Martha Stewart needs etiquette lessons for asking an Asian American, “Where do you come from?”

Martha Stewart needs some etiquette lessons in how to speak to Asian Americans.A reader named Robin, who is Japanese American and born in Iowa and bakes apple pies, sent me this email:

“I was wincing yesterday when Martha Stewart asked an asian american woman in the audience (Sumi somethingorother, who baked an apple pie for Martha’s contest) “Where are you from?” and the woman said with no accent “Oh I’m from here…New York City.”. Martha continued with the (stereo)typical line of questioning something like ‘where are you really from because if you are from Asia it’s unusual to make an apple pie’. I don’t have it verbatim but it was painful. Just another “What ARE you?” type of conversation. I really don’t think Martha is a bigot but as she is the standard bearer of suburban white women I think it was totally disappointing for her to go down that path as if it were totally fine to question someone with Asian features about where they really come from.”

She sent a link to Martha Stewart’s page for the pie show, but there isn’t a video of the entire program, at least not yet. It looks like they only upload excerpts instead of entire shows, but I’ll keep an eye out for YouTube postings of this segment.

UPDATED: Today, Robin commented below on this blog post with a clarification:

“The video is up, check at the 2:00 minute mark:

http://www.marthastewart.com/article/meet-the-pie-bakers

“Verbatim it’s :
‘Where do you come from?’ (answer Here NYC)
‘Oh you do, oh, okay, because if you came from Asia this would not a typical pie, right?’ (answer ‘right…right…’ you can kind of hear the ‘what the heck!?’ in her tone)

“So it’s not as blatant as it struck me the first time but still the question and that type of follow up would be seen as really bizarre if she asked it of someone with a German name.”

It may not be as obnoxious as it could have been (I agree with Robin that Martha’s probably not a racist), but it still betrayed Stewart’s expectation that the audience member with an Asian face was a foreigner. She even sounded disappointed when the woman said she’s from New York, because Stewart wanted so badly to make her point about Asians not baking pies.

I can understand why Robin was dismayed when she first saw the exchange, and I agree that Stewart wouldn’t ask the other pie contestants where they came from — just being Asian was enough to prompt the question from Stewart.

This happens more often than you might think.

Most non-Asians I know laugh and can’t believe that this happens at all, or worse, think that it’s just a sign of Martha — or anyone — being sensitive to one’s culture to ask where they’re from. But remember, they never ask a white person with no accent where they’re from.

And yet, almost every Asian I know — old, young, all ethnicities — have had this conversation or some variation of it, with someone. It’s a sad reality of life in these United States that no matter how many generations we’ve been here, or how “American” we think we are, we’re simply not accepted as American by some … well, Americans.

Here’s how the first chapter of my book, “Being Japanese American,” which was published in 2004, starts:

“You speak such good English!”

Most Japanese Americans have probably heard this backhanded compliment, and then suffered through a variation of this conversation.

“Really, your English is so good, what nationality are you?”

“American.”

“No, really where are you from?”

“California.”

“Oh, you know what I mean. Where’s your family from?”

“California.”

Then the other person walks away thinking you’re a jerk who’s being difficult. But what’s difficult is the inescapable feeling that you were not being taken seriously as an American, not just as an American citizen but as a person who is American.

Believe me, this conversation happens all the time, even today.

And as Robin points out, when someone as prominent as Martha Stewart makes such a blind, white-privileged blunder, it sends a message to every suburban housewife of all colors (though let’s face it, I suspect the demographics of her audience skew extremely Euro-centric, and yes, I’m making a stereotypical generalization here) that people with Asian faces are all foreigners, and are not American.

And that’s NOT a good thing….

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16 Responses to Martha Stewart needs etiquette lessons for asking an Asian American, “Where do you come from?”

  1. Robin says:

    The video is up, check at the 2:00 minute mark:

    http://www.marthastewart.com/article/meet-the-pie-bakers

    Verbatim it’s :
    “Where do you come from?” (answer Here NYC)
    “Oh you do, oh, okay, because if you came from Asia this would not a typical pie, right?” (answer “right…right…” you can kind of hear the “what the heck!?” in her tone)

    So it’s not as blatant as it struck me the first time but still the question and that type of follow up would be seen as really bizarre if she asked it of someone with a German name.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Robin!

  3. Justin Mitchell says:

    Nice one. As a foreigner in Beijing, though it’s not uncommon to hear the same sort of thing based on a Chinese person’s assumptions about whatever country one is from. I have a black native born UK friend about whom a Chinese coworker asked: “Where is he from?”
    “England, he’s from London.”
    “He is?”
    “Yeah..”
    “Then why, why, uh, why …?”
    “Why is he black?”
    “Yes.”
    “Because his parents are black.”

  4. Gil Asakawa says:

    That’s funny, Justin. Great dialogue!

  5. Alisa Sanada says:

    Hi Gil! Long time no talk! I hope to meet you when you come to Tokyo soon! Anyway, just wanted to comment on this article! 😀 It’s just funny reading this as an Asian-American living in a large Asian city for awhile now. I mean when you are walking by a Dean and Deluca everyday on your way to work, and seeing everyone just getting their normal “western” pastries and coffee as if it had always been there, nothing new, you wonder why in the world people would still say such silly things lol at this day and age. I mean I know that wasn’t your main point, whether Asians and pies are an unusual combination, but still, just found that quite funny and sad at the same time. :p

  6. Simon Tsui says:

    You see, the conversation wouldn’t have sounded so racially ignorant if it went this way:

    Martha Stewart: Where are you from?
    Audience Member: Oh I’m from here, New York City.
    Martha Stewart: No, where are you really from?
    Audience Member: …Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women.
    Martha Stewart: Ah, Alderson Federal Prison Camp here. I used to call it ‘Yale.’

  7. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Alisa, nice to hear from you too!@ I follow your Facebook updates… the ones in Eigo, anyway. Yeah, Erin and I ended up not traveling to Japan this year… but we’ll get there. I’ll keep you posted, def. want to meet up.

  8. Gil Asakawa says:

    Funny, Simon. Thanks!

  9. Lxy says:

    Bottom line: The underling assumption held by people is that to be an American or to be a Westerner is to be White.

    That’s just another example of the global disease called White Privilege in action.

  10. MsLee P says:

    Martha Stewart needs a lot of lessons in manners. I think she is rude and is always trying to “one up” on all of her guests. I used to watch her program often but stopped because I found that instead of listening to what her guests could do I was listening to Martha praise Martha on how wonderful she could do “whatever” better than the guest could.

  11. MsLee P says:

    I’m not an Asian woman, I found your blog by accident. Glad I did. It’s nice.

  12. mashi says:

    Great blog, the best encounter I had was when the overfishing by vietnamese in the bay area, I was walking my mom’s dog late at night and was approached by a police officer in a car and he asked me if I was selling any fish. It would have been ok except for the fact that he kept telling me to keep my hands in sight which was a little hard since I was walking the dog and he kept moving around. And he had the nerve to shine the light in my face and ask me what I was doing. Oh well that would never happen to non asians

  13. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for posting your comment, Mashi – it’s amazing how this stuff continues to happen, even in the 21st century. Havimng people like Martha Stewart making dumb comments doesn’t help, either….

  14. nicole says:

    i don’t believe that martha meant anything by asking the asian lady “where do you come from” as martha immediately asks the caucasian lady, who baked the next pie, “where are you from?”

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