Why do you care?

“So where are you from?” asked the elderly (white) lady facing me.

“I’m from Canada,” I responded.

“Where are you really from?” insisted the woman.

“I’m from Timmins, Ontario.”

She was furious. “You know what I mean!”

I did. I answered, “My parents are from China.”

The exact scene is no longer clear in my mind. Was it in a church somewhere or some other public gathering? The words are probably different from what I recall. But the emotional dynamic is something I recall clearly to this day. I was probably being a bit mean in baiting her. I knew what she was after — and I wasn’t going to let her know right away — at least until she would admit what she was asking. Something in her first question tipped me off that she wanted to know my ethnic/racial heritage. Was I Chinese? Japanese? Korean? Filipino? But I was from Canada. I’ve never been to China, my parents’ homeland. If she wanted to know my ethnicity, she could have asked straightforwardly. And if she chose not to, why should I tell her? I resented the implicit assumption — that I was not reallyfrom Canada, where I was born.

Believe it or not, Miss Manners is the inspiration for today’s entry. Before this morning, I had little idea that my experience is that of many others. She wrote:

But the next thing Miss Manners knew, a version of “Where are you from?” was back. Only this time it is not as bland as before. Geography is no longer the issue; the inquiry has to do with race and ethnicity. People who answer as carelessly as before, stating their hometowns, are further interrogated as if they are being disingenuous:

“No, where are you really from? Where are you from originally? Where were your parents from?”

This is particularly galling to homegrown Americans whose looks or names strike the descendants of other immigrants as somehow more “foreign” than their own. The presumption that there is a particular American look or nomenclature is not borne out by the census figures.