“Where are you from?” doesn’t clarify, it categorizes

One of the questions that constantly annoys and irritates I and many fellow Third Culture Kids is the dreaded “Where are you from?” that no matter how many times we are asked, it doesn’t seem to get easier to answer, let alone tolerate.

I’d like to share a story from when I lived in Los Angeles. When I was trying to sleep one evening, some drunk girl started yelling and making noise around 3:00am, waking me up (and very likely, the rest of the apartment building). I then stepped out and asked her politely to please be quiet, as we are all sleeping. Her response was to yell louder and say “I’m drunk, I don’t care!” So I approached her a little more closely and put my finger to my mouth while exclaiming “Shhhhh”. Here is where it starts to get annoying and interesting.

Her immediate response is “Where are you from? That’s rude, nobody, not even my mom says ‘Shhh!’ Where are you from? Where are you from?!”

It was then that I realized that hostility and drunkenness aside, the notorious question of “Where are you from?” suddenly showed its true colors.

Obviously, in this situation, the girl wasn’t really interested in knowing more about me, she was looking for a reason to explain and rationalize any bias or discrimination she already had from a brief interaction with me.

So, when asking a person “Where are you from?” it highlights the differences you notice about him or her when comparing the individual against you and your default criteria for what is “normal” and how one “should be”.

Is it my accent? The clothes I wear? My values and morals? My ambiguous ethnicity? My mannerisms? What is it about my character that makes me appear “foreign” to people? What is it that makes me an “other” instead of a fellow human being? Why do “foreign”, “different”, “other” and “outsider” all end up having a negative association?

Whether or not one is a Third Culture Kid, the question “Where are you from?” really needs to be purged from our vernacular. At best, it’s an unintentional jab that creates distance and keeps people in the mind frame of categorizing and separating people by their “otherness” instead of a perspective that is more inclusive. At worst, it’s insinuating that because of my “foreignness” and “otherness”, I am not and will never have a chance to be included in the “normalcy” that is proposed and reinforced by the parochial and petty people who sadly make up the majority of people in the world.

But, ever the optimist and courtier, I believe that as offensive as encounters like with the bigoted drunken girl can be, it’s an advantage to those with worldly mindsets and an opportunity to practice controlling our actions rather than reacting and overreacting. For those who have traveled between cultures or have had cross-cultural encounters, we have a plethora of experiences to draw from to remind us that in the cosmic sense, these individuals are just one of many, and we aren’t forced to be stuck with their judgmental eyes and words–there are many societies, cultures, and peoples all around the world, and we don’t have to stay in any one place forever. Los Angeles is just one place, this girl is just one girl; get on a plane to Brazil and I can guarantee that experience won’t even be a joke to be shared with other travelers at a pub, not even to express how “Americans are rude” because that’s falling into the trap of separating people into “others”.

This experience also reminds me that I have the advantage from the experience and the wisdom that comes from it, in that I can step outside the moment and not allow myself to be affected or offended by someone’s categorizing and discrimination. My old high school teacher Mr. Belkin used to ask me why I allowed myself to let these kids in high school get me down when they made fun of me. He asked me if I got offended when a squatter living underneath a bridge in Metro Manila, illiterate, uneducated, on drugs, and with nothing to offer society, insulted me because he thought my business suit looked ugly to him. As I answered “No, he doesn’t know any better”, my teacher then said “Neither do your fellow high school kids–and as you will eventually learn, college kids, and soon after that, most people in the world don’t know any better–nor do they want to.”

The money and the experience of the worldly don’t make us better, it’s the conscious choice to adopt a worldly attitude (regardless of experience) that gets us ahead and allows us to avoid separating different people into “others” and separating ourselves into “others” as well. The difference is, with those experiences we have had, we are able to draw from them and learn more on a personal level that lets us be more conscious and considerate of the different peoples and cultures, since we have seen them firsthand as opposed to many who see stereotypes or exotic images in television, movies, video games, and fiction.

So who am I then for being foreign, other, and different in the eyes of the different peoples I encounter throughout the world? That’s not important. What’s important is, people will make assumptions and look for whatever is different, to separate people as “foreigners” and “others” to justify the distance and exclusion they create, both knowingly and unknowingly. As soon as they ask “Where are you from?”, be prepared to know where you stand in their eyes without rolling your own or trying to change their opinion.

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3 responses to ““Where are you from?” doesn’t clarify, it categorizes

  1. I think it isn’t necessarily the question “Where do you come from?” that TCKs find difficult, it is the response they get back that they find difficult. TCKs usually like to blend in and feel accepted and they know that this particular question as you say will often be greeted with a negative reaction of some sort if answered ‘incorrectly’. Answering the same question from a TCK is a pleasure. To be asked from a non TCK either means that they think that somehow you do not fit in or will soon find out that in their mind you do not fit in.
    Strangely, I have actually been in a situation where being considered an ‘outsider’ was fun. Growing up as a white person in Nigeria you are immediately considered an outsider by most as you stand out from the crowd of black people around you. To then go to Ghana with a team from the UK was an experience. I had no problem with culture shock, but one of the team was black. I thought it was so funny that he had never been to Africa and all the local people in Ghana thought he was Ghanaian and I was English. I had the pleasure of being spoken directly in English and he had the frustration of being addressed in the local language of wherever we cared to visit. I wonder if it was wrong of me to take so much delight in his frustrations?

  2. Where are you from is a question that for a TCK implies that someone will judge you depending on what response they get. For a TCK a great deal of the responses that could be given would mean they will be judged in a negative manner. It almost feels like you have a dirty secret that they will descover if you answer the question.

  3. lifelongbruin

    I think your high school teacher said it best. It’s a sad thing indeed. Makes me wonder why I even try sometimes.

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