writing > Meta/Life > Where Are You From
Last Updated: 2016 March
3 minute read

Where Are You From

This question is a popular modern gripe among Asian Americans. Really this bothers the descendant of an immigrant of pretty much any ethnicity, in almost any country.

I understand some of the motivations behind that question – a succinct question and answer to create a rough model of who I am based on their knowledge of the world. What language(s) does he know? What are his core moral values? What kind of culture is he familiar with? Is he religious, and what type? What food might he like? What did he probably study or work on? What are some of his favorite pastimes? And of course, what ethnicity is he? That last question could be anything from idle curiosity to subconscious racist inclinations, and this is the aspect that mostly bothers people.

There are however a few people like me who take a slightly different flavor of discomfort in the question – the concept of associating a person’s origin and identity with a single geopolitical entity has become an uncomfortable one. And that’s the primary assumption made by the question. For the typical use case, the answer to “where are you from?” is roughly equivalent to or a sub/superset of the answers to “where were you born?”,
“where did you grow up?”,
“what passport do you have?”,
“where’s your first language from?”,
“where is home? where are your closest friends?”,
“what region’s pop culture are you most familiar with?” and
“where are your cultural values most prevalent/most likely from?”

I was born in my mother’s hometown of Thiruvananthapuram, India. Within a few months I was flown to Muscat, capital of the quaint Middle Eastern country Oman, where I grew up (0-18). I visited my parents’ hometowns in the southern tip of India for approximately 3 weeks every year. I studied in Boston (18-22) where I made most of my closest friends, and moved to the Bay to start working for BitGym (22-24). I was then a digital nomad for nearly 2 years (24-26) residing in 9 different East and South-East Asian countries before returning to the Bay. I know less than 10 words of Arabic after 18 of my spongiest years in Oman. On the other hand, I can hold conversation with native Japanese speakers where I spent less than 3 months of my life. Mostly because that was not where I learned the language – I watch more than twice as much anime as I do Hollywood, Bollywood, western television and cricket combined. As you could guess, my cultural values are a mashup of everything I have come in contact with.

I am now uncomfortable identifying with any of those places. I lived in an immigrant bubble in Oman and learned nearly nothing about their culture. I have grown so distant from many of my family’s Indian values that it feels like an insult to them to say I’m an Indian like them. I have felt alienated in America thanks to a somewhat oppressive immigration atmosphere that constantly reminds me I’m not from here. And of course, I have no claim to being of anywhere else any more than someone who took a vacation to Hawaii could claim to being Hawaiian.

I’m sure there are more people like me, but I won’t try to speak for them. But at least for me, I’d love for people to no longer try to identify me based on “where I’m from.”

I’m not “from” anywhere, and I’m okay with that. It’d be awesome if you’d be okay with that too.

cross-posted: on Medium