“Where Are You Really From?”

When I started reading Where are you really from? Asian Americans and the perpetual foreigner syndrome by Frank H. Wu I was shocked because I hadn’t realized that it was offensive to ask someone about their heritage.

“Where are you from?” is a question I like answering.

“Where are you really from?” is a question I really hate answering.

“Where are you from?” is a question we all routinely ask one another upon meeting a new person.

“Where are you really from?” is a question some of us tend to ask others of us very selectively.

For Asian Americans, the questions frequently come paired like that. Among ourselves, we can even joke nervously about how they just about define the Asian American experience. More than anything else that unifies us, everyone with an Asian face who lives in America is afflicted by the perpetual foreigners syndrome. We are figuratively and even literally returned to Asia and ejected from America.

Often the inquisitor reacts as if I am being silly if I reply, “I was born in Cleveland, and I grew up in Detroit,” or bored by a detailed chronology of my many moves around the country: “Years ago, I went to college in Baltimore; I used to practice law in San Francisco; and now I live in Washington, DC.”

Sometimes she reacts as if I am obstreperous if I return the question, “And where are you really from?”

But as I read on, it dawned on me that it isn’t offensive to ask that. What is offensive is to assume that just because someone doesn’t look like you they do not share the same citizenship as you or that they aren’t more Canadian or American (or British, or whatever) than you are; by more I mean having actually been born in the country. There are a lot of Canadians of Asian decent who have lived in Canada longer than I have.

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