A Seemingly Simple Question: Where are you From?
August 22, 2018
Living abroad for over 25 years has been an exciting and fulfilling experience marked by the many rewarding opportunities to meet new people. When we meet new people, our natural curiosity takes over and we quickly begin to ask questions. The answers help us find commonalities and develop bonds, which make us feel connected. One question I have always struggled to answer is the one I hear most often: where are you from? This seemingly simple question is packed with many expectations and assumptions. I never know which answer I should provide. Several questions of my own flash through my head in the seconds before I answer; Should I answer with my country of birth, my passport, my ethnicity? For me, and many others today, the answer is no longer singular.
Often times we are expected to provide a standard answer to a question that is no longer standard. In the recent era of multicultural and multilingual families, these answers are not as simple anymore. As a Asian-American expat living abroad, whenever I get asked this question, I find myself having an inner dialogue. Do I give this person the expected answer that falls in line with their expectations based on my Asian appearance, or do I give a different answer that I know will lead to the next question; yes, but where were you born? Or where are your parents from? Recognizing that people have good intentions and are genuinely curious, I most commonly share this response; I was raised in the States, but my parents are from South Korea.
This complexity manifests in schools as well. I remember walking into a classroom one day; the children were sitting in front of a world map and the teacher asked each child to place a pin on the map to answer the question ‘where are you from?’ One child asked the teacher for two additional pins. When the teacher asked why, the child explained he needed a pin for each country his family represented. His father was Swiss-Canadian, and his mother was German. To my delight, rather than making the child choose, the surprised teacher simply gave the child additional pins. This story demonstrates that we often expect a single answer to a single question. Whether we identify as a global nomad, third cultural/cross cultural citizen, multiplicity in our identities in now the new norm, and our questions and conversations should begin to reflect this.
One day, as I was sharing my frustration at being asked this general question, my friend asked me, ‘What would you ask instead?’ After thinking about it, I responded that it depended on what I really wanted to know about that person. I have found that an additional moment of consideration when choosing which question I pose has often led to more sincere and meaningful interactions. Examples of questions I now ask include:
- Where did you grow up?
- Where does your family live?
- Where were you born?
- Where did you go to school?
- Where did you live before moving here?
- Where have you lived the longest?
- Where is home for you?
Although each question may still not have a simple answer, go against your urge to ask the easy question and challenge yourself to go deeper and more personal. You can try one of my questions or come up with ones of your own. Demonstrating curiosity and sharing our personal histories are gifts we have as humans. Asking more mindful and thoughtful questions may lead to more robust interactions and certainly more engaging conversations. So next time you meet someone new, consider asking them a different question that uncovers a deeper level beyond nationality, passport or ethnic background. Each question is a gateway to the possibility of a new connection, a fascinating dialogue, and maybe even a new friendship along the way.
This article was submitted to us by guest author, Ji Han. Over the past 28 years, Ji’s professional journey has included positions as Principal, Curriculum Coordinator, classroom teacher and educational consultant in many schools and countries around the world. She remains active in promoting collaboration and sharing mutual best practice through her involvement as a workshop facilitator, conference presenter, accreditation leader and a member of various committee groups.