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Where are you from?

by Florence Yee February 16, 2016
Where are you from?

Asking questions about ethnicity and culture can be a sensitive topic

From curious strangers questioning me in public, to friends with a rabid curiosity, I often get asked the dreaded question: “Where are you from?”

Graphic by Florence Yee.

Graphic by Florence Yee.

My usual response is “I’m from Montreal,” but I can sense it’s never a satisfactory answer. I then realize this question is a product of my personal appearance as a visible minority, being of Chinese descent.

So either consciously or subconsciously, their racial prejudice conjures up a narrative of my personal history based on my perceived ethnicity.

They assume that I couldn’t just be from here. One might be thinking that is it just more likely that visible minorities, especially Asians, aren’t “from here.”

According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey about Asian Pacific immigration, a reported 778,100 people immigrated to Canada before 1990, while 1,860,305 came after.

That means that 42 per cent, with the numbers from 2011 which have surely increased since, of immigrants have been here for at least 26 years and likely have children that were born in Canada as well. Reducing many ethnicities to ‘permanent immigrants,’ regardless of their experience, would be disrespectful.

Even if it were true that most visible minorities are immigrants, individuals should not be treated as such, so as to avoid making sweeping generalizations.

Even if I’m innocently approached by a stranger claiming to “know my culture,” they are automatically assuming I retain any of my Asian cultural practices.  

Ethnic Europeans can relinquish their ethnic origins if they want and assimilate into North American culture within years, calling themselves simply ‘Canadian.’

No matter how many generations the families have lived in Canada, Asians are still perceived as different and exotic, thus objectifying foreign cultures. The double standard of integration gives freedom to the former, but imposes a narrow narrative for the latter.

If I find myself in China and they ask me where I’m from, the answer is Canada.

I am so disconnected from Chinese politics, ideas, and contemporary ways of life that I can’t possibly relate to that nationality. Furthermore, if I admit to strangers that my ancestry is from China, it’ll only lead to further stereotyping and categorizing.

It’s definitely rude to ask, “what’s your sexual orientation?” out of nowhere, so it should be equally rude to ask “Where are you from?”

My cultural background is a big part of who I am, but so is my sexual orientation and my religion (or lack thereof). It’s personal information that I might not want to share with a complete stranger. If being Chinese is important to me, it’ll come up on its own.

In fact, it did last weekend because it was Lunar New Year (Happy new year, everyone!). The same goes for Chinese people who were actually born in China and who are enthusiastic about their homeland. They will tell you. Don’t worry.

The question does bother me on a more fundamental level as well because I would like to feel at home in my home country. I care about belonging and not being considered an outsider in the only place I’ve lived. Pluralistic societies can’t operate without acknowledging the diversity of its people and their complex stories.

As with any group of people, the experience of immigration in a family is not a monolith. Some may take more pride in identifying with their ethnic culture rather than their national culture. There is no best way of dealing with integration.

We need to recognise how personal of a question asking someone’s ethnic background can be. That is why we should let the person in question bring up their ancestry on their own terms.

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