Why Asian Americans hate hearing “Where are you from?”

My brother Gary (on the right) and me at Kintai Bridge in Iwakuni, Japan circa 1965.

My brother Gary (on the right) and me at Kintai Bridge in Iwakuni, Japan circa 1965. Note that my brother is wearing a Cub Scout (or Webelos) shirt — we were both Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts starting in Japan, and I was even an Explorer Scout! How American can we get!

This has been a good week for sometimes contentious but bracing conversations on Facebook. The latest one started when I posted a link to an excellent Forbes article by Ruchika Tulshyan titled “‘Where Are You From?’ And Other Big Networking Racial Faux Pas

The article raises the oft-aired complaint by Asian Americans that asking “Where are you from?” (sometimes linked to the even more irritating “You speak English so well…”) is a social, racial no-no.

I certainly can’t argue with that. I’ve written plenty about this very topic. I once criticized Martha Stewart for pulling the “Where are you from?” card, and in the post also included the conversation from my book, “Being Japanese American” that so many Asian American are all too familiar with, which starts with “You speak English so well” and veers off into “where are you from?” territory.

The Forbes piece quotes a South Asian news producer making a point that many Asian Americans should learn by heart and recite whenever we’re asked the question:
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Japanese don’t draw anime characters to be white

chibi anime -- do Japanese draw the characters to look "white"?I’ve written before about Japanese anime, or animation, as well as the genre’s characters and their large eyes, and wondered if they symbolize a desire to look more Caucasian.

But this brief guest post by Julian Abagond on the blog Sociological Images titled Why Do the Japanese Draw Themselves As White? that offers very interesting food for thought.

Abagond makes the case that Americans (white people) think Japanese draw anime and manga characters to look Caucasian, but that’s a Western construct, and that “Americans” (he conflates nationality with ethnicity, a common slip in race/culture conversations, even by well-intentioned people and often by Asians) see everything in terms of white unless there are stereotypical symbols that identify a character as another ethnicity.

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Asian American attacked in Boulder

Update Nov 3: The Boulder Police Department now says there was apparently no knife involved in the assault against the Asian American as described below, but the victim was threatened with being “cut.” The police are also investigation another assult made the same night, Oct. 30: a gang rape of a woman by four men. Although neither crime occured on the CU-Boulder campus, and the AAPI victim was a former student (his three friends are current students), and the woman was not a student at all, the University of Colorado administration was quick to respond to the crimes, with a strong inter-departmental statement posted on the school’s website.

A 22-year-old Asian American man was assaulted by four men, and one held a knife to his neck and forced him to say “I love America.”

The victim told investigators that he was walking in the area of 10th and Marine streets with friends, singing a song from the movie “Team America.” He said they were confronted by four men.

One of the men — described as being a blond white male about 19 or 20 — said, “Do you think you are an American?” called him a “Chinaman,” punched him in the face and with a knife to his throat told him to say that he loved America.

This is disgusting, especially in light of the ways Barack Obama has been painted as an outsider, foreigner, socialist, terrorist, communist, anti-American, Muslim and Arab by people who oppose his candidacy for President of the United States.

I’m afraid that our country has become so divided, with society sliced and diced in so many ways, from race and ethnicity to social status, economic level and even by region (look at the electoral map and see where the blue and red states are concentrated) that it’s becoming OK to be violent, to say stupid, horrific things and make unsupportable assumptions about anyone who either looks different, thinks differently or acts different from us.

It’s become an “us vs. them” society… and most of the time, Asian Americans are treated — and have been treasted throughout history, long before the current climate of divisiveness — as one of “them.”

Religion, media and offense

The current protests throughout the world by Muslims who were offended by caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (the cartoons caused riots in Afghanistan) that originally ran in a Danish newspaper, sparked an interesting discussion among some friends of mine, about the nature of offensive imagery and the role of the media and even of cartoonists. The most inflammatory cartoon was one of Muhammad with a bomb as part of his turban, suggesting that all Muslims are terrorists.

Below are edited excerpts from the e-mail discussion. Continue reading