Where are you from?

“Where are you from?” is a very simple four worded question, but what could be embedded  is an ongoing questionnaire of multiple levels or even an interrogation.

From a young age, I learnt that this question is not just a one-question and straight short answer combination. Depending on where you are, who you are speaking with or maybe how you feel, there can be a variety of answers to respond with. Based on this question, people make judgement on who you are, how they feel about you and whether or not to continue the conversation. Somehow, this four-worded question does not seem so simple anymore.

Once as a Grade 6 primary school student, I went competing in a Netball game as Gold Keeper with my school’s team. While my team was doing a marvellous job hogging the ball and shooting goals at the other end of the court, the Goal Shooter who stood nearby decided to ask me my country of origin. I answered with “I was born in Australia” to which she said I was wrong and explained because of what I looked like, there was no way I was Australian. That Goal Shooter followed on with the question “No No… Where did your family come from.” Huh? I thought. The ball suddenly came to our side of the court and that conversation never continued.

Fast forward a few years, I had an encounter where my country of origin wasn’t the only thing in question. Day 2 of my first year of university, I had my first compulsory Law tutorial. Feeling stressed and unsettled, I looked at everyone in the room and questioned why I had chosen Law for my future. The tutor introduced himself and started the roll. Each person confirmed their name, said what they did before coming to this university and shared a hobby. My name was the last to be called because of the surname. Just about to introduce myself, the tutor interrupted and asked me “So, where are you from?” Staring at him, I answered “Australia”. His next question was “So is this your real name? Because some of you have an Asian name right?” Experiencing many emotions, but content, I answered him with “What does your roll say?” The tutor reads the name from his roll. Narrowing my look at him, I said “Yes, that is my name. I am from Australia” and nothing else. That was the last time I went to that tutorial.

A few weeks ago, a friend and I went for a stroll along a river walk by the Brisbane River. We stopped at a point to relax. While enjoying the view, a man who just came out of a small cruise boat approached us. Turns out he worked on the cruise and was done for the day. He asked where we were from and my friend answered first saying she is a local but just enjoying a relaxing day. Next, he asked “Are you guys students?” Again, my friend answered first. I think he noticed I hadn’t said a word so he directed a question at me by saying “What are you studying at the moment?”  My response was “Oh, I’m not studying. Just spending time visiting.” He laughed, saying, I have a strong Aussie accent and guessed I must be a local. Smiling politely, we greeted goodbye and continued on our own ways. Such a minor encounter, yet my friend and I thought it was interesting how the guy assumed I was not from here and commented on the way I spoke.

Recently, on a bus tour to Fraser Island, I met a mixture of people attending the tour including young backpackers, school kids, retirees and couples. Towards the end of the tour, an old couple and myself were having a cup of tea near the bus. The tour driver had kindly prepared some tea, coffee and cookies for guests as a treat for the ride. The couple asked “Lovely, isn’t it? So, where you from?” I said I was based in Brisbane and the lady responded with “Oh, so are we! Haha I was expecting you to be from some exotic place instead.” I then told her I had lived in Japan for the past 2.5 years. That sparked interest. For the next 20 minutes before returning to the bus, we talked more about Japan, her recent travels and her grandchildren. Before getting back on the bus, she said she really enjoyed our conversation and glad we had it. I was too.

Friends have heard my random encounters with people asking me the “Where are you from?” question. The story people reacted most to have been how the tutor treated me. Rude, harassment and discrimination was how certain friends described it. What I learnt was to not let it happen again and stand up for myself. Thinking about the lady who I spoke with on Fraser Island, I didn’t mind how the lady reacted when I said I was from Brisbane and she thought that was boring. A dear friend said that her reaction could be considered as micro-discrimination. Is it? To me, it did not come across as rude. What came to mind was I think people just don’t know how to continue a conversation without context when the opposite person provides you with an answer that (you think) isn’t interesting at first.

The time where “I am from Australia” seems to be a sufficient answer to others seems to be when we are travelling overseas. You meet many people when travelling and the “Where are you from” question is a typical and safe question to open a conversation. This four-worded question seems simple and harmless, but some part of us who is asking hope it is a place that isn’t too close to home and would trigger further interesting conversations. We never say this out loud of course. People initiate a conversation out of courtesy. The challenge is trying to carry on the conversation. We can only hope once it’s started, it’s a good and interesting one.

So, where am I from? I usually answer this question with “I am from Australia.” You know that already. Others like myself would use the acronym ABC. Australian Born Chinese. Australian should be clear as mud. But the Chinese part really isn’t that accurate, because neither of my parents are from China. My dad was from Hong Kong and Mum was born in Vietnam. So what does that make me? ABHHKV = Australian born half Hong Kong and Vietnamese? How complicated does that sound? No one can blame me for choosing the simplified version and telling people the place I was born in. Technically, it is the right answer.

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