Tuesday, June 3, 2014

"Where are you from?"


In today’s world of 24/7 politically correct outrage, big deals are being made out of the most trivial things. Just because one person is offended, apparently the offense must be spread until it becomes a topic of national discourse. My favorite is when a someone who feels slighted writes an open letter to the person who did the slighting hoping the letter will go viral instead of you know, just talking to the person face to face about it. Lately, I’ve noticed an outrage to a question so misplaced I feel compelled to tell the offended to just answer the question and stop being so damn sensitive.

“Where are you from?”

The question, though worded incorrectly, is obviously meant to ask, “What is your country of origin?” It’s usually posed by white people to minorities, usually Asians. And I’ve noticed that many of us get so irrationally upset when we get asked this question. Our responses range from sarcastic (“From my mother’s uterus.”) to angrily factual (“I was born here, asshole.”). Or you can be like this guy and go into the most unnecessarily long-winded answer to a question I’ve ever heard:


My fellow Asians get pissed because they feel the question is a slight on their citizenship or right to be in this country. Or it conjures up years and years of being marginalized and teased for being the nerdy Asian kid. It sucks that you were mercilessly teased for wearing coke-bottle glasses and were blamed for stinking up lunchtime with your ethnic food, but you’re taking out your pent-up frustrations on the wrong people.

It’s all about tone and context. I don’t mind when people ask the question, especially when they’re simply curious about my genetic makeup and can’t tell by my last name. And don’t give me that “I don’t see race/color” bullshit. We see it all the time. I see it. When I meet people for the first time, I take notice of their last names and match them with a country or region of origin (unless you’re a black person with the last name Freeman). It’s interesting to me. It’s like learning the countries on a map or the state capitals in history class, which was my favorite subject as a kid.

No other races are asked the question as much as Asians. Because guess what? We aren’t like other races. We’ve been in the United States for a little over a century. And we’ve only been coming here in large numbers since the 1960s, when exclusionary immigration laws were repealed. We’re the smallest minority group in the United States, but the fastest growing. Maybe a hundred years from now it won’t be an issue. But to me, it’s barely an issue now.

White people who ask, “Where are you from?” may be slightly aloof, as the literal answer to the question would be my home address, which is probably not what they want to hear. But just answer the question. I just say, “I was born here, but my parents are from Korea.” Which is all they want to know. Does it make a difference? Maybe. Maybe a white guy asked me because he wanted to talk about a recent vacation he took to Thailand, but as a Korean who has never been there, I wouldn’t be so interested, so he doesn’t ask. Awkward conversation avoided.

And to be honest, it could be much worse. Back when my parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, white people didn’t want to know where they were from. They didn’t give a shit. Instead, my mom and dad were told to “Go back to your country” on a fairly regular basis. Fortunately for me, this is something I’ve only been told once in my life, and I replied to the person appropriately: with a shit ton of profanities.

So lighten up, everybody. I understand that we have chips on our shoulders for being emasculated and belittled for our race, appearance, and depiction in the media. But you’re misplacing your frustrations on what is usually a simple, innocent, and curious question. Unless a person asks you “Where are you from?” in a condescending, judgmental tone and it turns out the question was really just a front to spew a racist joke or impression no matter what your answer. Then by all means, get pissed and punch them right in the throat.

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