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).