Having lived over half my life abroad now and having done a fair bit of traveling, I have constantly been forced to deal with the question of “Where are you from?”.
From the perspective of my physical appearance, the confusion that sets in when I respond with “I’m from the States” is somewhat understandable. The most common response to my answer is, “But, you look Chinese.” In the past, I would get angry or spat back some smart-ass comment, but it is true, I look ‘Chinese’ if one deems all Asians as being Chinese. Not many people even know what a Korean looks like let alone be able to distinguish between the different Asian features. Nowadays, I just simply smile and say, “Yes, I do.” This is because I know any other response will require further conversation which ends up with me explaining that “No, my parents are white. I am adopted.” And, for some reason, having to say that to every person who dares ask me this question, just pisses me off! 😛
From a more emotional or psychological perspective, I am also faced with the reality of “Where am I from?”. I mean, I know I am from Korea. I know I am from the union of my birth mother and birth father’s DNA. However, as an adoptee I constantly am faced with this reality – I don’t know where I am from, not really.
So, I inquire to other adoptees out there – how does this question make you feel?
I was once at the San Diego Zoo with my adoptive parents, my brother and his family. We were resting between areas, having something to eat. An American family (of Indian heritage) was at the next table. My father up and asked them: “Where are you from?”
I cringed. I have always hated this question. Loathed it. Mostly because you can’t win, because it’s not really a question, but an accusation: “You aren’t from here, are you.” It’s a statement of Othering to me.
The mother replied, “We’re from Missouri”. I cheered her, and almost wanted to join her table and apologize for my father’s behavior. “No, where are you really from?” Slightly to his credit, my father just wanted to talk about how he has traveled around the world. It wasn’t malicious, though the question often can be.
When I lived in Paris for four years, on top of the French racism I had to deal with as an “Arab” (to them), I would often have run-ins with Americans. Once in the subway a guy actually grabbed me and said to his friend with a camera: “Get a picture of me with this guy!” I was horrified, and started yelling, but he wasn’t hearing my English (this is a whole other question: How often do people not understand what you say because they assume you don’t speak the language?). Finally I screamed, “I’M AS AMERICAN AS YOU ARE!” He looked at me and said: “You don’t look American!”
I could go on and on with these anecdotes; there are a million of them. Each one eating away just a little bit more at one’s self-esteem, and belying the myths of adoption into the great “mosaic”, the so-called “melting pot” of “multicultural” America.
These days I say, “I’m from Lebanon” but I am careful to not say “I am Lebanese”. I’ll add, “but I grew up in the States.” If pressed, I’ll admit (proudly) to being a New Jersey boy.
Well, at least that’s better than “What are you?”
But, to answer your question, how being asked where I’m from makes me feel is, it makes me really weary. That I have to weigh yet again how much the person I’m speaking with merits me taking my time to educate. I mean, I’ve educated at my computer keyboard for the last four? years – I’ve been educating all my life, and the last thing I want to do is educate more every time I meet someone new. No matter where we go, there is no relief. Every. Single. New. Situation is a diplomatic minefield or a never-ending repeat performance of a complicated story that’s difficult to simplify for the telling.
Now that I’m living in Korea and have to explain that I’m American, I hear/see/feel disbelief, “but you look Korean!” I AM Korean. “but why can’t you speak Korean?” And then you have to choose to explain or not how you were adopted because then you’ll have to suffer their reactions: judgement, pity, heartache. But there’s always an internal conflict because you don’t want the country to have mass amnesia about the 200,000 they sent away, and you want to bring some reality back to the situation and illustrate that we can’t just magically come back and be instant Koreans, like they all think. And because so few have ever met an adoptee in person, it’s almost your sacred responsibility to suffer through this explanation. We are forced to be educators and ambassadors to EVERYTHING as soon as we are adopted abroad, and especially when we return.
The question “Where are you from?” can destabilize you to a ridiculous degree. If meant to be “Where is your hometown/where were you born?” then I say, “I’m from Wonju.” And as you live here awhile you come to know that hometown as a concept is elevated to an almost spiritual level here. And then you realize that you can’t share in that veneration and respect. Here you are an hour from there and you can’t even really be sure of that. You can’t be sure of anything.
You have no history. It’s as if you were never born, and you truly walk the earth like a ghost. Many days I like being forced to live in the present, but I do feel restless.
That question is a reminder of all these things. How many thoughts can flash before a person’s eyes in the split second after hearing that question. How different we are from those who were never severed from their identities.
Your destabilization comment is absolutely true. Here in Lebanon, the desire to know someone’s hometown is directly tied to the sectarian system imposed on this place since forever. For me to say I’m from a town in the South (Muslim; Shi’ai) is different than saying I am from Tripoli (Muslim; Sunni) or Zahleh (Christian; Maronite) or Bourj Hammoud (Christian; Armenian Orthodox) or Beirut, Wadi Abu-Jamil (Jewish), etc., through all 18 of the official sects. This adds a whole extra level of expectation to the answer, as if being a ghost in one’s birth country isn’t already enough of a burden.
