Where Were You From?

Living in the UK and in North America as an ethnic minority, I am often asked in different situations: “Where were you from?” And in fact, with the growing ethnic, linguistic and cultural complexity of the Hong Kong population, I was asked that question fairly frequently even there. How this question is being asked of course indicates different sociopolitical presumptions and connotations of the questioner. While some people are sincerely and genuinely curious about who I am, others often turn the conversation into a kangaroo-court-styled investigation, making me feel not only uncomfortable, but also violated.

I do not intend to say that this is a “white-versus-non-white” issue. In fact, here in London, most people who asked me this question were first-generation immigrants–like myself–who were traumatized by this question themselves, but might not have thought through the implications of imposing the same question onto another person. But by asking such question, the questioner inadvertently adopt a position of power analogous to the one historically occupied by the dominant group in a given society.

In recent months, I began to talk to some of my fellow academic scholars and graduate students about their own experiences. And in fact, last night, my own partner had a mini fight with me over the issue. Hence, I decided that it might not be a bad idea to start writing some of my ideas down and share it. In the long run, I am sure that many of my friends–and enemies–could carry the conversation to a different level.

To begin with, the question “Where were you from?” often carries a presupposition: that you, being of ethnic minority, had to be coming from somewhere. While ethnic minorities who were born in the UK, US and Canada could dodge this question by confidently asserting that they were born in these countries. Those of us who were indeed born or even brought up somewhere–but had not been living in our “native countries” for a long time period–could not possibly attempt to round up an unpleasant conversation that easily. We might want to remember that the question “Where were you from?,” no matter how pleasantly it is being raised, is in fact a territorial and authorial marker. Translated: “I, by means of my birth right, demand you to declare whence you came!”

Like many academic scholars, I have multiple geopolitical identities. I was born in Hong Kong. I grew up there until I was seventeen. I came to England to study for two years. After that, I went to the United States, where I studied and worked (hmm … Dear Homeland Security and CIA: of course, legally and not simultaneously) for eighteen years. Soon after I left the UK, my parents and I became full British citizens, but my parents did not choose to settle down in the UK. Two-and-a-half years ago, I got my first academic position in Montréal, Québec, and since the beginning of this year, I moved to London where I teach in a university. But then, even when I lay out my lifelong sojourns to you, I am merely outlining my travelogue. Geopolitical identities are far more complex and unsettling than a timeline.

A lot of people do not understand that by asking “Where were you from?,” they are stirring up an assemblage of traumatic memories, sociopolitical affects and histories of political asymmetries. But of course, many people who ask this question are merely interested in where you were born, and then assume that, like themselves, you have a relatively unified and coherent sense of national identity and geopolitical belonging, and they want to get a sense why you end up being in their territories or disturbing their comfort zone. But in so doing, the questioner has effectively erased my subjectivity, individuality and life history and reduce me as a mere representation of the way they imagine me in my native environment.

For example, unless I want to “lie” in order to get away from my potential interrogation, I would tell people honestly that I was born in Hong Kong, and I lived in North American for about twenty years. This answer often opens up–without my intention for doing so–an opportunity for the questioner to tell me her or his own experience of travelling to Hong Kong, or her or his own impression of Hong Kong. Of course, this type of “showing off how much one enjoys Hong Kong” is supposed to be flattering. Yet, I would notice that whether I agree or disagree, or whether I hold a different opinion about the place or not, really doesn’t matter! In other words, as a native representative from Hong Kong, I am here only to confirm what the questioner believes about Hong Kong, not even as an informer who can supply further knowledge about Hong Kong.

The question “Where were you from?” as a conversation opener in fact reduces the person being asked as nothing more than a biological life-symbol of the questioner’s imagination of some far off land or culture. Who I am in the present, what I do for a living, or professionally, what I do for research or what kind of political subjectivity I actually have as an individual is entirely erased. The question in fact presumes that the only inter-connection between the questioner and me as the sociopolitical other, is how I, as a biological life, was originated and brought up in her or his version of my supposedly native environment. In fact, the question immediate cuts off any possibility of inter-subjective connection in the first place. Cognitive scientists claim that this is the most hard-wired way by which the human brain categorizes its sense-perceptions, but they also suggest that critical reasoning could help the brain overcome most desires for constructing and believing in prototypes.

