‘Where are you from?’ – The Dreaded Question for TCKs

Where do you come from?

How often I have been asked that since childhood. As a child (i.e. until I turned 15 and spent more time in my homeland, Canada), it was a question I had NO idea how to answer. And how could I, having been born in one country, then moved to another, and yet another, with plenty of visits home throughout the years?

This is what I mean:

0-14:

Q: “Where do you come from?”
Mini me: “Umm… I’m from Hong Kong but I was born in Canada.”
Q: “Oh, so your parents are from Hong Kong?”
Mini me: “No, my Dad’s born in Canada and my Mum’s born in Taiwan.”
Q: “Why were you in HK?”
Mini me: ‘Dad’s job? I don’t know!’

14-15:

Q: “Where do you come from?”
Teen me: “Uhh…I’m from Taiwan.”
Q: “Are you a landed immigrant?”
Teen me: (Thinking: ‘Immigrant – someone who moves to another country. Landed – arrived…’) “What’s that?”
Q: “What passport do you hold?”
Teen me: “Canadian.”
Q: “Where were you born?”
Teen me: “In Vancouver…”
Q: “….Oh.” ‘Why is she so confused herself?’

For many years, probably until I turned 18, I thought I was the only stupid one who couldn’t figure out where she came from / understand the question and answer it simply. I confused so many people because no one could figure out how someone “from Asia” could:

1) speak English fluently
2) attend international/private schools
3) move around so often

It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a forum for third culture kids (internationally-raised/educated kids from foreign countries; expat children, basically) that I realised I was not ALONE in dealing with this STUPID question. You want to know where we’re from? We’ll actually have to tell you a story about our birthplace and all the other places we lived in!

Now (i.e. adult me), it is a question I find both amusing and annoying. Quite often I have found that people did not get the answer they’d expected. There are usually 2 kinds of responses:

1) acceptance of answer followed by other questions of curiosity
2) rejection of answer followed by more questions pertaining to one’s ethnicity (supposedly, one’s “country of origin”)

Examples:
1a) Someone hears my British/’unique’ accent.

Q: “Where in England are you from?” or “Where are you from?”
Me: “I’m actually from Vancouver / Canada.”
Q: “No! But you sound really British/English!” (Canadians tend to say I sound Australian. I wonder if it’s because it’s far more likely to meet an “Asian” with an accent – who is neither N. American nor Asian.)

This is amusing.

1b) OR sees/meets me for the first time.

Q: “Where are you from?”
Me: “Vancouver / Canada.”
Q: “Oh nice. And what’s your background / ethnicity / heritage (if I may ask)?”
Me: “Chinese (technically Taiwanese too but they’re originally from China) and German.

This is also accepting and polite.

2) Someone sees/meets me for the first time.

Q: “Where are you from?”
Me: “Vancouver / Canada.”
Q: “But you don’t look like you’re from Canada.” *gestures to face*
Me: ‘What’s that supposed to mean? What’s a Canadian supposed to look like? Oh, European. Hmm, I wonder if they include the Natives as Canadians as well.’ *laughs*
Q: “Where are you ORIGINALLY from?”
Me: “I am from Canada. I was born there!”
Q: “… Where are your parents from?” (I’ve had a case where the questioner asked about my father, mother, and grandparents before getting the answer he wanted. What a waste of time!)
Me: “My Dad’s from Canada and my Mum’s from Taiwan.”
Q: “Where are your Dad’s parents from?”
Me: “Chinese father and German mother.” ‘There, clear now?’
Q: “Ohh! Ok, good mix.” *like*
OR
“But you look more Chinese. I thought you were from Japan / Korea / China / etc.” *dislike* Duh! I know what I look more like! And yes, I already KNEW you would think that’s where I’m from. You were just dying for me to say it!

This is just plain rude! >:( And such a time-waster.

How to ask about one’s country of origin or one’s ethnic background

What to do:

  • Start with a friendly/casual “Where are you from?”
  • If you are curious about one’s ethnical background, ask, “What’s your background/heritage?”
  • Accept the responder’s replies. You should be satisfied. What you thought they were or where you thought they’re from should be kept to yourself, unless you tell them and apologise for your honest mistake.
  • It’s fine to ask about one’s surname – check where it comes from! *BUT please bear in mind that it could still be a one-sided answer. You either determine a part of one’s heritage OR find out the heritage of his/her adoptive parents/grandparents, etc.

What to avoid:

  • Don’t disagree with the responder’s answer(s). You know NOTHING about the person you’re asking.
  • Don’t tell someone that they don’t look like they’re from their country of origin. We live in the 21st Century – people can come from anywhere! Also, the responder is not STUPID – esp. if he/she is aware that his/her country of origin has a majority of people whom he/she does not resemble. In fact, don’t tell them what they look like. They know, they’ve seen their reflections. There are mirrors.
  • So you want to know what one’s ethnic background is. Don’t go asking where each parent or grandparent or great-grandparent and so forth is from. It could go back generations!