds of retail settings, I’ve come to appreciate the vast array of behaviours that humans display. One of these days, I might even submit some of the resulting stories. 😉

    While you may find “where are you from” an awkward way of asking someone what their ethnic heritage is, others find it offensive… especially when they are asked it numerous times on a regular basis in purely superficial settings (i.e., during a simple retail transaction) solely on the basis of their appearance. As another poster said, rudeness is never appropriate, but it gets exhausting trying to educate people again and again over the course of brief interactions.

    Again, it all depends on context – or, as you put it, as the situation deems appropriate:

    1) Lengthy interaction with acquaintance/customer/whoever during an in-depth conversation? Fine. I used to regularly chat with tourists who’d come to the museum where I was giving tours; I learned more about life in numerous other countries, and they learned more about life in Canada. It was a mutually interrogative, mutually beneficial experience where we both felt comfortable giving and receiving info.

    2) Passing, superficial encounter with customer/employee/someone you don’t know and must only deal with in passing? Not fine. As I mentioned, this regularly happens to my friend and it maddens her, especially when words like “exotic” or “unusual” get used. She’s awesome about it, though, and bean-dips like crazy.

  • Xtina August 30, 2010, 1:18 pm

    I can see where a constant barrage of “where are you from” and other such questions could get to be annoying, and how some more private people feel that the question is a little too intrusive coming from a stranger. I have a friend who will amost blow up if you ask where she works (a common conversational question around here), insisting that is nobody’s business but hers.

    You can usually tell when someone is asking questions of that type to be conversational, nosy, or are genuinely curious. I am from the South, and know all too well about stereotypes–my very obvious accent is often the first thing people speak to me about when I travel or speak on the phone to someone not from this area. Sometimes it’s fun to start a conversation, but at times, people are prying to see if I fit the “dumb redneck” stereotype, which I am more than happy to buck.

    Anyway, bottom line is that there are much more important things to be offended about than a person’s possibly ill-thought-out attempt to ask you about the way you look or sound. No matter how much anyone would like to change it, the way we look or sound are two of the things that make a first impression. I would rather a person ask me than stare at me, point at me, or whisper behind my back.

  • Xtina August 30, 2010, 1:27 pm

    Whoops, got sidetracked. Wanted to also comment that the OP’s technique of lying to people who ask where she is from probably wastes more energy and raises more questions than to simply say something like, “my family/background is [insert country of origin] but I was raised in Chicago”, and leave it at that. True, they don’t have to have that information but what’s the harm? They are probably just curious as to how you ended up where you are.

    The bowing man was just trying to be nice, but I don’t think it is a good idea to try to presume where a person is from and what would be normal for their culture (especially if you don’t know for sure what that is!)–after all, they do live *here*–wherever here is–and presumably interact with people in a localized style.

  • RP August 30, 2010, 2:18 pm

    @Jordan – It’s a form of prejudice, not necessarily racism. To be racist would require the person to think that their own race is superior to others. The people the OP is talking about may (or may not) be making ignorant assumptions but that doesn’t mean they’re hateful. They might be but you don’t have to be hateful to make assumptions.

    @Hanna – Borderline trolling comment. That is a blatant Strawman argument: the OP is not ‘ashamed’ of being Asian. He just doesn’t want to have to explain it to everyone who asks.

    My comments: I think the admin’s advice is sound for those that approach the OP out of genuine curiosity. However, I have to assume that the OP is also being approached by people who make it obvious that they are not merely curious by their body language and tone of voice. If the OP thinks someone is being mean or making unkind assumptions they should keep it short and sweet and disengage as quickly as possible.

  • Amazed August 30, 2010, 2:35 pm

    Oh for crying out loud.

    Everyone has some kind of “weird” thing that people ask about, albeit awkardly.

