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Where are you from?
Last week, while camping along the California coast, a woman stopped by my campsite to say hi to my dog. She made polite conversation and mentioned that her family was staying for a few days. I asked where she was from to which she replied, “Hong Kong.” Based on that answer my assumption was that she was visiting for a bit and her kids decided to take her camping as a fun summer activity. After a few minutes of further chatting I learned she has actually lived in California for over 35 years!
The woman I was speaking to is middle-aged, of Asian descent, and had a fairly heavy accent. When I asked, “Where are you from?” she interpreted that as, “Where are you from originally?” In actuality, I was asking, “Where do you live?” While talking I learned that she moved from Hong Kong to San Francisco, where she lived for five years. She wanted more space so moved to Oakland for another seven years followed by Fremont for 25 years, where she raised her family. Only recently did she move to the Central Valley town of Manteca to, again, find more space. (She also informed me that, sadly, the water slides are now condos.)
I found it incredibly interesting that someone who has been so deeply rooted, for so long, in California would still reference the place she was born when asked where she is from. To me, her answer stems from a mix of institutional racism and cultural identity.
On the first, she has probably lived a life of people asking, “Where are you from?” assuming, based on her accent, that she is not American and wanting to know where she came from. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the question, it most often comes across as, “Where are you from? Because it’s clearly not from here.” The trailing subtlety is that because the person is so clearly not from “here” that they also don’t belong “here.”
On the second, despite leaving where she grew up at a fairly young age, and living over half her life in a different place, she very much identifies herself as being from Hong Kong and not San Francisco, Oakland, Fremont, Manteca, or even California in general. We bemoaned the lack of Asian markets in the Central Valley and she told me how she always cooks her family large Chinese dinners when she visits. As for many of us, where she was raised is a huge part of who she is, just as much as where she lives today.
The main thing I took away from this experience, besides an enjoyable conversation with a sweet woman, is to think about the subtleties that can live in seemingly simple questions. What was obvious to me was not obvious to her. I don’t believe that I offended her, nor do I think that we need to constantly question our speech, but it’s important to be conscious of meaning to different people with different life experiences.