August 08, 2019

“But, where are you really from?”

As a woman with Southeast Asian ethnicity living in Europe you’ll stick out of the crowd more often than you’d like to. Particularly, because people never seem too tired to remind you over and over again that you are Asian and not white like the majority of the people surrounding you – as if you would otherwise forget about that fact. One way to do so is to ask the very popular question: ‘But, where are you really from’- which oftentimes comes after the first question ‘Where are you from’ – because people don’t seem to be happy with the first answer they get, so they ask for another. It’s like a sweater you tried on but you are not happy with, so you’d rather have it in a different colour. What people aren’t aware of is that they’re not asking where I am really from – because that question is already answered by me telling them that I grew up in Germany. What they are actually asking is ‘Why do you look different (than white people)?’ – thereby pointing out that you are a foreigner and implicating that you belong to the out-group and not the in-group – and no-one wants to belong to the out-group. No-one wants to feel left out or excluded. It doesn’t matter how many times your mom tells you you are special – you just want to belong.

Other ways to remind you of your otherness involve the use of stereotypes, like: ‘You’re Asian, so you must be good at school, huh?!’ And then, when you answer with something like ‘Well, that’s racist’ – people get defensive which in turn leads to an even more awkward situation. One time, I was travelling by myself and staying at a hostel. I was waiting in the lobby for a friend when I noticed a Caucasian woman in her sixties staring at me from the other side of the room. A couple of minutes later, she sat next to me and asked, ‘Are you from Hong Kong’? I said ‘No, are you?’ (in my mind I was giggling about my joke but I guess you needed to be there to understand my amusement). She said ‘No’ (unfortunately, unaware of my joke) and asked again (because asking that question once didn’t seem enough): ‘Are you from Hong Kong’. I said ‘No’ – again. She followed up with: ‘Are your parents from Hong Kong – I am searching for people from Hong Kong.’ I have had enough of these questions by then, so I replied ‘No they are not, and it’s racist to assume that I am.’ She was quite puzzled by my answer, started muttering something in a low voice that I couldn’t understand and looked down at a magazine she was suddenly fiddling with. I got back to the book I was reading while waiting for my friend. After a few minutes, she stood up, walked around the lobby a bit disoriented and sat down at the other side of the room, probably pretending this all never happened.