Saturday, February 17, 2007

Where Are You From?

I'm going to an International Fair tomorrow, sponsored by my university's various international student organizations.

It's probably one of the few spaces where it's safe to ask "where are you from?"

I know it's not a particularly appropriate question to ask. It implies otherness, and, as another (now offline) desi blogger wrote, forces the person to then endure some kind of heartfelt enthusiasm about how much the questioner loves their culture, clothing, food, etc. --or forces them to endure some kind of insult along the lines of "why don't you go back there?"

It also assumes that anyone who isn't obviously white or black is "from" somewhere, regardless of where the person was actually born or raised.

I did ask, once. Not out of any context -- I go to this desi-run gyro shop about twice a week, and had shared enough back-and-forth banter with Dev, who worked the counter, that I felt daring enough to press the familiarity.

"Are you -- forgive me for asking -- you are Indian?"


"Which part?"

"You wouldn't know."

"No -- I'm going to Hyderabad next summer and I'm trying to learn everything I can about India. So I might know."

"I am Punjabi. It is very far from Hyderabad. I don't think you would know much about it."

I paused. Punjab. North India. Refugees after Partition. Tandoori ovens, salwar khameez, Chandni Chowk, kali dal...

But I didn't say any of that. Because, really, did I know anything about Punjab that didn't come from Bollywood films or cookbooks?

So I said "You're right -- I don't know much about it. But thank you."

I understand why it would be uncomfortable to be continually interrogated about one's background; to be continually judged as "other," to be continually evaluated as an outsider. I understand why I shouldn't make a habit of asking. But sometimes I think that not asking is equally unfortunate, because not asking demands that we remain ignorant. Learning that Dev is Punjabi makes me want to learn more about Punjab; it's the not knowing that keeps people and places "foreign."

What are your thoughts? I'm interested to hear from both sides -- those who might be questioning and those who find themselves often questioned.


Vi said...

I think it's a reasonable question to ask, but the prejudices that are attached to them are not. It seems to be a routine question, to meet new people and new perspectives and organize them into things a person already knows (cataloguing, as it were).

Plus, I think part of someone's personality (not behavior) is somewhat related to where they are from.

Good luck in Hydrabad. :)

PolkaStripes-ZebraDots said...


Blue said...

Polkastripes-zebradots: Thanks! You did notice the Bollywood posts, yes? ^__^

Vi: Cataloging makes sense and I hadn't thought of it. How do people, do you think, fit places they don't know into this catalog?

Cyndi said...

It matters when and where you ask it.

For example if you were in North America and ask it, especially if you are white you are assuming that the person wasn't born in the country which might not be the case. The person could be mad because he or she feels as much a part of the country as you do and by asking "where are you from" you are saying they shouldn't feel like they are part of the country although they might have lived there all their life.

It would be kind of embarrassing to ask someone in a coffee shop in Toronto where are you from, only to get the reply I was born here in Toronto, why do you think my skin colour makes me less of a Canadian?

Procrastinx said...

Hyderabad s now a cosmopolitan city with people from all over india coming here , thanks to the software boom. So there is nothing that you specifically 'need' to know about the local culture , people etc etc. Everythng has been transformed to a more western outlook. Im sure you will enjoy your stay here. Hope you have a pleasant experience.

Vi said...

"How do people, do you think, fit places they don't know into this catalog?"

That's a loaded question. Different people organize things differently in their mind. For example--I see balloons, and I am reminded of a friend who is deathly afraid of them. I see a particularly good piece of art and am reminded of a close friend who is an artist. That's a type of cataloging, isn't it? I take something unknown and relate it to something I do know.

I may not know you, but I do know Hyderabad. :)

Blue said...

Cyndi -- that's fair. I know the necessity of not cataloging (as Vi put it) people based on skin color... which means that I start to "sort and staple" based on something else, like accent or method of speech. Which is a bad habit. At the same time we are curious. We see or hear someone who is "different" and we think "what is this person's story?" For me it's always been because life stories interest me, but even this sort of cataloging is based on stereotype and assumption and potentially harmful.

Whew! That was long!

Procrastinx -- cosmopolitan sounds fun. I remember being in a music history class and noting that all the great artists/thinkers were described as living in "cosmopolitan" cities. Where I live now... is best described as "rural." Maybe Hyderabad will make a great thinker out of me. ^__^

Vi -- oh, of course. Didn't think of that and didn't mean for it to be "loaded." Hmmm... your response makes perfect sense and there's nothing I can add.

David Hodges said...

A little sense of humor goes a long way. Find a way to ask the question in a non-challenging way and let the chips fall. If your curiosity is pure, and you're misunderstood, well, you're misunderstood, period. Too much sensitivity does more to thwart friendly relations among strangers than too little sensitivity. You seem friendly to me. Ask me anything you want. Wish I could help you about Hyderabad. I know nothing.

But, say, Blue, I clicked the Google Reader link in your Blogroll and discovered every single post I've ever tagged with "flash fiction" at Wordpress is there in your Reader to be read in its entirety. I didn't know that's how it worked. And yet, you did visit my blog today, I think, so, thanks. Was there anything there to surprise you?

Blue said...

David -- Thanks! I wish I could say that you and I have the exact same taste in blogs, but when you clicked on "Google Reader" it pulled up your Google Reader, not mine.

Though I am familiar with flash fiction and have written 55s before. ^__^

I did visit your blog today because I saw your comment on Vi's blog... but didn't yet have time to read any of the fiction. I know, I know, only 299 words... but I'll come back, you just watch me!

SemiDesiMasala said...


I think you're being too hard on yourself. You are exactly the kind of person that I would appreciate being asked the "where are you from" question by. I'm going to speak entirely from personal experience here, but my four cents are as follows:

1) I get it that I look different. I was told once (after an interesting round of "ethnic 20 questions" by a complete stranger trying to guess my "origins" and who guessed everything from Hawaiian to Italian to South American) that I look like "something."

2) Because of aforementioned "looking different" and the added layer of having a "unique" name, I totally understand that I will be asked (if not initially, then eventually) in many situations about my ethnic identiy.

3) If I am going to be asked, I would prefer to be asked by someone who is actually interested in the answer and will not subsequently try to label me with a cartoonish desi stereotype (such as "omg, like, Indians are like, so spiritual! Is your dad a guru? Can he levitate?)

4) Don't feel bad that you don't know alot about Punjab. India is a big and diverse country. I'm sure that there are plenty of people in Oregon who don't know all that much about Arkansas. I think it's cool that your curiosity has been sparked.

I hope you enjoy your travels!

Blue said...

SemiDesiMasala -- thanks! Glad to know that questions can be appreciated.