“Where are you from?” For some, it’s a question that embraces diversity and culture. For others, it’s one that hurts their sense of belonging. In some instances it carries malice, while in others, it is asked with genuine curiosity and empathy.
In a frightening time for our university where racially-targeted threats and abuse are rampant, it becomes our collective responsibility to remind our ethnically-diverse students that these are not attacks on themselves, but the university as a whole. This starts with self-awareness of our interactions, and how they are perceived in the eyes of people who are different from ourselves.
I talked with students of multifaceted backgrounds to hear their stories of being asked where they come from, how it affects their identity and their thoughts on whether there is a presence of xenophobia in New Zealand.
Responses have been slightly edited and abridged solely for the purpose of maintaining publishing standard. Respondents have chosen to keep anonymity.
How do you identify with regard to ethnicity?
L: The easy answer is to just say I am a kiwi. The long answer is to say that I am a kiwi, but a NZ-Chinese mix. In terms of my mannerisms, behaviour, and upbringing, New Zealander is the most apt description. I have elements of Chinese culture, but I wouldn’t ever claim to be Chinese.
How do you choose to identify with regard to nationality?
L: [I feel that] this one is a lot easier. It’s like “what is your sex?” compared to “what is your gender?”. Nationality is the objective one, and I am definitely half-Chinese, quarter-Welsh, and a quarter-Fijian.
P: New Zealander
B: Chinese-New Zealander
How would you respond to “where are you from?” being asked by a close friend?
L: I would just give my exact nationality. My close friends are well aware of my mannerisms and cultural upbringing; Heck, I’ve been with some of them for most of my life. Many of my friends are pretty much identical to me, having been born of a non-European descent and raised in a western, NZ environment. As such, we all share a pretty similar experience growing up. Probably explains why they’re my friends; we all share a mutual understanding of our underlying heritage from our parents, but also a large portion of our personalities are defined from our environment, New Zealand.
P: The shore lol. I’m Chinese, yeah.
B: If they were my friend, I would assume they would be asking what neighbourhood I’m from. I’m not here to be friends with people who racially alienate me.
How would you respond to “where are you from?” being asked by a stranger?
L: In this context, I would reply with “I’m a kiwi”, or “I’m from New Zealand.” A stranger wouldn’t understand the intricacies of myself within a few seconds of meeting me, obviously, and I wouldn’t want to burden them with a pie chart diagram and accompanying percentage breakdown of my exact heritage. Saying I am a kiwi? It’s an easy way to say I am multicultural. I am clearly Asian from my appearance, but my response would tell them I am heavily westernised. And to be honest, that’s probably enough info. If they asked again, I would let them guess. That’s always a lot of fun, and I can see what people think I look like!
B: I usually get them to guess until I get bored, then I just agree with whatever one they offer. I’ve been Japanese and Korean a number of times. Alternatively, I really begin to dig into my life story and my parent’s immigration until they get bored and try to interrupt me with whatever personal knowledge they have about China/Shanghai/the continent of Asia.
In either context, how would this question make you feel?
L: If a friend asked me, I would be disappointed they forgot.
If a stranger asked, it would be contextual. Someone my age asking after a standard “Nice to meet you!” spiel wouldn’t be odd and makes for a great conversation starter. Just let them guess, and it can break the ice.
If some complete stranger asked without any rhyme or reason, I would be a bit creeped out. But honestly, who wouldn’t be creeped out by a stranger asking questions unprovoked?
P: A friend [asking] is okay because we all wonder, a stranger [would be] weird and gross.
B: When I was less secure of my ethnic identity, it made me feel incredibly isolated from wider ‘Pakeha’ society. It made me feel like an outsider and reminded me of my difference. However, at this point, I guess I’m older and just don’t really have anything to prove to anyone – it doesn’t faze me. The people who ask that question are just unaware of its implications, so I personally feel there isn’t a point in getting riled up about it. I’ve just become more secure in my ethnic identity so that I can’t be broken by a stranger on the street.
