Such an innocuous question, Where Are You From, but yet one that can be loaded with malice. I’m white and from the UK. Being asked where I am from when overseas is not usually a big deal and is often met with some remark regarding a World Cup event (I am far from sport orientated so usually smile and nod). My wife is also from the UK, but her parents are not, and so the standard response of “I’m from the UK” is not usually enough to satisfy the curiosity of the interrogator.
This question comes in many forms depending on the country you are in. We live now in Perth, WA – and Australians, as with Americans, are often interested to meet someone from the UK. For my wife (who has a British accent that would rival most Toffs) the colour of her skin could not be further from their minds – They are just wooed by the lyrical intonations of her voice.
We have just returned from a short vacation in Indonesia, where we met some of the most kind and happy people we have seen on our travels. However, time and time again, I would be asked the question and it would be followed with; “And your wife? She is from Japan?” – Well, no. She is from the UK, which you would know if you asked her. “Ahh, but her parents are from Japan?” – Again, no. Her parents are from Hong Kong. And with that – they are satisfied that she has been placed and can now be slotted into an imaginary hierarchy that is intrinsic in modern day society. In some ways, one can forgive them – they are inquisitive and the Indonesians in particular enjoy encountering different cultures… I’m a boring Brit – they see plenty of us, but here is a new hybrid culture to absorb.
Surprisingly though, racism comes not only from the uneducated lower classes (often in the form of more obnoxious harassment) but also from the British, middle aged, middle class females. Rather than guessing which country she is from, they often follow up with the question “but where are you ACTUALLY from?”… Ohhh, so you want to know which continent my Ancestors inhabited? One persistent lady we met who was unsatisfied with my wife’s response of “I am from Hampshire”, replied with “But where were you born?”… “H-A-M-P-S-H-I-R-E”. After further probing she was furnished with the information and replied with “Ah so you’re Asian!”… Gold Star for you! And which Germanic group do you hail from?
I have heard some amusing responses from people upon learning of my wife’s heritage, including “Oh I have a Chinese friend… Perhaps you know him?” or “I visited this temple out there, is it near where you are from?”. However, the two that take first place on the scale of most insulting/funniest were from Cambodians. After struggling to gain entrance to the country following my wife being detained by immigration and accused of having a fake passport, we met with an obnoxious hostel owner who proceeded to inform my wife that she did not look Chinese and as such, her mother must have had an affair with a Korean man… Welcome to Cambodia.
So, next time you meet someone who doesn’t look like you – why don’t you get to know them a bit first before you interrogate them about the birthplace of their great great great grandfather. Don’t let the first thing out of your mouth be a loaded question aimed to put them in a social category – and FFS, counting off how many Asian, Indian and Black friends you have does not mean you are not a racist… In fact, quite the opposite.
Stop looking at skin colour, let you eyes look past the surface and into the soul.