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Can I Ask Where You’re From?

I’m standing at the till, and I’m torn. The cashier has, without a word, glanced at the washing up liquid on the counter, looked up at my face, and then squeaked, ‘where are you from?’.

This, technically, isn’t a difficult question. I know where I was born, I know where I live, I know where my parents are from. But it’s difficult in a lot of other ways.

I’m extremely proud of my mixed heritage and everything both it, and I, stand for. It’s taken me a good few years of diversions and confusion to get to this point. But I’m here and I’m proud. I would happily talk about my history and my family until the cows come home, and then when they’ve bedded down, too. But that isn’t what the cashier is asking for. And even though I’ve been asked this same question in this exact circumstance a million times before, something in me feels frustrated this time. Maybe it’s a culmination of all of those incidents before, finally reaching a head.

The cashier didn’t ask the woman in front of me where she was from. She was white and had an English accent (and perfect wavy hair). To be frank, he probably didn’t care if she was from Woking or Devon, so he didn’t ask. He decided she was English, from England, and that was enough.

Him asking me this question already tacitly implies that I’m different. And not just different from the girl over there who doesn’t have a spot under her nose. Not just different in the way that we’re all different. He was hankering for something else, and I get it. This is nothing new. Even just from my appearance, I fall under the category of ‘different different’.  I accept this, embrace it, even. So I try my hand at a new tactic to see why I feel so negatively about this interaction.

“England,” I reply.

“No, but where are you FROM?” he immediately shoots back, shaking his head as if I’m playing a game, teasing him.

In that moment, as he’s scanning my bottle of Fairy Liquid and waiting for my answer, something else enters my brain. Taiye Selasi’s TED talk. In it, the author speaks about the error of the term ‘from’, when describing your background. It’s so ingrained in our small talk lexicon – ‘where are you from?’. But she believes that we aren’t ‘from’ places as much as we’re ‘local’ to them, those places being where you’ve had your greatest, and most, experiences. She says, ‘You can take my passport but not my experiences’. So, going by her theory, I’m not from London or Hong Kong, but local to them, along with Southampton, where I studied, and Somerset, where I grew up.

I decide not to embark on this journey aloud to the cashier because I still haven’t decided if I agree with Taiye. Plus, I’m not difficult when it comes to talking about my ethnicity. I’m not sensitive or weird about it. I’m more than happy to feed and engage with open, curious minds, especially in a time of increasing racism and intolerance. But there are different approaches – and I realise this is why I’m irked.

To me, a good approach is a completely honest, polite one that follows, at the very least, a greeting, or an exchange of words.

‘I hope you don’t mind me asking, but whereabouts are you from?’
‘You look a little like my Chinese friend – do you have a Chinese heritage?’

Being open about your interest, rather than oxymoronically barking the question at me while awkwardly skirting around it, makes me want to talk to you about it. If you’re not afraid to ask in the first place, then why are you afraid to take ownership of your curiosity?

A bad approach is one that comes with no previous chat or conversation, and is loaded with judgement and the kind of short tone that implies I, the ‘different one’, am obligated to answer. Like I’ll look weird if I don’t. Like you have a right to know.

With no greeting, no entryway:
‘Where are you from?’ AKA you look different, you’re clearly not from around here, or one of us.
Or, worst of all, ‘are you Asian?’ AKA you look like you’d fall into that bracket.
(To which the answer in my head is always, ‘I’m half Chinese, not Indian, Malaysian, Sri Lankan, Japanese, or any of the many other races within the Asian continent, so I don’t know how to reply to that’).

As I hand over the cash, I answer.

“My dad is Chinese.”

It’s the truth, and it gives him a chunk of what he’s looking for. Not the whole thing, not “Hong Kong” or “I’m Chinese” – more solid answers I believe he expected – but enough to satisfy his question and make me feel a little less like the garish ladybird among uniform ants than usual.

It’s probably worth me reiterating, I love it when people inquire into my fat nose and off-white skin (within reason. No one should go around telling people they have fat noses). I love sharing my history. But there are ways and words that say one thing, and ways and words that say something entirely different when you look between the lines.

I don’t believe that questions should be used as vehicles for offloading preconceived notions people might have. They should simply be honest questions. And curiosity and politeness can be mutually exclusive.

The cashier seems pleased with my answer and nods his head, as if he knew all along. Maybe he did. As I walk away, I hear a silence as he serves the next customer. No hello and no question.


[Photo: Keep Your Ear To The Ground]

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