July 1, 2014
“Where are you from?” It’s a question I get all too frequently. It’s seemingly benign, a marker of curiosity, yet I’ve always found it awkward, sometimes off-putting, and occasionally angering. I’m a tall, brown-skinned man with close-cropped hair and glasses, who might pass for any of a number of ethnicities. Somehow, which one I represent matters most to the questioner, while their own background is simply considered the “norm”. I’m generally mild-mannered, and as a Buddhist believe in not taking offense even when it is offered - but questions like this make me aware of an inner surliness. Sometimes, the parleying proceeds like this.
“Well, I’ve lived in the Bay Area longer than anywhere else.”
“No, but where are you really from?”
“I grew up all over the South and Midwest, and went to school on the East Coast.”
“Yes, but where are you really from? Where are you from-from?” Or even worse, “Yes, but where are your parents from?”
Sometimes, with resignation, I let the cat out of the bag. “I was born in India.”
Then proceeds their lengthy tales about how much they love India, how beautiful Pondicherry is (I’ve never been), or how they met their Guru in Rishikesh. They have associated me with an exotic “otherness”. Sometimes, they start telling me about how awful Indian women have it, and how awful Indian men are. “You know, the rape, the poor widows, the divorced.” Of course, I nod my head in agreement. Rape and domestic violence (worldwide, not just India or the U.S.) have been deeply troubling issues for my entire adult life, and ones that I do my best to engage with in my work and personal life. I’ve tried to be supportive of the issues of Indian and all women my whole life, starting with the single mother who immigrated with me from India when I was a year-and-a-half old, looking for a better life. She had endured an abusive marriage, and impressed me with her own living example of strength and determination. She broke a few stereotypes in her day, and continues to do so.
But still, the questioner’s line of reasoning leave me shaking my head. The implication is that I’m not quite a real American, and moreover, that somehow my humanity is tainted in comparison to theirs. I’m not really “from” here. It takes me back to the occasions where I’ve been told to “go back to where you came from!” (In Boston on July 4th, among other times.) “What, you mean Detroit?”
Schoolyard-style taunts aside, “where are you from?” is layered in stereotypes and assumptions. “Oh, you’re an Indian man! That means you’re smart, or spiritual!” Or a rapist. Perhaps they think I’m a smart, spiritual rapist – that combination has been known to exist in nature, after all, from Catholic priests to Indian sadhus. I’m either made “bad” or “good”, dangerous or safe; if the questioner can place me, name me, I become manageable. Stereotypes exert their power as mechanisms of organizing and simplifying the world; breaking them is radical, but members of minority groups know they have to do this every day. “I didn’t fight to become a free black man,” said Stephen Biko. “I fought to become me.”
I have friends who break out angry scowls and words anytime anyone asks this question, which can be seen as either ignorance or micro-aggression, replete with implications. It is, ultimately, a question that seeks to control identity. Here in the Bay Area, some people in particular seem predisposed to think I’m a software engineer, because that’s apparently the Indian male patent. When I say I’m a psychiatrist they are invariably flustered. “What could a South Asian man know about emotions?” Heard of the Buddha, anyone?
But even the Buddha had to deal with confusion about his identity. After his enlightenment, a passerby was struck by his shining visage, and asked him “Are you a man? Are you God?” He simply answered, “no – I’m awake.”
I’ve thought about using this kind of tactical but informative comeback. “Where are you from?” and the even baser “What are you?” would get met with “Earth” and “Human” respectively. Or maybe, even more playfully, “I was born on Earth, but before that, it’s top secret.”
“Where are you from?”
I’ve thought of saying, “where I’m from is less important than where I’m going.” Evasive, yes, and who among us is sure where we’re going? I think we’re all still trying to get to America, with a capital A for Acceptance. I’d like my answer to their question to open a space for each of us to be a little unsure of where we’re really coming from. Although the question sometimes makes me feel surly, I don’t want to be surly, and perhaps waste an opportunity for genuine relationship. That, after all, is the goal: to break free of stereotypes and prejudices, and to define ourselves through our relatedness rather than merely our supposed “identities”. People become people through other people, as the Ubuntu proverb wisely states. We make and remake each other with our contact, from our neighborhoods down to our neurons.
The next time you ask me “where are you from?” expect me to reply with this pugnacious riddle, of pure American vintage and Zen at the same time:
“Who wants to know?”
Who is asking the question?
© 2014 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.
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As a bonus, watch these two funny takes on things that Asian Americans hear, as well as a bit of my poetic take on the subject: