Where are you really from? Asian Americans and the perpetual foreigner syndrome

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Author: Frank H. Wu
Date: Winter 2002
From: Civil Rights Journal(Vol. 6, Issue 1)
Publisher: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
Document Type: Article
Length: 6,354 words

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"Where are you from?" is a question I like answering.

"Where are you really from?" is a question I really hate answering.

"Where are you from?" is a question we all routinely ask one another upon meeting a new person.

"Where are you really from?" is a question some of us tend to ask others of us very selectively.

For Asian Americans, the questions frequently come paired like that. Among ourselves, we can even joke nervously about how they just about define the Asian American experience. More than anything else that unifies us, everyone with an Asian face who lives in America is afflicted b the perpetual foreigners syndrome. We are figuratively and even literally returned to Asia and ejected from America.

Often the inquisitor reacts as if I am being silly if I reply, "I was born in Cleveland, and I grew up in Detroit," or bored by a detailed chronology of my many moves around the country: "Years ago, I went to college in Baltimore; I used to practice law in San Francisco; and now I live in Washington, DC."

Sometimes she reacts as if I am obstreperous if I return the question, "And where are you really from?"

People whose own American identity is assured are perplexed when they are snubbed in this manner. They deserve to know why "where are you really from?" is so upsetting. My white friends of whom I have asked the question are amused at best and befuddled at worst, even if one of their grandparents was an immigrant or all of them once were. They deserve to know why "where are you really from?" is so upsetting to Asian Americans even if it carries no offensive connotations to them.

Like many other people of color (or a few whites who have marked accents) who share memories of such encounters, I know what the question "where are you really from?" means, even if the person asking it is oblivious and regardless of whether they are aggressive about it. Once again, I have been mistaken for a foreigner or told I cannot be a real American.

The other questions that follow in the sequence make the subtext less subtle. Assuming that I must be "really from" someplace else and not here, even pausing for the preliminary "where are you really from?" some people proceed to ask me: "How long have you been in our country?" Do you like it in our country?" When are you going back?" and "Do you have the chance to go home often?" I am asked these questions with decreasing frequency over time but still too often, and I am surprised at the contexts in which they continue to pop up.

When I give a speech, every now and then a nice person will wait to chat with me and with utter sincerity and no hint of irony, start off by saying, "My, you speak English so well." I am tempted to reply, "Why, thank you; so do you."...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Wu, Frank H. "Where are you really from? Asian Americans and the perpetual foreigner syndrome." Civil Rights Journal, vol. 6, no. 1, 2002, p. 14+. Accessed 19 June 2021.

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