At the same time, I have reversed it a little bit, and I make a lot of waves by not claiming to be Lebanese. I maintain that I am “from Lebanon”, which is different. (I have a blog post about this linguistic difference here: The difference between “from China” and “Chinese” ). Instead I claim to be from the balad ash-sham; Damascus Country, or Greater Syria if you will. This is making reference to a pre-colonial Southwest-Asian region, linked by economics and dialect. It is my small effort (not without consequences) to not be pinned down.
In Canada, with my family and friends around me, it’s easy to say Canadian. Canadian is a mass global term for anyone living abroad, as long as they have citizenship or a passport.
Overseas, however, the name of the game changes – you say you’re Canadian, but you look Asian. You don’t want to say you’re adopted because of the issues girl4708 mentioned above (ie. pity), but then you have to explain on the assumption that you have Asian parents, or were at least raised in a semi-Asian environment.
So you have to emphasize how, really, you’re Canadian, instead of Asian, but if you want to be ‘like them’, then why aren’t you *really* like them – why can’t you speak it, why can’t you understand it, why are you here unable to do things the way the locals do, if you’re really “from here” but you’ve been “overseas” as a Canadian?
It. Just. Doesn’t. Stop.
It doesn’t stop. I wonder if we can apply the power differential of the notion of Empire to this. Meaning, Britain had united its kingdom under one crown, but many of its subjects would be loathe to call themselves British. I wonder if those of the courts of Rome or Constantinople had the luxury to refer to themselves as “Roman” or “Ottoman”, whereas those in the outer provinces would never do such a thing. In this light, we are the product of such Empire unable to take on empirical labeling.
I’m a nurse and I remember listening to an orthopedic surgeon introducing himself to an elderly patient. He is of Asian descent, specifically, Chinese. This is how it transpired exactly: Doctor: Hi Mrs.X, I’m Dr. Y. I’ll be your surgeon. Patient: Oh hi! Where are you from? Doctor: San Francisco. Patient: What about your parents? Doctor: North Carolina. Patient: oh, i just thought maybe you were from Taiwan- I’ve travelled and worked there years ago as a missionary. I recall that this surgeon knew exactly what she was after and he wasn’t going to play the game! The thing, is, Caucasian people are hardly ever asked about their ethnicity or background. It is a non issue for them. And the idea that “white” equates with ‘American is the general assumption here and abroad.
I also remember reading fairly recently about a lovely American young woman who runs a non-profit in Africa. She is of East Indian descent. She spoke about how the women she was helping didn’t believe she was American because she “didn’t look American.” The masses around the world still believe Americans are only Caucasian.
The power differential of who gets to ask this question being reversed has been happening to me a lot more of late. I was in a supermarket, joking with the butchers, and a woman standing next to me asked me to ask them for a pound of hamburger meat. She was Australian, and it took me a bit to understand “minced” instead of “ground”! Her husband, standing there, was Aussie of Anglo descent; her roots were Chinese.
The weight of the “local”, I imagine, prevents the “Where are you from?” in this situation, which ironically becomes my prerogative to ask. I tried to make chit chat, but it was like the Great Unsaid needed to be cleared up, and neither of us was going to ask the question, for very different reasons. I kept thinking how much I might more be able to talk with her son, come the day!
It reminds me of the painful “soirees” I would attend while teaching at university after I first got here. I would be dragged to these ex-pat holiday fests where the only other Lebanese were serving food and drinks. In these situations there was no convincing certain people that I was “American”; I had crossed a line; was on the wrong side of a barrier.
Then the other night I was hanging at the shop at the corner, and a guy came in. My friends love to watch the interaction of “foreigners” with me because at first they would not believe my stories of growing up in the States and what that was like. They also weary of the typical view of them as more in the way of slave labor here. Sometimes customers are rude in foreign languages, for example.
The guy spoke Arabic pretty well; he was trying to remember the English for what we call “Acadania” in Arabic. My friends are quite respectful and don’t ask me to intercede if they sense I don’t want to. Sometimes I’m just not in the mood for it; usually I speak up if what’s being said is belittling or obnoxious or needs correction.
“Loquat”, I said out loud. He looked at me and paused. “We don’t have this in the States, I don’t think….” I replied: “Actually, the tree is not cultivated as far as I know, but it does grow wild in the south and California.” Pause. Mental calculations. “You spent time in America?” came the question. “I grew up in New Jersey”. “I’m from Georgia; that’s a long way from New Jersey”.
It seems to always comes down to distance; and keeping distances. It seems to come down to power of discourse; and the inability for some to speak when they don’t feel a conversation is within the parameters of control that they’re used to. As much as it “feels nice” to be taken for local, it is, all the same, a harsh reminder of all that time I wasn’t….