Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Where are you from?


It has been 18 years since I moved to the United States (well, New York City) and I still get asked “where are you from?” Or am assured “you have no accent!” While I’d like to say that such questions do not bother me, they do. It makes me feel as if I were still a stranger, a foreigner, as one who does not belong. It makes me feel as if I were not one of you.

It surprises me how otherwise well-educated and seemingly well-mannered individuals can lack cultural sensitivity. At a church I used to attend, a doctor exclaimed after I had read the lesson for the first time, “Your English is so good! Where did you learn to speak it so well?” He uttered the exact words the second time I read. And the third. A diplomat I know who prides himself in knowing where foreigners are from, wouldn’t think twice of telling the coat check person, “let me guess, Palestinian!”

Whatever motivates one to ask such questions, P. M. Forni in his book Choosing Civility warns:

For many nonnative speakers, their accent is a serious matter, and they don’t like being asked about it over and over again. They object to what they perceive as an unwarranted (even if unintentional) criticism of their linguistic abilities. They feel that no matter what they do to blend in, they will always be outsiders. Or whatever the reason, they prefer not to release information about their background.

Accent aside, always use restraint when it comes to satisfying your curiosity about others’ ethnic identity. People may be proud of being Hispanic, Arab, African or Native American, but may also resent off-the-cuff inquiries about “what” they are. They may think that you want to classify them rather than making the effort to deal with them as individuals (p.120-121).

I confess that I have done to others what I do not want done to me. Many years ago, in an attempt to display my knowledge that there are many Chinese languages, I asked a guest whether she spoke Cantonese or Fukienese. Rather than be rewarded for my erudition, I received a verbal slap. “I am not Chinese! I am Taiwanese! We are democratic, not communist!”

Last week, while discussing this very topic over a meal, a friend commiserated, claiming that she knows how it feels. At first I found this rather difficult to believe. While she is half Dominican and half Irish-American, she looks totally Caucasian. She agreed that no one would mistake her for anything but White. However, Latinos ask “where are you from?” whenever she speaks in Spanish. Never mind the fact that she speaks the language fluently and has spent a lot of time in Latin America.

Another friend suggests that I consider the possibility that folk who ask such questions might mean no harm and actually even think that they are being hospitable. Perhaps. Most likely so. Indeed, I can see how someone new to the United States might welcome being asked about their origins and other-ness. But for heaven’s sake, I’ve been here a while and I do speak A-merken!

5 comments:

Ann said...

Everyone in Wyoming who is not Shoshone is from somewhere else -- asking is what people do to start a conversation. But I get what you are saying - what would be a better conversation starter for you?
Glad to see you blogging btw.

Valerie said...

Whenever I am asked this in English, or when I'm out alone with Mimi, in Spanish. I always say my Dad is Puerto Rican. Or Mi Papi es puertoriqueno. Then whoever it is says "OHHHHHHHHHH" like "that explains it!" It's really funny, even if it's not true. So my advice to you is just start making stuff up. Next time someone asks say "My Dad is Icelandic and my Mom is Swedish." It will be fun to see the heads spin!

Erwin said...

Thanks Ann - there is nothing wrong with asking a question to start a conversation but one has to be mindful and honest about what one is really asking/telling the stranger. Politics or the weather are good conversation starters.

Thanks Valerie - I am tempted to answer that I have no clue since I was abandoned as a child and adopted by kindly Scots.

Valerie said...

And that explains the accent: CLEARLY Scottish! Perfect!

Erwin said...

A friend who has given much thought to this post emailed:

Given when you emigrated, I’m not sure whether you were privy to the backlash against the notion of a color-blind society. In the 1970s (more or less) there was a hope and expectation that after the civil rights gains, Americans would all be able to ignore the differences in skin color and culture, and the result would be harmony. It was a noble thought, of course, but at some point, it was discredited – just too hard for most people to do, and in addition, there was a great concern that all the English as a Second Language programs were resulting in the school-age generation abandoning their family’s native language and cultural traditions in the hope of becoming “real Americans”. This particularly was a big issue in Texas with the large Mexican-American population (I don’t say Latino because that’s too broad a description for the minority population in Texas in the 1970s. It’s broader, now, to include other Central Americans.) So for progressive white people, the whole notion became “tolerance” (whatever that was supposed to mean) of other cultures, and later an actual “celebration of diversity”.

All of this is to say, Erwin, that when you meet an educated, progressive white person in their ‘30’s or ‘40’s or ‘50’s who asks you where you’re from (and I think most people would do that because of your precise, crisp accent – not because of your features), it’s because they think it might be their best chance to become better informed about another culture.

I do understand that it’s not how it feels to you when it’s asked, but I do believe that when most people ask, it’s from the best possible intention – to broaden their horizons and to learn from someone who knows something they don’t know.

Take it for what it’s worth.