In such scenario, the imaginary difference between the questioner’s self and the interrogated other is often presumed to be unbridgeable. A few of my students had once asked me: But do you suggest that we should all overlook our differences and treat us as the same? Not really. The idea is that by presuming that the self and the other are incommensurably or even intrinsically different, we run into two problems. First, it overlooks the historical legacy of Euro-American colonialism, which had effectively universalized Euro-American values, commodities, standards, measurements or even languages around the world. For those people who replied to me: “But you speak really good English,” they have a tendency to forget that English, for example, was imposed upon most schools in Hong Kong as the sole medium of teaching. In other words, I have encountered the English language since my first day in kindergarten. As a matter of fact, my first lesson there was to recite, and therefore show that I could do so, the alphabets in the English language. European languages and cultures are in fact EXTRATERRITORIAL. In the ears of the person who is being commented, “You speak good English” is not a compliment. Rather, it congratulates the questioner’s culture as an all-universalizing one by trying to compliment the other on successfully earning her or his entry ticket into a supposedly universalizing, yet culturally particular, linguistic formation. The conversation is indeed symptomatic of a structural paradox in Eurocentricism: European culture is at once so particular that non-Europeans are not supposed to understand; yet it is also so universalizing that everyone is supposed to know and be assimilated by it.

Second, perhaps more importantly, the idea of inter-cultural or even inter-civilizational incommensurability effectively cuts off any further possibility of establishing a dialogue, which, once again, many of the questioners have no intention to establish in the first place. Yet, I am not suggesting that only “white” Euro-Americans are “guilty” of this problem. In fact, after more than a century of colonization, decolonization, globalization and other forms of extraterritorial occupations, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, for example, would other themselves vis-à-vis their Euro-American others. For example, a former student told me that he was “told” that “Japanese people” all get drunk easily. I have no doubt that some people really did tell my student that piece of belief about Japan, and presented to him as a piece of knowledge. The fact is that for some East Asians, for instance, the Euro-American notion of cultural or civilizational East-West divide is in fact taken for granted as an epistemological presumption, to the extent that the “self” is defined precisely in the image of the distantiated other.

But to go back to the question “Where were you from?,” we must also think carefully about the potential traumatic memories and political affects that accompany it. As a naturalized citizen of the UK, for example, the question signals to me that no matter what I do or how hard I try, I am a priori considered unimaginable to be part of the sociopolitical community. As a native Hong Konger, whenever I am asked that question in Hong Kong, the question signals to me that the political community is ready to exclude me whenever they deem necessary. In other words, the question has the effect of demonstrating the power of the dominant political group in a community over the inclusion and exclusion of what the community deems to be the others.

Needless to say, the million-dollar question for many Hong Kongers is: “Oh, so are you Chinese?” (or in its assertive form: “Oh, so you are Chinese” or even “Oh, you are from China”). This opens up a political affect that many Hong Kongers are afraid to confront on a day-to-day basis: our long-term struggle with our lack of national identity, regional liminality, colonial mis-identification or mis-recognition, postcolonial inclusion-exclusion from the national imaginary of China, actual political pressures and traumas, cultural and linguistic divides within China, etc. And what makes things worse is that most questioners would not wait for an answer or accept an alternative, i.e. anything that would challenge her or his preconception of what “Hong Kong” is supposed to be. In the end, the questioner always assumes the right to predetermine and universalize her or his belief and turn it into an unquestionable knowledge.

In my case, there are numerous further complications in my life experience that makes the question “Where were you from?” a dicey matter. I am, after all, a naturalized citizen in the UK, and I do feel a sense of belonging here to a certain extent, but I cannot comfortably say that I am coming “home.” This is not because I do not want to be part of the community, but there are many people who a priori exclude me from the normative British imagination in the first place. And of course, I do not fit into the narrow definition of Britishness linguistically, ethnically and culturally. Having lived in North America for twenty years, I would feel myself at home being considered “American.” But then, without any legal status there, who am I to claim this sacred identity? In fact, even some of my close friends would find it ridiculous for me to use that term. Yet, I graduated from three American universities; I learned to drive there; I fell in love there; I had relationships there; I was engaged in political debates there; and I paid taxes (to put it in a more neoliberal way) there! After all, my partner is American. In this sense, what part of me is actually not “American?” (Dear Homeland Security and CIA: This is, in academic terms, a rhetorical question. It does not express any real intention to be American in the legal sense of it.)

