‘Where Are You From?’: Thoughts From A Second-Generation American

Flickr: The White House

President Barack Obama

Aside from the politically-charged debate surrounding President Barack Obama’s decision to reveal his long-form birth certificate this week, the story highlighted something for me on a highly personal level: questioning the “American-ness” of second-generation Americans.

First, a word about me: I’m Iranian-American, born and raised in D.C. and Maryland, respectively. And on the numerous occasions I’ve been asked, “Where are you from?” I give the accurate response to that question: D.C. and Maryland. Rural Maryland, in fact, where bringing cowbells to both football games and high school graduations is the norm, and a common excuse for being late to class is claiming you got stuck behind a tractor on a two-lane road. I can’t think of anything more stereotypically small-town American.

My response is typically met with a blank stare, and perhaps a follow-up of “No, really. Where?” I know the answer I gave is not the one wanted, despite its accuracy.

If President Obama has to prove his “American-ness,” what hope is there for the rest of us? I usually conduct my daily life oblivious to the fact that perhaps some people view me as less American than my white and black brothers and sisters. And the stark rise in hate crimes against people of my ethnicity gives me even more reason to feel anxious.

Asking “Where are you from?” may seem innocent enough, and I have no doubt that the vast majority of the people who ask it of me don’t mean to imply that I’m not American – it’s often asked by people who have nothing but nice things to say about Persian culture. But regardless of its intent, the question reminds me that because of my appearance and “exotic” name, I’m “other.” It assumes that I can’t possibly be from “here.”

I know I’m not alone. One in five children in the U.S. has at least one immigrant parent (three percent of U.S. children have a Middle Eastern parent). In D.C., 19,000 of the city’s 111,000 children were born in the U.S. to immigrant parents. How many of them are asked where they are from?

All of this isn’t to say that I, or other second-generation Americans, aren’t also proud of our heritage and roots. But to be American means living in a multicultural (and increasingly multiracial) society. Does one ethnic group really have more of a right to claim American identity than another? (Notable exception: Native Americans.) I, like all of us, can be both proud to be an American and celebrate my heritage. I take back the cowbell and tractor comment — I can’t think of anything more American than that.

  • http://twitter.com/AFG85 Adam Gurri

    My dad was born in Cuba and my great-grandparents on my mother’s side were all Russian.

  • http://profiles.google.com/leslie.powell Glossolalia Black

    I was born in D.C. to an White American woman and a Black American man. That makes me several generations-in American. Yet I get asked the same question all the time. Us brown folk may well continue to get this question for another ten or twenty years.

  • Akulnishawala

    An older white gentleman said to me the other day, “You know, you don’t an accent at all, yet you look like you’re from somewhere else.” FYI, I am an Indian-American and have long curly hair and a beard. Looking back, I’m just glad I wore “American” clothes that day or who knows what else he might have assumed about me.

  • island girl in a land w/o sea

    thank you for your post.

    i hate the question, “where are you from?” i am 1.5 generation, and like other immigrants, the story of how my family ended up in the US is hardly linear. yet *some* white people seem to demand that i share with them my immigration tale. i don’t share my story — not because i’m not proud of where i come from, because i am — but because my story is precious to me and i’m tired of it being misunderstood or regarded simply as entertaining conversation.

  • Anonymous

    my cambodian friend and my vietnamese self walk to a pub. immediately outside, there is a stranger, likely white, i ask him a few questions about the show going on inside. a short exchange later, he asks

    stranger: are you two filipino? where are you from?
    me: no, i’m from oakland (california)
    s: no, where are you really from?
    m: oakland. if you want to ask about my ethnicity, then ask. i’m from oakland.

  • Elizabeth

    I’m white, with a pallid complexion and freckles and everything, and no one ever asks where I’m from. But I ALWAYS ask people where they’re from. That’s because I grew up in New York, and now living in the Midwest, have been deeply startled by realizing that there are all kinds of places I might move to that aren’t New York.

    I’m sorry about the racist assumptions you have to deal with. They remind me of what I think is the worst casual racism I’ve overheard since moving here: two undergraduate women meeting each other and one mentions she’s from Milwaukee. The city, the other asks? “Oh, no,” the first one says, clearly surprised — “NO ONE lives IN Milwaukee.”

    My jaw dropped and I stared at her. She did not understand why.

  • Dawnsmind

    I’m 36 years old, both my mother and father were born here, as were their parents, and so on and so on at least back 200 years… and yet my whole life “Where are you from?” has been asked of me endlessly. Why, because like Glossolalia said, I am brown. So when I answer “Upstate New York” people screw up their faces and say, (yup, you know what’s coming) “No where are your parents from” and I say “Upstate New York” and then I usually get irritated or bored with the interrogation, oh I mean conversation, and I just say “if what you really want to know is why I look the way I do, then just come out and ask me” and then some folks come to their senses and realize they made some assumptions about me based on my appearance that obviously aren’t true, and the others just get defensive and wonder why I’m so rude when they were just asking a question…

  • Juilok

    Personally, I am annoyed by the question and the people who asked it. I am black with my Mother from the US containing African American & Native American people, then my father is from Africa. I get that “NO, Where are you from question all the time?” because of my name. If I say, NY, no really. Them comes story of my parents. SO, sometimes, I am rude also or I used to say just whatever country would shut the person up first. The ridiculous statement I received, was someone actually trying dictate what country I am from based on there cultural traditions.

