I would like to explain to my friends who are not Asian-American why it is so annoying to be asked where you are "really" from. This message is for people who are open to persuasion, committed to equality, and interested in interacting with real individuals instead of simple stereotypes. As I do this, I know that I will be successful only to a limited extent. Some strangers will persist in their disrespect, showing that it is intentional and not merely negligence.
I am not the only one who makes this objection. Almost all Asian-Americans, who would call themselves by that name, have been exasperated by the same experience. The concern we have is about civil rights, not etiquette.
Here is where I am coming from, literally and figuratively. I'm from Detroit. Yes, that's right. And I'm proud of the Motor City. My roots are in the magnificent wreck that it remains. I would not be who I am if I had other origins.
It is true, and I suffer no embarrassment about it, that my parents were immigrants from Taiwan. They are ethnically Chinese. They came separately more than fifty years ago. After retiring, my folks returned to Taiwan and then spent a stint on mainland China, but they ultimately found their way back to the United States. When my mother passed away, my father had no doubt that her final resting place would be in America, because that is where her children belong.
When I am asked, as all of us are, where I am from, I reply without hesitation. I'm from Detroit -- the nation's heartland. I have visited Taiwan, but I have never lived there. I did not journey "back" to China until well into adulthood, and I am sure I could not make a living there. The culture within which I am comfortable is on this side of the Pacific Ocean, not the other side -- although I am at ease over there, too. My patriotic allegiance is clear enough to me: in the event of conflict between China and the United States, I am on the side of my homeland -- and it is obvious to me anyway, what is that homeland.
I am a native. I have no accent -- well, we all have accents, only some more "normal" than others, and I can pass the telephone test. I attend church. I don't know what else I can do to establish my bona fides; my efforts ironically become excessive, and what is earnest can be mocked.
Yet standing in the line at the movie theatre, attending a reception before a fancy dinner, meeting potential new colleagues on a job interview, I continue to be prodded. I can talk about the Detroit Tigers baseball team and their 1984 World Series winning season all I want. (My nephew gave me for Christmas last year a pair of cufflinks with their old English "D" logo.)
The familiar follow up, accompanied by furrowing of the brows by those irate with my impertinence or a laugh by those who don't take me seriously, is, "Yes, yes -- but where, where are you really from?"
The additional of the one word, its emphasis, is much more than the interlocutor realizes. It is a statement that I am a liar, a fraud, not a real American.
"Oh, come on," I can hear someone interject, "Don't be hypersensitive and politically correct."
Before I elaborate, here are the caveats.
There is nothing wrong with being from Taiwan or China. There is nothing wrong with saying that either. Depending on the context, my relatives would reply either Taiwan or China.
It's wonderful that people want to learn about difference. They want to establish a relationship. All of us are curious. We want to place people within our geography of experience. We want to situate ourselves, vis a vis one another: perhaps without being aware of it, we are getting at whether we have had contact with "your people" and hence should we trust you.
The reasons Asian-Americans -- which includes people who are assimilated as well as those who are adopted -- take offense at what feels like an interrogation are the same reasons anyone else would. Imagine if after declaring what your name was, someone said, "tell me about your racial background; you know, your ancestry, your heritage."
Most people would object. Even if the query appears friendly, it is uninvited and hence unwelcome. It's an intrusion, rejecting a person's identity and turning them into a representative of an ethnicity. I am not here as a guide to the Great Wall or what to order at dim sum. Small talk tells us more than what is on the surface. The subject -- not weather, but how come the Chinese don't respect intellectual property rights -- is prompted as if we were following a script.
The problem is that only some of us are challenged. A white person, Anglo, not "swarthy," is accepted for what he is. The inequality is troubling. On occasion, when a well-meaning bigot (a term I use deliberately) tries to excuse this phenomenon of treating Asian-Americans as perpetual foreigners, he makes it worse. He is puzzled, why someone with an Asia face would be surprised to be taken for a tourist. He says it is only probabilities at play; there are so many Asians who have just arrived after all. He reveals the assumptions at work. "American" means "white." (Likewise, Latinos whose families were on the land before it was annexed are deemed aliens.)
What is worse is what seems innocent turns out, all too often, to be anything but. When I decline to divulge my bloodline, the reaction is not amicable. "Where are you really from" starts the sequence of stereotyping. It is a prelude, to establish the basis for the claim that Asians cannot be trusted. It leads to exclusion, internment, and hate crimes.
We are wary, because we end up on the receiving end of the command to "Go back to where you came from!" Historically, what has been said about Asian Americans is that we cannot be; we are an oxymoron. Today, Asian Americans are suspected to be spies.
To my friends who shrug, insisting they would not take umbrage at detailing their pedigree if asked, I say this: our encounters are not abstract but asymmetrical, and you would respond very differently if your loyalty were put to proof daily.