Where are you from?

nopal.jpg While getting my eyebrows waxed at a Palms nail shop, the young woman examining how to best bring out the natural shape of my eyebrows asked, “where are you coming from?”

“From school/work,” I responded.

She rephrased her question, “no, where is your family from?”

I told her I was Mexican and that my parents immigrated, but I was born here. She still seemed confused.

“You don’t look Mexican. You look more Japanese.”

I’ve heard that I look Filipina before, but never Japanese, so I was a little struck. I kept quiet and let her get back to carefully applying hot wax over my eyebrows.

I left the nail shop with cleaner eyebrows and more confusion about the perception of race and ethnicity. I’m often unsure of how to answer “where are you from?” I’m not sure what the person asking wants to know. Do you want to know where I grew up? Where my parents are from? Where I was born? Depending on the person asking and the language, I can usually figure out what they want to know. Most of the time, they’re interested in ethnicity. “Where are you from?” may confuse me a little, but it’s better than “what are you?” which I’ve always found rude and insensitive.

I’m no longer surprised when someone doesn’t think I look Mexican. I suppose in an extremely diverse city like LA, ethnicity is not that simple. However, I’m much more grateful when strangers initiate conversations Spanish. It makes me think that at least someone still thinks I have el nopal en la frente (literally “cactus on the forehead” but refers to looking Mexican).

16 thoughts on “Where are you from?”

  1. Koga,
    Hah. I doubt she’d be asking that since she was an Asian woman and would know that Asian is not a language. After reading your post and some of the comments, I find it funny that I left out her ethnicity. I didn’t want to admit to my own assumptions nor play into the stereotype that all Asian women in Southern California nail shops are Vietnamese.

  2. I created a small scene at lunch with a new employee 2 weeks ago. He seemed “mexican” since he spoke spanish to customers, has an accent. I myself am of hispanic and german descent. I have been asked where in Afghanistan I from, what part of mexico am I from, are you an arab? It is amazing. So I stuck my foot in my mouth and asked the new guy what part of mexico he was from. Maybe it was the margarita I was drinking but I felt like a moron as soon as the words fell out of my head! He is not from mexico, he is from El Salvador. When people ask me where I am from or what I am I simply say Californian. When they freak out and ask for more info I have to go into the whole situation of how on one side of my family I am in the 15th generation from a conquistador that came from Spain to Mexico. The other part of the story goes back to what is now Virginia and a german immigrant. So, I am American but mostly Californian. It takes a lot of looking on the past to find someone that was not born in the US in my family. But people still think I am mexican.

  3. I’m mixed Latino (Mexican) and white, born here, and I most-often get asked what “nationality” I am. I say American, and, after absorbing the confused look on his/her face, I say something like, “I think you meant to ask my heritage or ethnicity. Nationality is about what country I’m from.” More confusion? More explanation.

    Anyway, interesting post, in that indigenous American poeple, including Mexican Indians, at some point came from Asia long ago, explaining our sometimes Asian eyes. I believe it was Time or Newsweek that did a piece eight or so years ago about the connections between Asia and indigenous Americans. The most genetically similar people to indigenous Americans were aboriginal Japanese (not most of the folks who occupy the country today, who likely came from China at some point, but the Japanese islands’ own indigenous peoples). Very fascintating. Look it up if you have a Lexis-Nexis account. I think the latest science also challenged the idea that all native Americans came from China via the Bering Straight and brings up the possibility that they took boats, swam or, in my highest of hopes, surfed! It’s too bad that both sides, Latinos and Asians, are too proud to explore and recognize this age-old relationship. When I tell this to Asian folks they most often look at me like I’m insane.

  4. Oh, I tracked down the piece about the Asian-indigenous-American connection I mentioned. It’s called “The First Americans,” from Newsweek, June 7, 1999. I think I was off on the Japanese connection. It says only that a couple of the oldest humans found in the Americas seem to look a lot like the native Japanese Ainu (no genetic analysis, as far as I can tell). In summary, the piece sites research suggesting that the first Americans could have come from many different places, including China, South Asia, Europe and particularly France. “The Asians who reached America from the West may have been seafarers, too,” the piece states. Just food for thought.

  5. Where are you from? I love that question – not.

    I’m Filipino, but most people think I am Latino or Asian Indian. I don’t often get Filpino, unfortunately.

    But in a way, I still consider “Where are you from?” just as rude as “What are you?” since just a few more questions will reveal the person’s ethnic heritage. Sheesh.

    Hey Dennis – remember me from CNS???!!!!

  6. Where are you from? I love that question – not. v.2

    Years ago, I was at a City of Industry auto dealership, shopping for a car. I was translating in cantonese to my aunt, and the ‘bright, caucasian, sales person’ asks: “oh, so where are you from?’

    I replied, “Diamond Bar. Where are you from?” For some reason he stopped his questionng after that! He was speechless. I thought it was rude as well. He could have asked what language we were speaking, as an inquery. But, then again, we were dealing with an ‘intelligent’ car sales person (oxymoran?).

  7. I dunno – I go both ways on the question. I’m – shockingly enough for California and American generally – of mixed heritage. I’m more “ethnic” on paper than by sight. So no one really asks where I’m from, or if they do, I can usually figure that they are looking for the “Los Angeles” or “California” type answer.

    I vividly recall asking a girl giving me a tour of what would end up being my college campus where she was from because I was curious if she had to move far away from home or if she was local and went home a lot – the usually frosh worries. She answered “Ghana.” I gave her an odd look, and she said, “Oh, Fontana.”

