URS: Where are you from?
Since I’m Asian, and look Asian, I often get a question like, “where are you from?” I like to pull the questioner’s leg, and answer, truthfully, “I’m from Cincinnati.” After all, I have lived in Cincinnati 47 years, and that’s half a century, most of my life, which is really where I’m from! The person asking the question might persist, “you know what I mean, where are you really from?” If I’m still having fun, I would emphasize again, “I’m really from Cincinnati, I lived there for 47 years!” Or I might even add, “but my mother was actually born here, right here in Seattle.”
Seeing that the questioner might still not be satisfied, or getting quite puzzled, I would then, to prolong her agony, say “my mother’s parents came over from a coastal city of China, 115 years ago, and the family has 6 generations in America.” That usually, finally, nearly satisfies the questioner, provides some education about the great diversity among Asians, and a bit of a shock to find that my family likely has had more generations in America than hers! Probably quite confusing to most Americans.
I had an Uber driver, on my first Uber ride, not too long ago, who was from Eritrea, and I also pulled her leg with the same kind of dialogue. She was less amused, didn’t quite like my answers, and segued into her real worry, which was that her daughter would soon forget that she is “from Eritrea.” She wasn’t that happy that many children of her own friends seemed to have forgotten their “heritage” and ancestral language. I totally understood, and I empathized with her, reassuring her, in particular, that native language skills are really important, and how we could nurture that. Mainly, I ventured, by insisting on speaking it at home, especially providing more opportunities for grandma to visit often or even live with the family; being immersed in an original language community, like at an ethnic church; and making more visits back to the home country, if she could. She liked that discussion, and probably us, better; “where are you from?” has sensitive emotional implications.
In fact, even as I was growing up in Hong Kong, we had even deeper implications with the question, “where are you from?” Because, in reality, practically no one at the time was actually “from Hong Kong.” Everybody was basically from somewhere else. Most people were from the mainland of China, often just using Hong Kong as a stepping stone, before they moved on to America, Australia, or Southeast Asia. A century before that, Hong Kong was just a pirate island refuge, just a bunch of rocks, until China gave part of it to Great Britain, and it gradually became a true port city.
Its spectacular growth didn’t really occur until hordes of refugees in waves flooded into the city, particularly beginning in the 1940s. Its population burgeoned, and refugees brought in valuable technical and business expertise from the great cities of China. The city flourished amazingly in the laissez-faire British freeport system. “Where are you from” would be a common and important question, since it could open, or close, many doors of opportunity.
People from Swatow (a coastal city in SE China) tended to get together and do business with ga ghee nang, as they say, “our own people,” and Shanghai people similarly. And, the local Cantonese speaking people easily spotted anyone who was not a native Cantonese speaker. Cantonese has a most complex 9 tone language, and any non-native could be recognized the second they open their mouths. I joke that, when a non-native says any Cantonese word, there is more than an 8:1 chance of being wrong!
As I was growing up, if anyone asked “where are you from,” the question was actually phrased even more precisely, something like, “nei heung ha hai bin do,” in Cantonese, or “what village are you from?” Since everybody’s ancestors most likely did come from some sort of an “ancestral village,” this was actually a perfect question.
So, I would generally respond, “I’m a Hakka person, from Wukingfu village.” In modern Mandarin pinyin, a Kejia person, whose ancestors who were from the village of Wujingfu, in Guangdong province. Meaning I am ethnic Hakka, sometimes considered a minority tribe in China, following my father’s clan designations for identification of my ethnicity. And I identified precisely my “real” ancestral village of origin, answering clearly the query, “where are you from?” Really “granular,” as people like to say nowadays. Since my mother was born in the USA, this was really too confusing to even mention, and often, to me, a bit of an embarrassment, if this ever came up. Just too complicated to explain, for a child. Fortunately, at the time, it was not usually necessary to expound on that.
Photo 2: Ancestral Hakka village and home.
This novel way of ascertaining ancestral origin, locating the specific ancestral village, was really a great way of pinpointing more precisely one’s lineage, an important fact in traditional culture. This was likely also helpful since Hong Kong, especially then, had a very confusing mix of people from all kinds of backgrounds, and everyone’s story could actually be very different and interesting. Exotic actually. Growing up, I liked the famous movie, Casablanca, with its exotic mixing of people from all over the world, being there for adventure or passion, or trying to pass through or get away. Hong Kong at the time felt like that. You can read more about my real heritage, in Reggietales.org, “We are all Hakkas.”
