How to ask people “where they’re from” – The Brazilian way is the best way! :)

“Where are you from?” is a question that people ask each other all the time. When I’m on the road, I reply that “I’m from New York.”

Now, when I am talking to Europeans and some less racially diverse Latin American countries, sometimes things get a little weird. The person would say awkwardly, “Oh. But I mean where are you really from?”

Me: “..I’m from New York, born in California.”

Some people would go as far to say, “But you don’t look like you’re from the United States.”, to which I have to suppress my annoyance and explain to them that there are Asians born and raised in the US.

Other times, they would say, “Umm I mean…Where are your parents from?”

Me: “They’re Taiwanese.”

In this case the person gets the response they’re looking for, but at the same time I have many Asian friends whose parents were born and raised in the US too. I think the issue of the awkwardness boils down to 1) General ignorance of immigration trends in the world coupled with some rudeness 2) Not knowing how to elegantly ask people about their background

1) Ignorance and rudeness

Here goes my rant: No offense to Europeans, but throughout my travels, Europe has come across to me as the most un-Asian-friendly region that I have been to. Walking around in Europe, I often received catcalls of “Chinita (little Chinese girl)! Konijiwa (Hello in Japanese)! Ni Hao (Hello in Chinese)!” In Florianopolis, I told a Portuguese guy that I am American, and he responded “But your eyes are *makes squinty eyes with his fingers*” (there are a lot of Asians with squinty eyes, but I am not one of them). At a Gringo Party, a drunk European guy asks me where I’m from, then proceeds to insist several times that I’m lying because I don’t look like I’m from America. I had to try really hard not to pour my drink in his face before walking off. I think a large part of this behavior is due to ignorance (the lack of Asians in continental Europe in general), but it doesn’t mean that they can be rude.

2) People don’t know how to phrase a question about your heritage

Even in America, if people are trying to ask you what your heritage is, they will often ask “Where are your parents/ family from?” I understand the question – most second generation Asians’ parents were born outside of the US, and many were born outside of the US and moved to America when young. However, there are people whose parents and grandparents were born in the US, so this question does not exactly work for them either. Myself included used to say “but where are your parents from?”, simply because I didn’t know a better way to put it, until I came to Brazil.

Here in Brazil, people will ask me “Qual é a sua descendencia?”/”What is your descendancy?” This is by far the most elegant way to phrase the question that I know of.

It’s a great way to express curiosity about a person’s background, and at the same time indicate that you understand that the person might be national of a country that is not the same as his or her ancestors.

0 thoughts on “How to ask people “where they’re from” – The Brazilian way is the best way! :)

  1. tropicalsmog

    Your story is interesting. I’m Mexican American and living in São Paulo, and I’ve never been asked “Qual é sua descendência?” People usually assume I’m from somewhere in Latin America, and when I tell them I’m American I get, “Really? But you don’t look American!” And then I feel obligated to tell them my mom’s from Mexico to explain why I look the way I look.

    Reply
    1. tendelle Post author

      Wow, that’s really interesting, and must be kind of annoying that people say “you don’t look American”. I wonder why it’s different for us, especially since American media portrays more Latinos than Asians in film, tv, and music. Maybe since in SP, there are a lot of 3rd, 4th generation Japanese, people learn to phrase the question a specific way especially towards Asians..

      Reply
  2. vlad

    That is one of the reasons I am moving to Brazil…the diversity. Everybody is really comfortable with the diversity and it is a great feeling for someone like me who is mixed.

    Reply
    1. tendelle Post author

      Agreed! I feel super comfortable in Sao Paulo (though people say safety is a big issue). Though Sao Paulo and Curitiba are probably the most diverse for big cities, then from Rio and upwards and the Southern states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul it’s a lot less diverse

      Reply
  3. puddlethoughtsJordan

    Love your post, just discovered this blog today after reading through your answer on japanese brazilian on quora. I find it really amazing that I’ve done a lot of the same things as you when I went to Brazil! From being a temporary illegal immigrant in Paraguay to exploring florian sand dunes and to going to Warung and passing by the exact same stream in the morning. I wish I had known about the Balera Japa clubs in Sao Paulo earlier and will definitely go visit them when I’m back in Brazil.

    Jordan
    Asian New Zealander/Australian

    Reply
    1. tendelle Post author

      Hi Jordan, your comment made my day!! How crazy is it that we had similar experiences. Now I miss brazil even more after taking a trip down memory lane 🙂

      Reply

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