    I know I’ve asked the “where are you from” question before and meant it heritage-wise, but usually because I am curious about a language I don’t recognize or am struck by someone’s beauty or handsome features. Of course, it’s hard to shorthand the “I am curious about your heritage because I find you attractive and or interesting and its hard to pay a compliment nowadays anyway but I’m trying to learn more about the world around me” question to words least likely to offend.

    I’m not sure what less offensive question to which “where are you from” could be analogized. But there must be something.

  8. I have the best one ever (ever!!) and it happened tonight! I catered a Christmas party in a high-end retail store. As I was tray-passing desserts, one slightly (very?) drunk gentleman, mid-50’s in a sharp gray suit, stands up out of a tight leather easy chair, turns to me and says,
    “You know, you’d make a very good Geisha.”
    I look at him immediately with my reactionary “WTF?!?” face before quickly putting on my best “I’ll-entertain-this-for-two-seconds” big smile, and reply,
    “But I’m not Japanese.”
    “Well you’d need the white face and everything.”
    “Well I just saw that movie, y’know, that movie, and every time I see an Asian girl now…”
    “So, miss, where’re ya from?”
    “I grew up in the States. I’m American.”
    “No, I mean where were you born?”
    “In Taiwan.”
    “Oh! So you’re Filipino!”
    “No. I’m Taiwanese.”
    *blank stare*
    “Sir, I’m going to find someone to clean up that large champagne spill on the floor in front of you now.”

    Amazing. Simply… amazing.

  9. I don’t think it’s rude–most people are interested or are looking for an ice-breaker or to see if they can find a common conversational topic. But didn’t the original poster know the name of the woman doing her waxing? Most nail salon workers have their cosmetology permit right at the station.

  10. Paul,
    I think they freak out ’cause they’ve never met anyone that was truly “Californian.”

    I like the idea of a turtle coming out the water, hence Turtle Island. I’ve also heard some of the stuff about where natives to North America originated and how they got here.

    On another note, I don’t think you need to go back to ancient times to find connections between Asians (in this case, Chinese) and Mexico. It might be a problematic history though.


    In Hacienda Heights no one was ever confused about my ethnicity. It was almost certain that I was Mexican or at least Latina. I usually get asked this question by other people of color and often immigrants. Maybe they’re just trying to figure things out.

    Maybe he just really had something against Diamond Bar. My sister is a cashier at one of those dealerships, I think her least favorite people at the dealership are the other girl cashiers and the salesmen.

    I’ve definitely wondered the question when it comes to friends. With people I know are Latino, the main thing is not assuming they are Mexican. It’s like heterosexism.
    I was most thrown off by two friends who are brothers. I showed up to their house one day and wasn’t sure if I was at the right place because all I saw were Chinese people. It was then that everything clicked together.

    I saw a billboard for the film this morning and just started laughing when I remembered your story. I went to K-12 with a lot of kids from Taiwan. I was always a little confused about why some kids were Chinese and other were Taiwanese.

    Well, everyone has their own opinion. If anything, it will at least make for some amusing stories (see, Koga and Swingkat). I didn’t know the woman’s name.

  11. This is what happens when we live in a society that has completely fallen all over itself in a rush to be as PC as possible, so that anything pertaining to race in any way whatsoever is offensive in some way. As a white guy, (or I suppose a “person of no color” or a “person without color” or maybe even a “colorless person”?) if someone asks me where I’m from, or where my ancestors are from or whatever, I never think to be offended by the question – it just never occurs to me. I wonder if this question offends other white people, or if this question is only offensive to “people of color”. If so, why is that? Is there some subtext that people believe is being implied, like they’re saying they can’t pinpoint your ethnicity because whatever your ethnic heritage is, it has been so unimportant to them to ever bother to learn it, or something like that?

    Certainly none of us is an expert on distinguishing everyone’s ethnic heritage just by looking at them, and especially not at differentiating countries from the same region. There’s probably just as many people who would mistake someone who is El Salvadoran from someone who is Mexican, as there are people who would mistake someone who is Norwegian from someone who is Swedish, as there are people who would mistake someone who is Korean from someone who is Vietnamese, as there are people who would mistake someone who is Nigerian from someone who is Kenyan. To ask someone where they are from should not be an offensive question. I can understand being annoyed at always being mistaken or assumed to be from one place, but it should be pointed out that people who ask you where you are from are NOT making the traditional assumption, and are maybe instead being sensitive to the fact that since they can’t pinpoint what country your ancestors or family may be from, they’re just asking an open-ended question. I can’t imagine that there’s someone out there who’s never seen someone else and been curious to know either what country they’re from or what their ethnic makeup is. It’s unfortunate that we’re all so defensive as to immediately wonder if there’s something negative behind such an open-ended question.

  12. This is such interesting timing. I was just in an art fair in Miami and one of my artists (who is very popular) is from Southern California but her parents are from Korea. So people would ask me, “where is she from?” and I’d say, “well, she was born in Southern CA and lives in La Canada.” They would look at me like I was crazy and then say, “No….I’m mean, where is she from?” And then I’d tell them that she was Korean if that’s what they were asking. I guess I just never see her as being anything other than an artist and from LA. Funny how people need those associations.

  13. Yams,
    I’ve never been offended at the question or the fact that someone doesn’t think I look Mexican. It may be surprising, but the question doesn’t offend me. I’ve asked the question myself and gotten an answer I didn’t expect like “Guanajuato” rather than “Southgate.” If you want to know where I grew up and live, then ask that. If you want to know if I’m the ethnicity you think I am, ask. I won’t get offended.

    I think it adds some context for people. Some people need that context.

  14. if your an asian who looks mexican are you mexican or asian.
    i am japanese but i look like i am mexican no body thinks i am japanese.

    yea whatever

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