“This is so awkward,” I rapidly texted my friend as I refocused my attention on the half-eaten Chinese noodles in front of me in an attempt to zone out the conversation. As my chest began to tense I told myself, “Breathe, they probably don’t hate you” over and over in my head.
I was meeting my boyfriend’s friends for the first time, and I felt like I was on an episode of “Shark Tank” desperately trying to impress the investors with my startup. But instead of showing interest in my business, the sharks had already shifted their attention back to themselves.
One of his friends from freshman year, the Great White Shark, dominated the conversation with her imposing energy and endless rants about her newest boy toy. So for most of dinner, I sat in the corner and alternated between mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and subtly implying to my boyfriend I wanted to leave.
Suddenly, she leaned forward, stared straight into my face and popped the dreaded question: “Where are you from?”
I looked up from my phone, feeling like a deer in headlights. It felt like she wasn’t just trying to get to know me — she demanded an answer and didn’t give me any time to think. Everyone’s eyes turned to me and I was at a loss on how to respond.
I sighed, smiled faintly and said, “That’s a hard question, um … I was born and raised in China but my family moved to SoCal when I was in high school…”
She cut me off, exclaiming “oh my god” as she recalled the latest gossip. I was left feeling bewildered as to why she asked in the first place if she didn’t care about the answer.
I wondered why I even expected her, a girl whose life was as white and shiny as her pearl earrings, to want to understand my complex struggles with belonging. She had gone to an expensive private girls’ school in LA and spent summers in Rhode Island. She represented the white elite America that is blissfully unaware of the experiences of those outside of their white picket fence.
After we parted from his friends, I asked my boyfriend to tell me what she thought of me.
Looking away from me uncomfortably, he murmured, “She didn’t like you because she thought you couldn’t answer basic questions.”
I shouted into his face, “Basic questions?!” as the pain in my chest overtook me and I struggled to breathe. I threw myself against the nearest wall I could find and started to sob. She didn’t understand my complicated relationship to “where are you from?” as a mixed person of color, and wrote me off as socially awkward and unintelligent when I attempted to explain.
I’ve always dreaded answering that question because it often implies I don’t fit what white people expect from an American. When people asked me where I was from, it felt like they were trying to pinpoint what exactly goes into my cocktail of features that they can’t quite place.
Saying that I was from Guangzhou made the most logical sense, as it is where I grew up. But the fact that Chinese people didn’t see me as Chinese made me feel like I didn’t have a legitimate claim to be “from China.” Telling people that I was “from” a place where I never belonged felt strange.
Once, on the subway in China, I noticed a boy wearing a shirt that said “I am Guangzhou” with drawings of Guangzhou’s prominent landmarks.
“I wish I could wear that,” I thought to myself as a sense of light melancholy washed over me. But if I wore the same shirt, Chinese people would see my Western features and immediately assume that I was a tourist.
But only saying that I was American didn’t feel accurate either. To accept only my American identity felt like I was ignoring my upbringing in China.
Once, when my friend’s boss asked me where I was from, I explained how I grew up in Guangzhou but moved to Orange County in high school. As soon as he heard “Orange County,” he responded, “So the OC? Very cool.”
“Well…” I interjected, but he moved onto talking about business with my friend. It felt like he just chose whatever was most familiar to him as an American from the complicated story I just told him, and decided that that was enough to define me.
But “Orange County” was merely where I lived for three years, not where I felt the strongest connection to. In those three years, my background living abroad and my features clearly made me the “other,” especially in predominantly white spaces.
“Orange County” was often the easiest thing to tell people though, because it conveniently ignored my multicultural heritage in favor of something whiter and more “American.” Simplifying my backstory to the “OC” signified the ultimate step in an assimilation plan I wasn’t on board with.
On both sides, there’s something about me that doesn’t quite fit perfectly.
So my answer to “where are you from?” rests in this uneasy space between China and America. My multicultural upbringing is a source of pride and joy, not a stranger’s tangled yarn to cut up and reorganize. So when you ask me where I’m from, challenge your monocultural norms first.