    It happens that I AM adopted. When I mention that in conversation, I know that someone will say, with all good intentions, “Have you ever met your real parents?”. Yes, of course, seeing how I think of my adoptive parents as my real parents, sure, I used to see them all the time before they died. Instead of thinking of the person as a Clueless Dolt, I just say “Actually, your question is weird to me because I think of my adoptive parents as my ‘real’ parents. I think you are asking if I have met my biological parents, and the answer to that is yes, I have.”

    I try to assume the person is a nice, well-intentioned person with a Clueless Dolt question, and try to answer the question politely and truthfully.

    To the OP: Don’t tell them you are adopted, if you are not! You’ll run into a whole bunch of further questions. “Were you abandoned under a bridge? Do you know your real parents? Do you worry about unknown genetic diseases? When did your foster (yes, that’s a whole different education: foster vs adoptive) parents tell you that you were adopted?”

    Everyone’s got something!!! It may be race, ethnicity, religion, a handicap, height, large birthmark, accent in speaking, gay/straight, military service, large number of kids, no kids, whatever. Part of being an adult is learning how to deal with Clueless Dolt questions when posed by a well-intentioned person in a friendly manner.

  • Marzipan August 30, 2010, 2:36 pm

    Perhaps the faux pas stems from the fact that this exchange occurred in a country where the lady is part of a racial minority. By singling her out based on her skin, the OP put her in a position where she was presumed to be ‘other’ and thus treated differently. I appreciate he probably had the best of intentions and indeed thought he was respectfully acknowledging her ethnicity but the fact remains that the lady in question was minding her own business when an unsolicited gesture reminds her just how different she appears to be, regardless of how she may view herself internally.

    I believe the polite rule of thumb is to not presume how to behave differently (if at all) when interacting with a person of different race, culture (or even gender and age) until you know them personally to a basic degree.

    So how could the questioner have responded? Maybe in the future she could try saying ‘Thank you but that’s not necessary – I’m American’.

    I understand it’s very frustrating to be classified on sight based on ethnicity but these paradigms take generations to shift and, exhausting as it may be, attitudes don’t change on their own.

    On a side note, how do you think the OP would feel if he knew his bowing had caused such an uncomfortable reaction, contrary to his intention? It may be doing him a favour to inform him against repeating this error in judgment.

  • Mona August 30, 2010, 2:40 pm

    This is why I never talk to strangers anymore. Everyone always thinks the worst when you are trying to show interest and make polite conversation. Sheesh!

  • anotherloginname August 30, 2010, 2:48 pm

    It always depends on the context, and I can see why the OP gets frustrated. But asking where someone is from is not inherently rude. I worked in a store for years, and it was one of the normal questions to ask customers, regardless of there skin colour, accent, or anything else about them. What I meant was which suburb/city/country if it’s not here, are you from. ‘Chicago’ is exactly the kind of response I was looking for. It follows nicely into other low key social pleasantries “oh, I love it up there, especially……”

  • name witheld August 30, 2010, 2:53 pm

    I am married into another culture, a fact which my last name makes obvious, and find it extremely irritating when cashiers ask me about it. It’s usually cashiers of that same culture that do so, and I will avoid going to their till altogether if possible. If not, and they ask, I will sometimes lie about the origin of my name, although this is in NO WAY because I am ashamed (as one poster suggested). It is because I do not want to discuss my personal life to indulge a stranger’s curiosity. Sometimes I say I am Croatian (different continent than where my last name is from, but both languages are Indo-European and they have a similar last name). Interestingly, one of the posters seems to suggest that they have no “ethnicity” (indicating, perhaps, that they, like me, are a WASP, or white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant). I went to school in a very ethnically diverse neighbourhood, where everybody was “something,” be it Italian, Portuguese, “East” Indian, Vietnamese, etc. I remember going home to my grandmother one day when I was about 6 or 7 and asking “what am I,” to which she replied “Canadian” – how boring!

