“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.