“Where are you from?”
I’ve been confronted by this microaggression – poorly disguised as an innocent question – dozens of times. However, I think this encounter I recently had at a debate tournament with a middle-aged white ma is the most memorable one by far. Let’s call him Pete’s Dad. I was eating lunch alone outside when Pete’s Dad suddenly approached me.
“Are you a student? I say that because I can’t tell if you’re 28 or 18, you know with Asians… So, where are you from? No, I mean, where is your history? Oh! I was in Hong Kong about three years ago and spent some time in Asia, so I’m very familiar with your culture… I bet you speak like five languages, and you moved here from California, right?”
Let’s break this offensive mess down, shall we?
“I can’t tell if you’re 28 or 18, you know with Asians.”
Whoa there, Pete’s Dad. I know you’re trying to compliment me (a compliment you’ve broadly applied to billions of other Asians around the world), but don’t you know that Asians have a long history of being infantilized and how this stereotype causes Asians to be perceived as meek and powerless? This infantilizing also eroticizes Asian women and emasculates Asian men. When people fetishize Asian women for their “cute eyes,” “small feet,” or “porcelain skin,” they appropriate features that Asian women are constantly ridiculed for. They implicate the excruciating foot binding born from patriarchal standards and praise the colorism deeply rooted in East Asian culture. Whether these microaggressions are intentional or not, it is the 21st century.
In an increasingly interconnected world, people with access to educational resources (Google, for example) really have no excuse not to educate themselves.
“So, where are you from? No, I mean, where is your history?”
As Columbia Professor Derald Sue puts it, “The impact to the person receiving that persistent questioning is that you are not a true American, you are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.” Even if the question is innocuously asked, the implication of it is that “they are not in contact with their unconscious world view that only true Americans look a certain way: blond hair, blue eyes.” As someone born and raised in Texas, I shouldn’t have to be constantly questioned about my status as an American; it’s unquestionable. In fact, you shouldn’t even have to be born in this country to identify as an American.
“I’m very familiar with your culture.”
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a variation of this statement, from weeaboos to people who’ve taken a brief trip to an Asian country. They think that just because they’ve binge-watched every episode of their favorite anime, learned how to count to 10 in Korean, or eaten with chopsticks, that this qualifies them as an honorary Asian (and yes, I’ve actually witnessed a white boy in my class call himself an “honorary Asian”). I hope they’ll realize that there is no way to quantify the complexities and subcategories of cultures within Asia’s 48 countries. I don’t even pretend to know everything there is to know about my culture, nor does my mother, who lived in Hong Kong for 27 years.
“I bet you speak like five languages, and you moved here from California, right?”
This final comment just exuded sheer ignorance. Just because most white people in the United States can only speak English (and ironically criticize immigrants for not speaking fluent English while they’re at it) doesn’t mean that every non-white person has to compensate by speaking five languages. Also, your quip about California has some pretty problematic historical implications. From the onset of their migration to the United States during the California Gold Rush in the 1840’s, Asian-Americans were discriminated against by white miners. This resentment culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigrants to “[maintain] white racial purity]” and wasn’t lifted until 1943. Also, even if California does have a high concentration of Asians, there are clearly Asians all over the country who were born in their respective states.
Pete’s Dad, I hope you stumble across this article and clarify your own misguided views on Asian-Americans. I hope you will start viewing us as unique individuals instead of one uniform conglomeration. Most of all, I hope that I will meet you in person again. We’ll have another conversation, and this time, I’ll stop you from constantly interrupting me and mansplaining my own culture to me.
An Asian-American who is actually from America.