“Where are you really from?”

Stop labeling Asian-Americans as foreigners

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“Where are you really from?”

Graphic by Alex Silber.

Graphic by Alex Silber.

Graphic by Alex Silber.

By Ella Atsavapranee

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 “Where are you from?”

“Bethesda, Maryland.”

“No, but where are you really from?”

As a racial minority, I often face this question. Although I was born in Maryland and have lived here all my life, many people don’t believe my response. Instead, they keep repeating the question, with increasing emphasis on the word “really,” to figure out which “exotic” country I come from.

Although asking someone where they’re from may seem harmless, it suggests minorities don’t belong and can’t possibly be American because of their appearance. Asian-Americans who have lived in this country for many generations are often still treated as foreigners.

A 2005 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that 18 percent of Asian-Americans were mistaken as being from another country, whereas only 6 percent of white Americans reported being mislabeled this way.

The same study also reported that identity denial, or when others don’t recognize an individual as a member of a certain group, is common within Asian-American communities because they’re perceived as less American than white Americans. Being asked the question “Where are you from?” serves as a constant reminder of the identity denial that almost all Asian-Americans face daily.

Once, when I was in a bike shop in California with my family, an Asian man behind the counter asked my dad where he was from. My dad answered that he was from Thailand, and asked the worker the same question in an attempt to make conversation. Ironically, he responded in a sassy tone, “California. Born and raised.” I was shocked that some people feel compelled to ask this question even when they would be offended by it themselves.

These microaggressions against Asian Americans are extremely common. Michael Luo, a deputy Metro editor at the New York Times, wrote in a 2016 open letter about his shock at a well-dressed woman in the Upper East Side yelling at him to go back to China. Asian-Americans can be successful and contribute to their community, and still be considered outsiders.

A specific skin tone or hair color shouldn’t define what it means to look American. We’re a country made up of descendants of immigrants from all over the world, and minorities should be seen as just as American as everyone else. So ask me again where I’m from?

I’m from Maryland. Born and raised.

 

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