I am often asked, “Where are you from?” While I look Asian, I was raised by a Caucasian family in the Midwest and have an American English (more specifically Midwestern) accent. (My husband has pointed out that my accent becomes even more pronounced when I am with my family). Many people with whom I have discussed this question also believe the meaning behind this question can be confusing for those of us who are asked. Several possible intended questions come to mind:
- Do they want to know my ancestry?
- Do they want to know my nationality?
- Do they want to know why I pronounce words with a Midwestern accent when I don’t look like I would?
- Are they just curious to know if I have lived in another location besides Washington, D.C., since many people who live here did not grow up here?
A couple of years ago, I lived and worked in smaller towns in Virginia. The people there were nice, but many had not been exposed to the diversity we are fortunate to have in the Washington metro area. People would frequently ask, “Where are you from?” One co-worker even asked, “Is your boyfriend (we were dating at the time) American?” She was well-intentioned, but what she did not understand was that while I look Asian, I have been an American citizen all my life. I was raised by an American family and lived all but five months of my life in the United States (with the exception of living and working abroad).
When I am asked this question of “Where are you from?”, I generally start by telling them that I am a Midwesterner since I spent the first 23 years of my life there, which constitutes for over half of my life. I was raised there, I attended the University of Wisconsin and lived six years in Chicago, IL, so yes, I consider myself a Midwesterner. When this response is followed by a confused look, or one that shows me I have not answered their question, I explain that I was born in Seoul, Korea. Sometimes I get more raised eyebrows. That is when I realize they want to know why I do not sound like I have been raised by Korean parents.
I say this with a sweeping generalization because many children, while raised by parents who are non-native American English speakers, have General American English accents with no hints of similar accents as their parents might. Children pick up other accents from their environment, from their parents, their surroundings, other kids and radio and t.v. Their adaptability helps them adopt both mannerisms and the stress and intonation patterns of those around them. That is why learning other languages is so much easier at a young age.
Sometimes I need to explain that I was adopted by a Caucasian family when I was five months old. This response usually seems to satisfy people’s questions, but makes me wonder, why didn’t they just ask one of those questions? I think people are often sensitive about offending people of a different race or who have an accent. Personally, if I am asked in a nice way, I am happy to proudly tell you about my background. But beware, you may get a long answer!
What about you? When people ask you where you’re from, what do you respond, and how do you feel about being asked this question?