Alright, my parents live in Hong Kong and I do have childhood friends from there. And as a self-respected scholar on Hong Kong cinema, I keep myself abreast of the latest developments in Hong Kong. But Hong Kong is at most one of the many homes from where I came. And by virtue of not living there in the last twenty-two years, it is probably the most problematic–if not the least substantiated–entrance into my subjectivity and professional life.

Ok, one might say that native New Yorkers love to challenge other people by asking Americans from other regions: “Where were you from?” The connotation is of course the rest of the country is the backwater of New York City (and yes, that includes the outer boroughs). But on the global scale, this is indeed an immense psychological and geopolitical legacy for people from former European colonies or American-dependent territories. Former colonies are in fact by definition the backwater of the Euro-American-centric world view. If you find people apprehensive about their “being from” Alabama, don’t be surprised that we do not necessarily feel superior when we say that we are from “Hong Kong” or “Vietnam.” This is not to say that we are not proud of who we are, but we could anticipate–from the moment the question “Where were you from?” is asked–the assemblage of historically predetermined connotations that accompany the questioner’s set of prototypes. And worse, the questioner always answers: “Oh, Hong Kong is such a prosperous, beautiful, and busy city with good food.” Translated: “Oh boy, after we have severed your umbilical chord, you made it! And god forbids, you are potentially my next threat!”

If you ever try challenging your questioner by offering what seems to them conflicting pieces of information, you might end up having a police-styled interrogation. Some people have trouble accepting my travelogue in the first place, let alone grasping the political problems that accompany it. My grandmother is a second-generation Cuban-Chinese who had never set foot in China until the age of 17; my father was born in Canton, not Hong Kong; my mother came from Macau; most of my mother’s families are actually Chinese-Canadians and my grandmothers’ families have all settled down in Latina America and the United States. To top it, my grandfather belonged to one of those tribes in South China that do not have a clear understanding of their ethnic origins, and I am not allowed to set foot in his home village–and therefore, disowned by his clan.

Most certainly, we all have been in situations in which we were dying of curiosity to try figuring out who the other person is, although we might be censored by our conscience that this is not an appropriate question to ask. But perhaps we might want to remember that asking people from where they came is potentially a very personal and difficult question. And like many difficult questions, you would need to establish trust with the other person and to earn your entry into this person’s subjectivity. Confessing to a stranger my travelogue in front of a tube station and to explain to her or him all the intricacies involved is not that different from a person confessing to a stranger the procedures, trials and tribulations of a difficult divorce. And are you prepared for that in the first place?

Once a certain level of trust is established, your “friend” will feel more comfortable to let go some of the information, and the two of you can put the different pieces of the puzzle–together with the complexity of each individual piece–together. And if you were dying to ask a stranger–or for whatever peculiar reason, you have to ask–try this: “I am from place X, may I have the permission to ask about your background? I am asking only because of …” This way, you are not trying to exercise some kind of imaginary birth right to interrogate what appears to you to be a foreigner whose toes step on your sacred territory. You are volunteering your own background; you ask for permission to see if the other party would reciprocate; and you express your reason why you ask–even simply because of curiosity. In fact, you are also allowing the other person the room to provide a more detailed explanation, rather than forcing her or him to come up with a pithy: “I am from Exotic Land A.”

Remember: Just that you have a relatively unified and self-coherent life-trajectory doesn’t meant that everyone has the same privilege. In fact, your ontological consistency is often built upon the inconsistency and chaos of those you other.

In the end, why would you want to ask the question “Where were you from?” unless you are prepared to listen, accept and connect with mutual respect? We may all want to remember that the question “Where were you from?” is actually incapable of opening a door onto another person’s subjectivity or personality. Rather, as Kafka puts it: It is a door that opens for you, and for you only.

One thought on “Where Were You From?

  1. Nobody has a right to interrogate you, as if they owned the ground you stand on. The best thing is just to give a big smile and answer, “It’s complicated; I can’t really answer that question.” Or: “From all over, how about you?” (Since often they are just looking for a chance to talk about themselves.)

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