How Do You Respond When People Ask, ‘Where Are You From?’

How Do You Respond When People Ask, ‘Where Are You From?’

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When people ask you where you’re from, is it easy for you to answer? Have you moved around a lot or have you always lived in the same place?

Are people usually satisfied with your response, or do you find yourself having to explain further?

In “The Complexity in ‘Where Are You From?’” Vanessa Hua writes about asking her parents that question:

When I asked my father where he was born, I never got a straight answer. Wuhan, he’d say. In other moments, he’d claim Wuchang.

I didn’t understand why he couldn’t state a simple fact. My assumption reflected my privilege, that of a girl who’d known only the peace and stability of the suburbs east of San Francisco. Much later, I would realize that his birthplace had been absorbed into Wuhan, a provincial capital formed from the sprawl of Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang.

My father is gone now, but I’ve wondered what he would make of the coronavirus. He surely would have worried about his family more than himself.

It would have pained him that relations have cratered between his ancestral and adopted homelands, causing a backlash against Asian-Americans. “Go back to where you came from!” we’re told.

But where did we come from, and why does it matter? Among other Chinese, the question is a conversation starter in which we can situate ourselves and our people, in every far-flung corner of the diaspora. Your ancestral province might stamp itself upon your character, in your traits — determining your height, your ambitions and your looks.

Born in China, my parents fled to the island of Taiwan at the close of World War II. Later on, they came to the United States for graduate school in science and engineering.

I used to think my parents were cagey about their past because they wanted to focus on the future. Perhaps, growing up in the shadow of Communism, or in making a life for themselves in this country, they’d also learned not to disclose too much, for who knew how it might get turned against them?

All that might have been true, though now I understand I may have missed another reason. Just as my father couldn’t readily tell me where he was born, neither of my parents could say exactly where they were from because they’d moved around so much during their childhood, amid conflicts with Japanese forces in the years before and during World War II.

She continues, reflecting on her own experience about trying to explain where she is from:

I never faced such perils. Before leaving for college, I lived at the same address all my life, in the airy, light-filled house designed by my father, a structural engineer. It’s the same house where I now live with my twin sons, my husband and my mother.

And yet the question “where are you from?” is just as complicated for me to answer. Or rather, my initial reply — “I’m from California”— never seems to satisfy the strangers asking. Their mouths twitch and silence lengthens between us.

“I’m from the Bay Area,” I’ll clarify, even though I know I’m delaying the inevitable. It’s clear what they want to know, which perversely makes me want to hold out on them.

“But …” they trail off.

I can tell they think I’m misleading them. Some can’t hide their irritation that I’m not revealing information they feel entitled to having.

At last I’ll say, “I was born in the United States, but my parents are from China.”

They nod, pleased to confirm their suspicion that my family isn’t from here, that Asian-Americans are perpetual foreigners. They don’t realize they’re asking a question even my father couldn’t have answered.

Students, read the entire essay, then tell us:

  • How do you respond when people ask you where you are from? To you, is where you are from the town you were born in? The house you grew up in? The place you’ve lived that has felt the most like home? The country your parents or ancestors are from? Or something else?

  • Ms. Hua asks, “But where did we come from, and why does it matter?” What do you think? How much does where you are from matter to you? Why do we ask people this question? What can the answer reveal about a person? What can’t it tell us?

  • How important is it to you to know where your parents and family come from? What do you think this information can tell you about them? About yourself? How freely do your parents and other relatives talk about their past?

  • Ms. Hua writes that, for her, the question “Where are you from?” can sometimes carry extra weight; people aren’t satisfied until she answers in a way that confirms “their suspicion that my family isn’t from here, that Asian-Americans are perpetual foreigners.” Have you ever had an experience like hers? How did it make you feel? Have you ever doubted where someone is from because of how he or she looks? Does this essay make you think any differently about asking that question in the future?

  • Ms. Hua says of her grandmother’s necklace, which has been passed down in her family, “Where I’m from is everywhere it’s been.” Do you have an object that connects you to your home and to your family? What is it and what does it symbolize for you?

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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.