Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Where Are You From?

Living in the U.S., particularly New York, it's very common to hear the question "where are you from?" This, of course, can mean anything: What state or city do you live in? Where did you grow up? What country were you or your parents born in? It's up to us to decipher which one they might mean and hope the answer satisfies them, but in my experience they usually mean, what is your cultural background?

A lot of people don't bother to ask me "where are you from?," they assume they already know. Even though I'm very open with people about my cultural background, I've found that whenever somebody doesn't know me, they can't seem to figure out where I'm from. This makes for some interesting scenarios, like the time I went to a deli and the man behind the counter started speaking to me in Urdu. When I stared blankly at him and simply asked how much my items came to, he was shocked -- "You are not from Pakistan?!" I smiled politely and said no, but he insisted "You look like you're from Pakistan!"

Things like this seem to happen to me all the time, just with different languages and different countries. Off the top of my head, I can recount being identified as being from: Pakistan, Mexico, India, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Bangladesh, etc.

I know people who get upset when their ethnicity is incorrectly assumed. They're suddenly filled with a cultural pride and insist that, no, they are most certainly NOT from whatever country you think they're from. I react rather differently, and instead of expressing anger or discomfort, I simply laugh it off and think about how arbitrary it all is. We attach such value to physical characteristics and personality traits that a Dominican with brown skin, dark eyes, dark hair, and a quiet demeanor can be mistaken as being from half a dozen different countries.

I think from now on when people ask "where are you from?" I'll just smile and tell them to guess. Let's see what they come up with!

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