  • Duffs86

    Maybe all the people of color who are asked where they are from should ask the “white” person where they are from since the are also immigrants here. Is your own racisim assuming all whites are the same homegrown Americans stunting your curiosity and awareness of who your neighbors are? The only true originial Americans where the Native American Indians. You might be pleasantly surprised to hear where these “white” people orginally came from England, Ireland, Italy, Russia, etc. All white people aren’t the same and didn’t come from the same place.

  • Meenbeen

    Why don’t people ask what they really mean? “You’re interesting looking/ I’ve never seen any one that looks like you/I think you’re facially beautiful- what racial makeup created that?” I guess that is too honest. I’m Indian and my husband is white with Italian, German and French roots. We have a lovely baby girl and I can’t wait to tackle that question for her.

  • TM

    I agree. I am a Muslim African-American and because of my last name, people ask my that question all of the time. I feel like I’m never “black enough” because I’m Muslim (even though my ancestors came here the same way other blacks have- through slavery), and I’m never “Muslim enough” because I’m not stereotipically African or Middle Eastern…

  • CG

    My heritage goes back generations in the U.S., and I get asked that question from time to time as well (also “what are you?”). And I’m about as white as you can be (with some Italian background). Isn’t this supposed to be a melting pot? Aren’t we all “from” somewhere? I love talking to people about their culture and background, but there must be a better way to start that conversation than automatically assuming that someone is from somewhere else.

  • Ballroom4eva

    I was born in DC with an African father and An African-American mother who had very strict rules about speaking correct English. As a result I get asked “Where are you from” -more from black people then any other all the time because of my lack of a typically “black” accent and my African last name. I tell people “I’m from here, just a product of the suburbs.”

  • Sierpien

    I’ve been working on my family’s history for a number of years and one thing is readily apparent. Immigrants’ children always get asked that question. It doesn’t matter if they came from Scandinavia, Germany, Lebanon, Scotland or Siberia.

    I’m not really sure that it is racist really, more that it is part and parcel of the American Experience. We’re all from someplace else and that’s what makes this country so fascinating. Admittedly we’re not very good at phrasing the question, I think part of that is PCness gone mad, but I do honestly believe that for most of us, it is an honest question. I also don’t believe that it’s based in racism, rather egalitarianism. Is the author never curious about where her friends, neighbors, colleagues ancestors came from?

    For what it’s worth, I’m Finnish-German-English by way of Canada. The Finns of Garrison Keillor’s “Finnish Triangle” didn’t have it that easy either, so it’s not just a matter of skin color.

  • TheGoriWife

    My husband is from Pakistan and as a result our son is biracial. As a parent searching for ways to expose that half of his heritage to him, I’m always looking for things – and people – who might help him identify who he is. I wonder what’s a less offensive way to ask people this question? I usually go with “What’s your heritage ?”

  • TheGoriWife

    Just to clarify, my son is bi-cultural and only biracial depending on what theory of race one subscribes to.

  • Dr Oldskool

    I’ve had this same interaction many times. My favorite is when they ask my “nationality.” I’m American, Jackass.

  • http://twitter.com/ElaheIzadi Elahe Izadi

    Hi @afd53ba2b91ac93487fef56c766b9701:disqus , sorry I am just reading this. Thanks for the comment. Sure, I may be interested in where my friends’, neighbors’ and colleagues’ ancestors came from, but to me that’s a different question and implication than asking where my friends, neighbors and colleagues *themselves* are from.

  • Simcha

    Oh yeah, I hate this question too. I get it all the time, especially after correcting people on the proper way to pronounce my name. Irony is then they’ll say…some bs about how “Oh I noticed your accent.” I DON’T have an accent…I grew up in Florida! Geez. My boyfriend says it’s just because people are trying to be interested in you, but I think it’s just plain ignorance and prejudice. 

  • J108

    Guess what, even tenth generation immigrants get asked that question all the time too. Where are you from doesn’t necessarily mean “where are you from because you are not American…” America is a diverse country, just like the article says. Where people come from and the stories they bring with them make the country a richer place to live, whether those stories are from a different neighborhood, city, state, or country. Yes, you may be asked more often if you have an accent or if you don’t look like one of the many groups of people who have been in the US for hundreds of years. And yes, some people are ignorant, racist, or just annoying. But most people are just trying to start a conversation with a common and generic question. You can always ask the person who asked you where you are from where they are from and start a conversation about your own personal histories, meet someone new, and have a good conversation, which is likely all that was intended in the first place.

  • Ghamilton58

    …sound a bit naiive. I agree with you about having a good and casual conversation with new people. However, must it always start with the assumption that the other person is from somewhere else other than America because of his/her looks, “exotic” name, or even accent? I work as a server at a restaurant in downtown, Baltimore, and there isn’t a day people don’t assume I must be a foreigner. Truthfully I find it very annoying. So, here is my question, why don’t they know this?

  • unity_for_all

    What comes to my mind is the expression: “… it doesn’t matter what you say; it matters how you say it!”. People are not stupid. They are usually able to detect that “special” tone from the questioner! Go with your gut feeling responding…