Some quick scenarios, let me know how applicable you feel these are to you.
Two of our respondents said it was unlikely that “‘nationality’ would be a barrier towards which ethnicity they choose to identify as”. One felt it was likely.
Two of our respondents said it was likely that “‘nationality’ would be a label they would struggle with”. One felt it was unlikely.
All of our respondents felt strongly that it was unlikely for them “to be offended when they are asked where they come from”.
All of our respondents felt likely to “feel comfortable identifying as a New Zealander”.
Do you have any notably negative or positive experiences to share of people asking where you come from?
L: I am aware that a lot of people do, more mixed girls than guys. That being said, I LOVE being asked where I’m from. I get a bit flustered, but it is a fun conversation starter, and almost always, 99% of the time, is just an innocent question. I ask this question to other mixed people as well. I mean, I just have a curiosity that must be satiated sometimes. Letting people guess is always fun too.
P: Yeah I was being an extra on a movie shoot, and this girl was also from the shore, and she goes “hmm where are you from? It’s just that you speak English with such a kiwi accent ahaha”. Or at work, someone from the office next door asked me where I was from, it got really awkward, and my boss said Student Job Search, which was nice because I think she knew I didn’t want to answer in that context
B: My mum really likes the time that we went on a bush walk and this older Pākeha fella asked us where we were from and I said “Auckland. Where are YOU from?” I think I was sixteen, and I think my mum didn’t realise what sassy teenager I was.
Are there any other conversational phrases which make you feel racially isolated?
L: No singular phrase, but man, the one thing about being mixed that bums me is that I never got to learn Chinese… and nothing is worse than trying to explain to the old Chinese lady at the bus stop that “wo bu hui shuo zhongwen” (translates to: I can’t speak Chinese).
P: When they slag off Chinese international students, or like how I’m not like those Chinese people.
B: Mostly conversations about immigration, international students and housing prices, because they’re fuelled by xenophobic violence, there’s a much more vitriolic fire. Plus, a conversation means you really get into how they developed such low empathy for people that were just…born in a different country lol.
Any additional comments?
L: This is where I want to talk a bit about piecing together an identity as a mixed person, because honestly, this is the most talked about part of being mixed, at least in the circles I frequent. Typically, I’ve seen people struggle to identify as a whole part of either race; they feel as if they don’t belong to either one, that they cannot claim a race to be theirs.
I am gonna say that I have never felt this to any measurable extent. I think this is owed to the fact that I am from New Zealand. For this, I am thankful. New Zealand is an absolute melting pot of cultures and races, so being mixed means almost nothing. So many immigrants choose New Zealand, so you never feel alone as someone who has to split 2 or even 3 cultures.
Sometimes, I do wish I could speak Chinese, and that I had more in-depth understanding of some Chinese culture. But I never feel as if I have missed out on much, because I am able to experience not HALF of a culture, but almost TWO cultures. I can safely say I have experienced pretty much all of New Zealand culture having been raised here, and enough of Chinese culture to feel as if I have had my fair share. Sometimes I feel as if I have experienced more culture than any ‘monoracial’ person can, without an immense amount of time and travel.
I love being mixed. From the silly questions you get asked, to the “genetic superiority” I supposedly have, I think it is just a benefit overall. I feel like I get to experience two cultures to a shallower depth than most people get to explore one, but honestly, I think that’s a good thing.
What I’m trying to say is you guys should marry outside your race. Make the world a better place. In a couple hundred years, we’re all gonna be a vague shade of brown anyway. Wonder what we’ll hate each other over then? Height?
P: There are better ways of asking the question but also does it really matter?
B: I think that while “where are you from?” is an isolating question, it lands more on the scale of racism that’s more casual and implicit. Sometimes it comes from genuine curiosity, and people come from a time when that was a more acceptable thing to say. I think that only through larger conversations can you understand the depths of people’s ignorance and racist behaviour that can lie in people who may never ask where you are from. Maybe having people ask where I’m from seems small when “go back to your country” is growing in popularity.