Things people say to Asian Americans at music conferences
#1 Where are you *really* from?
“Where are you from?” asked the elderly British gentleman seated next to me.
We were at a music conference in Los Angeles. Expecting a modicum of political correctness when attending business functions, I was mildly annoyed at the question.
“Canada,” I replied with a smile.
“But where is your family originally from,” he insisted.
“Oh. Well, I was born in Canada, but my family’s from Africa. They live on an African island”
“But you look… Asian,” he said intrigued.
At this point, I had a very visceral desire to scream and was trying really hard to maintain a calm exterior. Sensing some reticence, he encouraged:
“You see my wife’s from Taiwan and we live in Japan. So I was just curious what your background is. Are you Japanese? Chinese?”
Thankfully, the next panel started and I was able to ignore him without being impolite. I know that he meant no harm and was just ignorantly trying to make conversation. He probably had no idea just how uncomfortable it feels to be on the other side of these benign questions. Many of my progressive non-Asian friends didn’t know either. If you don’t either, here’s why:
No one ever asks white people where they’re really from after they’ve given an answer. No one asks them if their ancestors were vikings, or normans, or from the Spanish inquisition, Jewish, Italian or Irish. If they were born in Germany, they say they’re German and we accept that. If they were born in the U.S., they’re American. Nobody ever asks “but what kind of white person are you?” Everyone takes them at their word. So why can’t they take me at my word? Why is it ok for the color of my skin, the shape of my eyes, be enough to deprive me of the same privilege of calling my birth country home? Why do I need to provide a background that is more satisfactorily exotic?
Perhaps more poignantly, why am I required to satisfy white people’s mild curiosity about my ethnicity for the sake of small talk when my ethnicity is something I am still struggling to define?