How to ask someone where they’re “really” from


Recently, a former lady-in-waiting to the queen resigned from her position at Buckingham Palace after a Black woman, who leads a charity helping victims of domestic abuse and violence, spoke up about an uncomfortable conversation that the two of them had had at a Palace event.

As context, this was the summary of the conversation, as recounted by the charity founder.

Lady SH: Where are you from?

Me: Sistah Space.

SH: No, where do you come from?

Me: We’re based in Hackney.

SH: No, what part of Africa are you from?

Me: I don’t know, they didn’t leave any records.

SH: Well, you must know where you’re from, I spent time in France. Where are you from?

Me: Here, the UK.

SH: No, but what nationality are you?

Me: I am born here and am British.

SH: No, but where do you really come from, where do your people come from?

Me: ‘My people’, lady, what is this?

SH: Oh I can see I am going to have a challenge getting you to say where you’re from. When did you first come here?

Me: Lady! I am a British national, my parents came here in the 50s when…

SH: Oh, I knew we’d get there in the end, you’re Caribbean!

I knew exactly how she felt in that moment because this is so, so familiar. As an Asian American, this has happened to me so many times throughout my lifetime that I’ve lost count. I’ll be sitting there by myself, quietly minding my own business, and some stranger will suddenly decide that they absolutely must find out all the details of my ancestry, or the world will collapse into itself or something.

In the last couple of months alone, this has happened to me twice on the bus, in Geneva, Switzerland, where I live.

Experience #1

*Woman gets on the bus and sits down on the empty seat next to me*

Woman: *in English* Hello, do you speak English?

Me: Yes.

Woman: Is this bus going to the train station?

Me: Yes, it is. It’s just three stops away.

Woman: *Notices my American accent* Where are you from?

Me: I’m from the US.

Woman: Oh, I’m from the US. I live in New York, I just came here on vacation.

Me: That’s cool.

Woman: But where in Asia are you from?

Me: I’m from the United States.

Woman: But you’re obviously Asian. I mean, what country are you from?

Me: The US.

Of course I knew what she was getting at. But all I was trying to do was live my life, take the bus, and run my errands. It was none of her business what my ethnicity and family background were. I was not obligated to share my personal life with her, and so I did not. Instead, I politely rebuffed her questions. She finally gave up, and when she got off at the train station, we said goodbye and I wished her safe travels home to New York.

Experience #2

*Man gets on the bus and sits down on the empty seat next to me*

Man: *in French* Excuse me. Do you speak French?

Me: Yes.

Man: Are you from China?

Me: I’m from the United States.

Man: So you are not from China? Nevertheless, there is an interesting fact I want to tell you about China. I just read about it.

Me: Okay.

Man: I read that because of the one-child policy in China, many people choose to not have daughters. So now there are many more men than there are women in China, it’s a huge ratio of [whatever it was]! Can you believe it?

Me: Wow, yeah, that’s interesting.

Man: How long have you been learning French? Your French is very good.

Me: Thank you. I’ve been learning French for three years.

Man: *points to a building outside* You see this place? This is a school. I took French classes here, some years ago, when I first came here from Turkey. Now I speak Turkish, French, and English.

Me: That’s great.

I got the sense that the guy was a little oddball but just lonely and wanted to talk to someone. We had a pleasant conversation, and I wished him good night as I disembarked.

You may have noticed that both of these questioners were not “from” Switzerland. In fact, in my day-to-day life here, I very rarely get questions from Swiss or French people about my ethnic origin. People ask me where I’m from, I say “the US”, and they just leave it at that. Sometimes they’ll follow up with “what city?” and I’ll tell them DC.

Also, in my personal experience, it’s not only white people who ask these kinds of probing questions. I actually get asked “no, where are you really from?” by Black folks just as much as white folks. The lady on the bus in the example I gave above was a Black American.

And I understand why. People are curious. I’ve had people say to me, “I love different international cultures” as a way of justifying their question. And you know what? That’s great. Good for you. By all means, try different cuisines. Travel to other countries. Learn new languages and watch foreign TV shows. Research your own family genealogy and tell it to anyone who’s willing to listen. That’s your choice.

But: if someone else doesn’t want to tell you about their family history or immigration background, back off. That’s clearly personal, and you’re not entitled to it. They don’t owe you anything. Strangers especially don’t owe you anything.

I’m forever baffled by people who, despite having been given clear answers by me (“I’m American”; “I’m from DC”; “I grew up in Atlanta”), push them aside dismissively. “But where were you born?” they ask, incredulous that someone who looked like me could be an American like them, confident that asking about my place of birth would be the “gotcha” question that would help them solve the ethnicity guessing game in their mind.

I never give them that satisfaction. I’m happy to tell them about my background, my family, my love for Chinese culture and art and music. But they’re going to have to get to know me first. We need to develop a rapport. They have to first see me as a human being, a fellow American who likes junk food and online shopping and wasting time browsing Instagram stories. Not just some Asian face that they’re trying to put into a box (Chinese? Japanese? Korean? Lord knows they won’t be able to rest until they find out).

The other day, a coworker and I were chatting about holiday plans. He’s from Central Asia, and we’d had some friendly conversations in the past. I asked, casually, “Oh, do you celebrate Christmas? Are you Muslim or Orthodox Christian?”

My coworker paused for a moment. Then he said, “I find that religion is a very personal matter. I’d prefer not to answer that.”

“Oh,” I said. “Of course. I’m sorry.”

I had pushed against his boundaries without giving it any thought, and he had explained to me what his boundaries were. I apologized and stepped back, and we continued to have a normal, friendly conversation. In the moment, I had felt embarrassed for myself. I had been intrusive. I worried that I had maybe offended him.

But later, after having had time to digest this, I felt my mindset shift. He had asserted his boundaries in a firm but gentle way, without making the issue bigger than it was. As someone who still struggles with emotional immaturity, I definitely learned something from him that day.

Ultimately, is there a respectful way to ask a person of color where they’re “really” from? I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, there are a couple of possibilities that are fine. For instance:

  • “That’s a beautiful name. May I know what language it comes from?”
  • “Is it OK if I ask what your ethnicity is?”
  • “Is it OK if I ask what your heritage is?”

Again, this should not be the first or second question to ask someone that you don’t know — unless they’re literally dressed in special attire and have just performed a traditional dance at a cultural festival or something. If someone is just going about their day and minding their own business, take a cue from them and spare them the 20 questions. Oh, and get off Twitter. I don’t care what side of the political aisle you’re on. That website is poison. The end.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s