  • ASmith August 30, 2010, 2:58 pm

    I think the question “where are you from” in this context is offensive for 2 reasons:

    1. It is completely unnecessary to know this in order to complete a retail transaction. It’s no different than asking “Are you married” or “Do you go to church”. At best it’s nosy, at worst the customer is winding up for a rant about job-stealing illegal immigrants.

    2. Why would the customer assume the answer is anything other than “I’m from here, same as you”? How many of the customers asking this question also ask it of white clerks? “Oh, I was born and raised in Chicago, but my great-great-grandparents emigrated from France!” If a customer is singling out visible minorities for these questions, then I think it’s offensive. Perhaps not deliberately offensive, but it’s not the OP’s job to educate every single person who asks. And it is not rude of the OP to not educate every single person who asks. Answering “Chicago,” with a smile, is perfectly polite.

  • Jordan August 30, 2010, 3:13 pm

    Lizajane — Saying ‘jambo’ to an African AMERICAN would never be appropriate, but saying ‘jambo’ to an African national could be. Just as bowing to an Asian AMERICAN, as is happening in this story, would never be appropriate, but bowing to an Asian national could be.

  • Sharon August 30, 2010, 3:20 pm

    My daughter in law is from England. Believe me, her lovely accent sticks out a mile here in Texas. ;o)
    She is always getting asked, “Where are you from?” While she is not offended by the person asking, it has gotten old after 6 years. But, of course, like she says, “How are they to know they are the tenth person today to ask you this?” So, she just nicely replies that she is from England.
    I agree with our Admin…
    While racism is never a thing to let pass, being offended by every single thing that people say or do just be cause you are different is no way to live. This is how we learn to live together.
    I must add, when my husband and I went to England, everywhere we went peole always asked where we were from because of our accents… it was a great conversation starter and we had nice chats with dozens of people that otherwise we would have missed.

  • Goldie August 30, 2010, 3:25 pm

    I have been in America 13 years. Though I do not “blast” people for asking me where I’m from, I admit I’m not overly enamored with the question – especially when followed by “So do you like it here?”, or, on one occasion, “Welcome to our country!” Think about it. Would you ask an Anglo-Saxon-looking/sounding local this question? I bet not. And why not, if all you’re doing is being curious about people’s heritage? I’m sure everyone would have stories to tell about their Irish grandmother or German great-grandfather. When people single me out by asking me, and no one else, this question, the message I get is “You’re not one of us. You can live here fifty years and you’ll still be a foreigner. Know your place.” Ugh… like I said, not my favorite question.

    I usually smile and answer with the name of the city where I currently live – this is normally followed by a blank stare – to which I say, “ohhh, you mean *originally*?” Now that I think of it, I should probably start following *that* up with “And what about you? What’s your heritage?” Hey, I’m curious too.

  • lequinn August 30, 2010, 3:49 pm

    “What are you?” is rude. “Where are you from?” is OK, but if they don’t accept that you’re from Chicago (or wherever) because you’re not white–that’s incredibly rude, IMO. I’m of mixed race, and I’ve had people argue with me that I’m not REALLY from here, and even had someone once tell me that I’m not actually the ethnicities I am, that he could tell that I’m another ethnicity. Flat-out told me I was wrong about my own parents’ lineage. People have made jaw-dropping comments–I can laugh about them, and I’m not ashamed at all, it’s just tiring. After a while, you can tell when someone is interested in knowing you better or whether they just see you as a curiosity. But yeah–if I was working retail and a customer I’d never seen before in my life asked me where I’m from, I’d consider it rude.

  • Lizajane August 30, 2010, 3:50 pm


    Thank you for explaining to me a situation where saying, “Jambo” would be correct. People “of color” in my area would not assume you were saying hello to them if you said it. It has an entirely different connotation here, and it’s not one of respect.

  • Lizajane August 30, 2010, 3:54 pm


    Bowing to an Asian American is never correct? Wow, wait until I tell my neices. Well, they’re only half Asian.

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