Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On “Where Are You From?”


If you are not Caucasian living in the U.S. (or parts of Europe where it is predominantly white), you were probably asked a variation of the question, “Where are you from?” (and they weren’t asking for the name of the neighborhood where you live in the U.S.). There are several versions mocking these interactions on the Internet, such as this one:

Because I was born in Japan, my answer would satisfy the curious American, though when I was younger, I would feel insecure about my English thinking that somehow they detected a slight Japanese accent (or else why would they know I wasn’t a 3rd generation Japanese-American?). It didn’t cross my mind that the motivations underlying their question assumed that non-white equals non-American.

In general, I took these questions to be a friendly gesture wanting to establish a common ground or a connection, like asking another person where they went to college at a party. Now I realize that it’s more like you are in the cafeteria at Harvard University and someone asks you, “Which University do you attend?” as a conversation starter, when it would be more natural to assume that being on campus and in the cafeteria, that people there would naturally be Harvard students.

Using that example, I suppose I felt like a transfer student. Somehow the other students sniffed the plebeian scent outside of the Ivy League.  If I am already a transfer student, then I know “I’m not from here”, but how would the rest of them know? Perhaps the fashion is all wrong or carrying a different version of the translation of some dead white male literature. The thing is, they don’t know. So, if they ask, it’s that something about the appearance is signaling you don’t belong here (but they do).

On a positive side of the same coin, when I want to say where I am from, I feel disingenuous simply stating I was born in Japan. Then a dear and thoughtful friend introduced me to the concept of “where are you local?” through a talk by Taiye Selasi:

It was one of my favorite TEDTalk video I watched.

In this talk, Selasi discusses how one’s country of birth alone does not adequately address the question of where one comes from in our global society today. Selasi’s parents are from a different country than where she was born, which is also different than where she was educated, or where she now lives.

Instead, Selasi suggests the “three Rs” to discuss where we are from that identify us:

  1. Rituals
  2. Relationships, and
  3. Restrictions.

We find common grounds not because we hold passports with the same emblem but we celebrate the same holidays in similar manners. Do we bow or shake hands to greet each other? What and how do we value our relationships? What do we or our communities consider taboo?

Rather than “where are you from?” Selasi would prefer to be asked “where are you local?” based on the three criteria above.

It spoke volumes to me because I am a product of Japanese rituals, relationships and restrictions, and in particular, that of Western Japan. Everywhere else I have spent considerable time or have had meaningful relationships or conducted business, these elements became part of me.

I found the phrase “where are you local” a bit awkward, but I celebrate the spirit that motivated it.

Recently, I was speaking with someone with a diverse background: Asian-American, studied in the West Coast, but now working in the East Coast, practiced in the financial domain but now applying his skills in the health industry. During the conversation, he commented that he would like to contribute back to his community. I wasn’t sure what that meant, as if someone said “I want to go back to where I am from” and I didn’t know where he was “from”. When I asked him what communities he identified with, expecting he would help me identify if he meant Silicon Valley or where he calls home now, his response focused on communities categorized by subjects rather than geography: health care and wellness, education, etc.

Indeed, different industries and groups with common interests identifiers have their own language, values, priorities, rituals and relationships. From formally being part of a charitable organization or a club to identifying yourself to a particular set of values or culture such as LGBT community or a political party. I got a better sense of who he was by knowing his communities included health care and wellness and education, rather than West or East Coast.

I hope to remember that part of the joy of travel is enrich our understanding of a wider community and its values which in turn enriches us.

Next time I meet someone, I hope to ask them, “Which communities do you identify with?” and wait with excitement and an open mind to learn about what rituals, relationships and restrictions.

Photo: Japanese flag in Ise Jinguu, the most significant Shinto Shrine site in Japan


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This entry was posted on January 11, 2016 by in Culture, Identity and tagged , , , .
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