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Posted on Wed, Feb 29, 2012 : 5 a.m.

Asian-American dreads "Where are you from?" question

By Carolyn Hax

Dear Carolyn:

I am Asian-American with an unusual first name and am often asked where I am from. If I say where I live, folks become adamant about where I really am from. Sometimes, people proudly try to guess my ethnic background, but I am from an ethnic group that is not well-known, and I don't care to answer such a personal question every time I meet someone who is curious about me. The question "Where are you from?" is usually asked within the first minute of meeting me. I doubt it is with the intention to get to know me as no one ever asks what my favorite ice cream flavor is.

I have tried:

(1) Dismissing the question altogether, to have it repeated in case I didn't understand English.

(2) Answering it as a matter of fact (which it is), to the following effects:

(a) Confusion then a string of questions (as if they just discovered a new breed of frog);

(b) Reporting of the person's previous encounter with someone of my kind (as if I would know who he or she was);

(c) Disappointment that their guess was wrong and then ignoring me thereafter.

(3) Rephrasing "Where are you from?" to "What is your cultural background?" so that it is clear what they are asking.

(4) Sticking to my answer, "I am from here," despite the insistence and repetition of the question.

I now answer: "I don't particularly care to satisfy your curiosity right now," with a smile, and move on to another topic. But, I was told my response may seem rude and/or too sensitive to what may be considered an innocent question.

I don't agree, since people don't ask someone's age, income, sexual preference and/or religious background when meeting them for the first time. My Caucasian husband is never asked where he's from.

I understand the curiosity; I am happy to share my cultural/ethnic background with friends. However, I am not interested in being the exotic person in the conversation. Any suggestion for how I could reply to this dreaded question?

-- Not Inclined

Yes, but I'm afraid to type it lest I lose some fingers.

To pre-empt further inquiry and not "seem rude and/or too sensitive," I suggest two steps.

The second is to find a phrase that deflects people gently. "It's a long story (smile)" works on many levels: It's true, apparently; it's a cliche, thus a proven, innocuous way of saying "Get out of my face" to people with any social acuity; and it sets up your next deflection of tone-deaf people who keep pressing ("I'd rather not tell the story, thanks").

The first step? Put down your dukes. Your frustration is well-founded; just about anyone visibly interesting, for whatever reason, reaches the point of wanting to throw haymakers at people who ask the same damn question everyone else has asked every time you've appeared in public since you were old enough to speak.

But: The question is new to each person who asks it.

So, as entitled as you are to your anger, no one person caused it -- meaning it's not fair to make any one person pay.

It is fair, however, to think highly of those who don't grill you. You have a built-in doink filter; consider that your lemonade.

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