‘Where are you from?’ is a question I hear and ask often, but for an Asian-American, this question carries a very different meaning.
Today’s interview focuses on this question as we see through the eyes of Rho, an Asian-American born and raised in the South of the United States.
Where are your parents from?
“People ask Asians and Pacific Islanders ‘Where are you from?’ because they do not believe that we are from here [the United States,]” Rho begins.
What they want to know, Rho has realized, is what her ethnicity is. So ‘Where are you from?’ turns into, ‘Where are you really from?’ turns into, ‘Where are you parents from?’.
“And very quickly you are in a conversation with a stranger about your ethnicity.” Repeat this day in and day out and we get a classic example of a micro-aggression.
“What you picking at when you ask me that question is the fact that I look different. Because why else would you ask that question? First, you are not going to be able to relate to me on my ethnicity unless you are also Filipino. And second, why would you even be trying to relate to me on my ethnicity, while you are not trying to relate to me on any other level? I have a job, I have a personality… there are so many things you could ask me about, but you choose to ask me why I look different.”
Now living in Atlanta, Rho is meeting many Asian and Asian-Americas who experience this same pestering question, often by people who do not believe that an Asian-American is actually ‘from here’.
“I have wondered why people ask this question, and most people say it is because they are just curious. Does it change the conversation if you know what kind of Asian I am? It seems like a filler question that other people ask, but cannot relate to the answer. And I cannot flip the question onto them. Sometimes I get an, ‘I knew it’. But my ethnicity is not a game.”
Culture v Ethnicity
“I am a first-generation Asian-American and my parents moved here from the Philippines, but that is not my identity. Once we get farther and farther down the line, what are my great-grandkids going to say to people? Probably something similar to what most white people say, ‘Oh, I think my great-great-grandparents came here from the Philippines’. We all have an ethnic and cultural background, but it becomes more irrelevant as time passes because you become American. I do not speak Tagalog [the native language] and I do not know much about Filipino culture; I know the food, but that is the same as you going to Filipino restaurants and knowing the food, as well.”
Because she is not deeply connected to her parents’ cultural roots and because she was born and raised here in the United States, Rho is very much American.
“My parents immigrated here and they fought to be here, but that is not the identity I have. My dad tells me all the time, ‘Oh that is because you are American.’ But I guess I am not American enough for other people and not Asian enough for my parents.“
Comfort in One’s Ethnicity
This question, ‘Where are you from?’, can be a trigger question for Asian-Americans– or any first-generation American for that matter— because:
1) It probes at the underlying assumption that White is normal in the United States.
2) It brings one’s cultural and ethnic differences immediately to the surface.
“What I have read from the Asian community is this: when I am ready to talk about my ethnic background is when we should talk about. My ethnicity is not my identity, and my ethnicity is not the entirety of who I am. I will open up if I want to about my ethnicity.”
Rho is comfortable with her Asian-American identity and her Filipino background, but not everyone feels this way about their cultural or ethnic heritage, so for a stranger to bring it up in an opening question is simply uncomfortable and insensitive.
Asian + American
“People are shocked that I grew up in the South; they cannot comprehend that I grew up in the middle of nowhere Alabama. They then ask me, ‘How was it growing up there?’; but I wonder, would they ask me that question if I was white? My white Alabama friends do not have this problem, but people do not believe that I am Southern. It is like I have to prove that I am from Alabama.”
People act as though it would be impossible for Rho to be from the South because, well, she looks Asians.
“A lot of Asian-Americans struggle with having both identities, not being Asian enough and not being American enough, and it feels like we do not belong anywhere. My dad tells me all the time that I am so American, and it’s true, I am American. I do not feel ‘Asian-enough’ because I don’t speak the language and I do not identify with some of the cultural things.”
Something Rho marvels at, however, is that she can relate to other Filipino and Asian-Americans on their upbringing; because in their own ways, her parents instilled a type of Filipino culture into her as a child. Yet still, when she meets someone who is South Asian, they discredit her because she does not speak Tagalog and was not raised in the Philippines.
“When I try to lean into my Southern side, people say I am not Southern enough because I do not look Southern; and when I try to be friends with Asians, they say I do not fit in with them because I do not completely identify with my Filipino side. [Being Asian-American excludes you from being a part of either group]. I am sure that other Asian-Americans feel the same way [in the fact that] we do not know where we fall on the spectrum.”
When Cultures Collide: Family
Rho goes on the talk about Asian-American and White-American family culture.
“White-American families all hug, and that is foreign to me. In my family, we show love by cooking something or buying gifts. Now, I do a similar thing to show love. But my partner, who is White-American, wants the quality time and touch that she grew up on.”
By seeing both sides of the spectrum, Rho expresses a desire for an emotional bond with her parents that is more akin to what her partner has with her respective family. Yet, for Rho’s family, this is a foreign way of being and it is perhaps incompatible with her parents’ cultural background. Her needs and experiences come from both a Filipino-Asian and a White-American paradigm, and these paradigms may not mesh with each other.
“I have heard other Asian-Americans say that they wanted their parents to talk to them when they were having a bad day as a child, but instead their parents cooked them food and left them alone– because Asians don’t like talking about emotions.”
None of this means that Rho and her parents, or any Asian-American and their respective parents, are not close, but they are connected in a different way and through different practices. This is due to differences in emotional relations and customs, and these frameworks of interacting are imparted onto us through our cultural inheritance. Rho, being from both worlds, knows and lives within both frameworks.
When Cultures Collide: Work
Cultural differences are not just private considerations, they affect the work world as well.
“At work, someone brought up a question that you should never ask specific Asian cultures, and this question is, ‘Tell me about a time that you have failed?’. This question is impossible to answer because it is instilled within particular Asian cultures, Korean culture specifically, to not talk about failures. Again, I am American, so I do not mind talking about my failures. My co-worker, however, is Korean, and he struggled with that question in his interview because of this cultural difference.”
When Cultures Integrate
I ask Rho, “What are some things you wish White-Americans or Asian-Americans did that the other group does not do? And how do you think these two cultures can mesh?”
Rho replies, “I will cook an extravagant meal for my partner to show her I love her. For her, I know she will want to sit down and talk about our day was as we eat. That does not come naturally to me, but it has been really good for me. The giving part that I have, cooking food, is great and I get that from my family. But the quality time that she wants is also from her family and it is a great thing for me to have and practice with her.”
The purpose of this conversation is to understand how the same question has multiple meanings depending on who it is directed towards, and how we can build an understanding of individual differences through conversations and active listening.
“We haven’t all lived the same lives, and we all feel attacked, trigger, and hurt by different things because, well, we are different. I hope we get to a point in culture where people say, ‘Oh I am so sorry you experienced that,’ rather than telling someone they are being ridiculous or negating their experiences. I do not expect to understand the systemic racism that Black-Americans have experienced, but I can understand that it is wrong and I can acknowledge and validate their struggle.”
The same should be true for all people in the world; as we work to create a more aware society, we must come to see, acknowledge, and respect our differences. This is not done by pointing out differences in conversations. It can be done by understanding that the words that we say carry a different meaning depending on the person we are talking to. It is a task of empathy, awareness, and acknowledged ignorance—you have not had the same experiences as someone else, so you will not know what triggers and affects them, just as I do not know what triggers and affects you. The beauty in all of this is that we are trying to better understand one another, and this effort is what is essential at the present moment. It is about trying to understand, trying to listen, and trying to change.