At the time, with this great village question, it seemed also like a very logical, and polite, way to “break the ice,” when we first met anyone. After all, most people looked some shade of Asian, or Chinese, and it allowed the opening chatter to be directed along different lines of diversity. Truly, a sort of “where are you really from?” kind of question, like the average American asking an Asian looking person in America, though in that case, in sensitive America, you really might offend someone, if you’re not careful! Like maybe an American born Asian with 6 generations in the USA?
When I moved to Cincinnati, 50 years ago, I tried to learn Mandarin Chinese, mostly from chatting with ethnic Chinese from different parts of the world, since often that was the language more likely to be common to all. I didn’t realize, at first, that the question “where are you from,” had potentially political overtones also. In fact, I asked, quite innocently, that question, literally word for word from Cantonese, in my faulting and faulty Mandarin, “ni xiang xia na li, which village are you from?” to a young lady from Taiwan.
In my subconscious thinking, I just meant which town in Taiwan she was from, or an ancestral connection to maybe even a village in China. This was a multi-layered, loaded question, since there is some sensitivity about Chinese origins among some Taiwanese, which I vaguely knew about. But the sophisticated young lady went even one step further in her indignation, “I’m not from a village, I’m from the city of Taipei.” Of course, Taipei is a dazzling big city, very far removed from a village, and I can understand her indignation! How could I imagine her as a villager!
Both my wife and I have Chinese ancestry, but I grew up in a British colony, while she grew up in Thailand, which has often made me curious about how ancestry and recent location intersect. For example, in answering the question of “where are you from?” I observed the changes in response, with each generation of Thai students who had Chinese ancestry. In my wife’s generation, Thai Chinese (Thai citizens of Chinese ancestry) would always say something like, “I’m from Thailand, but I’m Chinese; or even I’m an overseas Chinese from Thailand.” The word overseas Chinese, Hua qiao: referencing Chinese = hua; living abroad = qiao; definitely signals a very complex relationship, including the underlying implication that the original motherland is actually China.
Subsequent generations basically transitioned to simply saying that, “I’m from Thailand,” making no allusion to any Chinese connection, even though they may have had strong Chinese ancestry. If I asked some more questions like, “were your ancestors indigenous to Thailand?” then it turns out that, in a very large number of cases, all their grandparents were actually originally from China. At that point, they would then hastily add, a bit shyly, “but I don’t know any Chinese.”
Their grandparents actually might even still be speaking Swatow Chinese (the dominant Chinese group that migrated to Thailand a century ago) at home, to each other, and to their own children, while the grandchildren could only understand some simple words, like jia mue, or “eat your congee,” in Swatow, but not enough to really engage in a real conversation.
People living in countries that have had an active discrimination policy against minorities usually take a longer time, and more generations before they lose the “hyphens”. Hyphenated “Malaysian-Chinese” is still an acceptable term of classification of ethnic Chinese living even several generations in Malaysia, possibly reflecting generations of an upside-down affirmative action policy for the majority. Meaning that, instead of giving preferences to the minority, actually preferences are given to the majority, in theory to compensate for differences in income of the majority “natives” compared with the wealth of the “newer” arrivals. Of course, policies like that enshrine differences between majority and minority, and thus minorities remain hyphenated.
It seems that, where 3 things have happened, as in Thailand, there really is no need to be a “hyphenated citizen”: 1) there is reasonable amicable assimilation of a minority into a country; 2) conversion of their ancestral names into the dominant language names, like a last name in Chinese of Chong, into a typically long name in Thai of Chantarasuksom; and 3) gradual loss of the original immigrant language. At that point, they really are “just Thai citizens,” and not Thai-Chinese citizens!
Of course, physical appearances probably could still color this definition. Appearances more like the dominant race will have a faster disappearance of the hyphen! Like my “mixed” 4th, 5th, or 6th generation, American born cousins’ offspring in America! They simply say, “I’m American,” no hyphens at all! And there is no need to answer, “where am I really from?”
I for one, quite like the hyphenated American designation, simply because it is more interesting and fun just to figure out “where I am really from!” Well, at least for a very few generations: indeed, most people really cannot handle this kind of question more than a few generations after the first immigrant one, which is sort of a pity. I kind of wish we could do more in some way. I like the Hawaiian approach of declaring that “I am 1/16th Japanese, 1/8th Filipino, ¼ Hawaiian……..“which one day we might readily do, with all these ancestry DNA gimmicks that are being advertised. I assume that one day we might be able to trace our DNA all the way back to Adam, reflecting the real answer of where I am from, as, “I am really from the Garden of Eden.” Just 100% human, no hyphens.