By Ruth Jandeska
When I moved to the United States from my native Colombia many years ago, answering the question “Where are you from?” or “Where is your accent from?” was delightful. I felt I was free to share who I was, my goals, my dreams, and so on, without being judged. Here I was, a young aspiring black Latina scientist, the first one in my immediate family to earn a terminal education degree, alongside other foreign students and native English speakers.
It quickly became overwhelming, though. Anybody would ask those questions: people I met at the university, the bus driver, my neighbors, the cashier at the grocery store, even complete strangers waiting in line with me. Sometimes I would sense an authentic curiosity and a desire to learn that made me feel appreciated. I used to eagerly answer them, and sometimes an appreciative listener made me feel proud to describe the beauty of my birth land, its people and its culture – a different picture than the one of drug trafficking and cartels that is most often portrayed in the news.
But soon I noticed what these questions are truly about for some: suspicion and bias. My answers would be met with scoffs, eye-rolling, or just plain dismissal. In social or professional gatherings, no other comment or question would follow. No other inquiries, such as “What it was like to grow up there?” Or, “What was the culture like?” Not even a comment about how much nicer the weather there might be! Those kind of non-responses made me wonder about people’s necessity for “othering” and its pervasiveness in this society.
What is the intention of someone asking these questions? What fuels the desire to learn the answer? And what are they going to do once they learn the answer?
To this day, I am asked one of those questions at least a couple of times a day. I talked to my classmates of different racial backgrounds, and I was very surprised to discover that so many people shared similar experiences. But our experience was made worse if we challenged the question or refused to answer it. We would then be perceived as “overly sensitive” for “overreacting” to a presumably very harmless question. Even people who were born and raised here in the United States, but whose race is not Caucasian, experience profound discomfort when asked where they were from. It was discouraging to hear that, but I felt validated and affirmed to know that others felt the same way.
I have now lived in the United States nearly half my life, and I decline to answer these questions when complete strangers ask. If it’s a friend or acquaintance, I sometimes jokingly say that I am half baked in Colombia and half baked in the United States. I am from here … and also from there. I am from the land of currulao, vallenato and cumbia as much as I am from the land of rock ’n’ roll. I often follow that with explaining how the question is emotionally and mentally draining for immigrants and their children.
“Where are you from?” seems innocuous, but it is a very loaded question. It shows that the asker needs to know in which category to place the hearer. It insinuates the hearer does not belong, that to be American he or she ought to speak and look a certain way. Is it a disrespectful question to ask? Well, yes and no. What is the intention of asking? What fuels your desire to learn the answers? And what are you going to do once you learn the answers?
It is selfish to ask this question merely to satisfy one’s curiosity, and it is extremely offensive if the intention is to show one’s superiority. But if you genuinely desire to seek connection or to learn about other ethnicities and cultures, spend some time with the person before asking. Allow them to talk and share their stories. “What is your cultural background?” “Where did you grow up?” or better yet “Where are you a local?” are better questions to ask afterwards. Questions like that allow the hearer to share stories about their rituals, relationships, and restrictions — things that, as writer Taiye Selasi says, really tell you where someone is from. As Mark Gonzales says in his children’s book Yo Soy Muslim:
There are questions this world will ask
What are you? And where are you from?
On that day tell them this:
Yo soy Muslim. I am from Allah, angels, and a place almost as old as time.
I speak Spanish, Arabic, and dreams.
Ruth Jandeska, BCC, is director of pastoral care at Providence Health in Columbia, SC.