The Student News Site of Monta Vista High School

El Estoque

The Student News Site of Monta Vista High School

El Estoque

The Student News Site of Monta Vista High School

El Estoque

Where are you really from?

Diving into people’s perspectives of this multi-layered question

As English teacher Derek Lu was enjoying his time on a first date in San Diego, his mood suddenly changed when he was confronted with a statement that left him unsettled. 

“He just suddenly blurted, ‘Oh, your English is really good. You must be from here.’” Lu said.

Lu traces this experience back to the question, “Where are you really from?” seeing his date’s comment as a variation of it. He adds that as an Asian American, similar to many in the Bay Area, he is often asked the question, “Where are you from?” not as a way of finding out his hometown, or where he was born, but rather as a way of finding out which country his parents immigrated from, or his ethnicity. 

He finds that this provocative question resonates with many of his own students at MVHS as well. He remembers that one of his students was asked a similar question while on vacation in Florida, being one of the few brown families there.

MVHS alum ‘23 Annika Lee feels that the question “Where are you really from?” is accusatory. Especially when directed towards Asian Americans like them, Lee finds this question to hold further implications of what it means to be an American and acts as a mechanism to find out someone’s ethnicity without explicitly saying the word “ethnicity.” Lee breaks down the perspective of the asker.

Asha Wojciechowski

“The idea that America is white dominant, it’s the idea that, if you are not white, you must be from somewhere else. If you were not born in America, you cannot be an American citizen. It’s just racism.” Lee said.

Expanding on this, Lee adds that in white-dominant America, the American identity is usually connected to buying into the capitalistic myth of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” believing that Americans are inherently superior to other countries, as well as viewing the world through a neo-imperialistic or neo-colonialist lens. 

Nick Chivers, who has taught Communications Studies at De Anza College for 10 years, connects this “lens,” belonging to the white majority in America, to the racist ideologies behind asking someone the question “Where are you really from?”

“It’s very important to remember that in these systems of power where there’s that dominant cultural group, just that subtle phrase of, ‘you’re not from here’ reinforces the idea that the asker of the question is ‘normal’ and the receiver of the question is not,” Chivers said.

Lu agrees with Chiver’s described relationship between the question “Where are you really from” and racial bias, connecting it back to his first date experience. 

“Especially looking at it now, with the perspectives that I have through life experience and particularly studying ethnic studies in college, I think it’s just impossible to separate racial prejudice from that question,” Lu said. “The idea that like, ‘Oh, I speak really good English, so I must be from here,’ assumes that immigrants can’t also speak fluent English. I just have to wonder, if he were dating a white man or a white European immigrant, would he even have asked that question to begin with?”

However, Lee finds that sometimes, people ask the question out of genuine curiosity in an effort to learn more about someone and their ethnicity, but don’t know how to go about doing so in a way that isn’t a microaggression. Chivers also acknowledges the tricky slope of navigating the question and finds that there are several factors that impact the weight of the question. He establishes that the effects of the question can depend on the intent and the impact.

“We have to take responsibility for not just our intent, but also the impact,” Chivers said. “Asking the question once is just the tiniest little slight, but if the receiver of the question is asked this question over and over and over and over again throughout their lives, that starts to become a very heavy weight. If the question asker is from these dominant cultural groups, and they’re asking the question to somebody in a minority cultural group, even if the speaker’s intent is good, the impact could be ultimately pretty harmful, because of the cumulative effect of the microaggressions. If both the asker and the person being asked are both in that minority cultural group, nobody finds offense in that — it feels genuine and like a relevant question to ask.”

Lu echoes Chivers’ point and finds that as a person of color, if he were to ask the question it wouldn’t hold the same racial charge compared to if someone from a white background were to ask it. Contradictory to Lee, he believes that even if the question stemmed out of genuine curiosity, it would devolve into the form of condescending remarks he experienced on his first date.

However, it would be wrong to say that every person of the many from diverse cultural backgrounds in America would be offended by such remarks. Lee finds that some people may be offended by the question while others may not, because of how accustomed someone is to being the target of similar questions.

“That was one thing I noticed when I was talking with someone in college,” Lee said. “I was asking her, “Oh, where are you from?” And she said, ‘India.’ I was like, ‘Oh, sorry. I meant, which part of the state are you from?’ And then she said she was used to people asking that of her. Whereas this other time, one of my dormmates was being asked by this person, ‘Oh, you’re not American. Where are you really from?’ And she was just really confused. I think I was a little bit more offended on her behalf than she was.”

After his experience in San Diego, Lu strives to stick up for himself more in the future and be blunt with his responses when he encounters a similar situation. 

“I’m not going to take the bulls***, if you’ll excuse my language,” Lu said. “If you really want to know where my ancestors are from, come out and say it. Don’t beat around the bush about it, you know?”

Overall, Chivers stresses the importance of language and communication when it comes to interactions with each other and ourselves. 

“How I see you, how you see me, how I see myself and you see yourself, all of that is built with communication,” Chivers said. “One way or another, if somebody says that the phrase, ‘Where are you from?’ is hurtful, we can’t disregard that. Then, we have to consider and weigh that and try to do the best we can to communicate in ways that are ethical and good. Words matter, [so] you have to choose them carefully.”

About the Contributors
Megha Mummaneni, Opinion Editor
Megha Mummaneni is currently a junior and an opinion editor for El Estoque. She plays the flute in the Monta Vista Marching Band, and enjoys reading YA murder mystery novels and texting her friends.
Asha Wojciechowski, Staff Writer
Asha Wojciechowski is a sophomore and staff writer for El Estoque. In her free time you can find her listening to music, reading her favorite novels over and over again or playing her favorite rhythm games.
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