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January 31, 2006



Yeah-- in those situations, I always say I'm from Philadelphia, which I am. That question annoys me to no end.

I don't know which is more annoying, though-- having someone (usually not Asian) ask me where I'm from, or having an Asian immediately start talking to me in his/her language, assuming I'm of the same ethnic background. Ironically enough, it's never the Japanese who do this to me.


hmmmm....let's try to brainstorm some good responses to this question.

How about a friendly query in return: "Why do you ask?"


Nope. I've asked that. Never gotten a good response. It's a stupid question and qutie offensive.


I think it's the implication of being from someplace else that irks me. I don't mind being asked what ethnicity I am, and I even don't mind if the questioner gets it wrong. But "where are you from?" implies "you're not from here." Which is an assumption one should not be making.

I am a Philadelphian, I am an American, and I am of Japanese descent. Why should a stranger assume otherwise when it appears I know my way around the city and speak fluent English?

John Featherman


You are so right. You met my girlfriend briefly at a Drinking Liberally meeting. She was born in Tokyo, but has been living in the United States since 1989 and is now a U.S. citizen.

Yet, what is the first question she is always asked? "Are you Chinese?" And, of course, it always pisses her off.

What has she done? If she doesn't know the person, she will simply say, "No," and nothing else. If she is friendly with them, she will say, "I'm Japanese."

If people ask her "Where are you from," she'll say "Philadelphia." If they say, "No, I mean before that," she will say, "New Jersey."

Sometimes, honestly, I get a chuckle when she goes through this because the events are always so predictable. And yes, she gets the elevator treatment, too, with so many inquiring minds wanting to know "what she is."

You know what, Albert? At Lakeside Deli -- the restaurant you love so much -- the first time we went in, the waiter spoke to my girlfriend in Chinese even though she had no idea what he was talking about. This is a common occurrence for my girlfriend in Chinatown.

But guess what, it's not always from white people. She often has other Asian people just blurt out, "What are you?"

I kid you not, as my girlfriend is watching me type this now, she wants me to tell you about an episode that she had her first week as a transfer student at Temple University. She was walking inside the campus and some [I don't want to repeat what my girlfriend just said; remember, I am a political candidate!] guy said to her, "Where's the Chinese food?" She said he wasn't making fun of her; he was serious.

She told me about that incident when she got home, and honestly -- and you have to understand that she and I are allowed to make fun of each other (we know each other and it's consensual) -- I cracked up, and so did she.

But your bottom line is right. There are so many obnoxious, rude, invasive jerks who don't care about objectifying people and will just blurt out racist questions. But don't assume it just comes from non-Asians. I'm not going to pick on any specific Asian group, but my girlfriend often gets asked the "what are you" question by one particular Asian group -- even more so than by white people.

John Featherman
Republican Candidate, US Senate-PA


just want to make clear i'm not calling out white people here, i'm calling out ignorant racists.


People suck.

If I were to be asked that regularly, I think I'd probably answer [you know, Philadelphia] and then say "And where are you from?" before they could get another word out.

Or you could always ask if the person has syphilis. I mean, it's just arbitrary, rude, and stupid.


Just to clarify, Albert, I wasn't saying that the "where are you from" question wasn't stupid or racist. My proposed reply was intended to make the asker of that question confront or voice the racism implicit in it. Maybe that doesn't work, as you suggest, but that's where I was coming from -- I never meant to imply that the question isn't offensive, because it is.


There was a woman from my family's church who went off to New Guinea to be a missionary's wife (her husband was native to New Guinea). When her husband died several years ago, she came back to the U.S. for a while.

I remember her asking someone at church where they were from. The person said "New Guinea." She proceeded to have a conversation with that person about her husband, about the area she'd spent the past several years of her life, among other subjects. For her, asking a question like that was just a way to try to connect with someone else about subjects no stranger would suspect they'd have in common, at least not at first glance.

But there are also other contexts that have nothing to do with ethnicity at all.

For instance, I sometimes work with people transferred in from other parts of the company (sometimes from our overseas operations). In this context, it can be incredibly useful to know if a newly transferred person is familiar with local protocols, given that we deal with several regulatory and operational requirements that vary by location.

I know this probably isn't the kind of situation you're referring to, but there are times when I've asked where a new transfer is from, with no regard to ethnicity. I'd hate to think I could have been misunderstood, thus causing someone to seethe beneath the surface or to be on the verge of kicking my teeth in.


In defense of the restaurants in Chinatown:

The restaurants in Chinatown do have quite a lot of patrons that don't speak English, often only Cantonese. So the host/hostess makes a quick assessment of what language you might speak and uses it in greeting. If the guess is right, it worked, if not, the hostess will quickly change to another language. Yes, it's essentially racial profiling, but they're trying to make their clientele feel welcome.

I speak Mandarin so I don't understand their greetings in Cantonese, but they always quickly change to English. I believe all they're usually asking is how many people in your party. It's certainly not serious racism, if it is at all.


Totally agree.. I mean, why is would it even have been important to that guy? Although I don't really get the whole nationality thing at all. People ask me all time what my nationality is (I'm just a white guy) and I say "American", though they expect Irish, Italian, etc. Why is it that people become instant comrades becasue their ancestors were from the same country 100 years ago?


a similarly tiring but probably less offensive thing is the response that people have to red hair -- your merely having a particular pigment opens you up to a whole subset of conversations with strangers that other people never have to experience (from questions about your geneology to discussions about their inevitable red-haired relative). I was brought up to take it cheerfully, but I always feel an internal sigh.

a better parallel might be the unique (and astounding) experience that many women have had of being walking along, minding their own business (intent on getting somewhere, or thinking about something) and a complete stranger (always male, almost always over 40) says "smile!" as though the woman's face existed for nothing other than to improve the aesthetics of his immediate environment. there's no winning response, however many clever/biting/instructional ones you might consider...

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