Ask WHO I am, not WHAT.

racecard_jessicaJessica Hong,
Philadelphia, PA.

As an Asian American, people often ask “what” I am within the first 20 minutes (or sometimes 20 seconds!) of meeting me. Others feel self-conscious about asking but are visibly relieved when/if I happen to mention my ethnicity myself. I think the question of my ethnicity wouldn’t bother me so much if it was a true inquiry about the substance of who I am and what makes me ME (including but not limited to my ethnicity). But more often then not, I find that the desire to know “what” I am seems to be motivated by an anxiety about the unknown, an anxiousness to know which category of people to put me in. This anxiety is revealed as soon as the question of my ethnicity is answered. What that looks like is this: as soon as I reveal that I am Korean, I hear about all the other Korean things in that person’s internal Korean Box — friends who taught English in Korea, favorite Korean dishes, the two words of atrociously pronounced Korean picked up along the way, family members who fought in the Korean war, or childhood best friends who were (and presumably are still) Korean. These contents of the Korean Box come spilling out and I realize that the next Korean person this person meets may be soon be hearing about me.

Jessica’s story was featured on NPR’s Morning Edition.

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13 Responses to "Ask WHO I am, not WHAT."
  1. i would never ask anyone what they are.that is just plain old rude

  2. Jessica Hong: My hero! Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

  3. Colleen says:

    Fascination … curiosity …. that is why I ask, although now I understand your perspective. I also realized after listening to your piece on NPR that when I ask that question to some because an an accent or an appearance in native garb, in a sense I unintentionally objectified them based on that accent or appearance. This was a great ‘aha’ moment for which I greatly appreciate.

  4. Cilnt says:


    I understand your frustration and–as a nondescript white male of miscellaneous Eastern and Western European descent–I certainly can’t sympathize with the frustration of hearing that question so often.

    With that said, I would ask you to evaluate the individual’s intentions behind asking you that question. The old man who says he “saved your country” and the person who mentions her childhood friend isn’t necessarily trying to “box you” into a Korean group. More likely they are trying as best they can to find a connection (albeit a very superficial one) to you. The goal is to extend an olive branch of friendship, not to hurt you.

    Without significant–and potentially creepy–lines of questioning, it is often difficult for some to figure out whether you and they have common interests in TV shows, sports or music. You’re right that nobody should ever bond with you over their preschool pal, but sometimes that’s a person’s best effort at trying to start a relationship. The alternative for many would just be to not try for a friendship at all. Conversation doesn’t flow comfortably for all, and you can either take what they offer or just turn out the lights on the potential friendship.

    Truth be told, there are billions of people out there who would make no effort at all to form a connection with others. Even though it may sting a little bit, I would prefer an awkward pseudo-bond over no attempt at a bond at all.

    Just the thoughts of a half-Jewish, half-Catholic, half-Ukranian, half-Irish miscellaneous white guy who wouldn’t mind occasionally discussing my mutt-like background with people over a beer or long subway ride.


    • Nichole says:

      But then why is it that those nondescript white “mutts” don’t hasten to share their own background if they are seeking connection? Speaking for myself, I *don’t* find it a way to connect and I feel minimized and violated when asked that.

      I have had more than my share of the “what are you” question (“more than my share” because I believe that I look straightforwardly African American) and believe, as does Jessica, that the effort is not to *connect* but to *define*, to understand where you fit in the speaker’s understanding of how to interact with you.

      Please understand, Clint, that the question can be received as rude and intrusive. I know I feel that way. And don’t be surprised if the minority person then turns it back on you to ask the unexpected question, “so what are you”?

      • Guest says:

        If anyone ever asks “so what are you” I guess you are at a cross-roads…either they are a rude person not worth your time (in which case everything I said is irrelevant, as they aren’t worth the conversation) or they socially awkward individuals trying very hard to find something, anything to relate to you with. I agree it’s a ridiculous thing to ask, and I have never asked it, but all I’m saying is that not everyone is trying to be a racist…some are just trying to friendly in their own awkward way.

        In time, people will just stop talking to people. No more hurt feelings, no more friendships. I fully agree that in a perfect world, everyone has the social graces to avoid the hundreds of potentially hurtful questions, but I don’t see a perfect world outside my window. I just see a lot of people trying to get by as best they can.

        And for what it’s worth, if the only way a minority of character and value can think of to start up a potential friendship with me is by asking “what are you?” I’d welcome it…sounds like a fascinating philosophical journey to me!

        Again, I can never fully understand the exhaustion some might experience by being asked that question. I can say though, that I would rather have someone try awkwardly to connect than just put their head down and walk right by.

        And one other thing: having a Catholic mom and Jewish dad (meaning I’m not “born in” to either religion) a

        • Cilnt says:

          sorry…got cut off
          Being half-Catholic, half-Jewish made me a very odd person at a Midwest state school where I got asked the question of “well, what do you believe in?” probably as often as you were asked “what are you?” I agree that it’s a little tiring, but I saw it as a chance to build a relationship. I simply ignored who wanted to judge me, but I relished the opportunity to discuss with those who had a genuine interest in who I was as a person.

          • Joo-Hee says:

            Clint, I’m glad you recognize that questions about one’s identify can be used to judge you. This is the spirit in which I believe Jessica wrote her card. Has anyone brought up your religion and asked you what you believe in during the first 20 minutes of a conversation? I ask because it is very different to be asked identity questions from a stranger, and an acquaintance at school. The later might be more reasonably an effort to make a friendship.

            I am an American who has Korean roots. I serve American society as a federal employee. I was raised here. Do you think I am not less American than you? I ask because when you say things like “The old man who says he “saved your country” and the person who mentions her childhood friend”, that is boxing me in your perceived “Korean group”. My country is the US. I’m not sure why it’s important that you have a “Korean” friend to me.

            In the first 20 minutes of meeting you, would it be strange if I picked up something in your appearance and said that I have a brown-haired friend, or a skinny friend, or a someone who I thought looked Jewish or is Jewish? If you’re offended, think I am being socially awkward. or have just profiled you, that is good, because that is what that is.

            Asking a stranger in the first few minutes what their ethnicity race is, without the intention to share a real connection, is not an extension of friendship. When someone asks me “what are you” it’s surrounding by “you are different than me, and I wonder what you are”. One way to show that this is not your intention is to make an actual connection, along the lines of, “I am Korean, are you? Do you like Korean food and know of any good Korean restaurants?” Or, “I am learning the Korean language, and I was wondering if you know how to speak it and can help me” Another card on the NPR project gives an example of someone who lived in Southeast Asia but is not ethnically/culturally/racially from there, who intended to make such a connection. That is fine, and I have not issues with that.

            At the end of the day, if you really want to get to know me, you will learn about what really makes me who I am, and it’s not just how I look. All of my friends know I have Korean roots, but it’s not because they asked me. I know their roots too, but it’s because it came out of stories about their families, travels, interests etc. I don’t act like they are less American because most Americans cannot say their ancestors are from America.

            Maybe some people like that kind of attention where they are considered a curiosity, but I do not, and I think that’s a valid feeling. I am proud of my heritage, and spend quite a bit of time investing in it (e.g. learning the Korean language), and it has nothing to do hiding who I am.

            If everyone had to wear a label stating their ethnicity, and it was socially acceptable to ask questions to strangers, then this would be an equal playing field, but it is not. In fact, historically, being racially profiled has led to a lot of problems. Please consider these feelings the next time you feel like asking “what are you?” Also consider that many of us who get asked these questions are then met with prejudice as a result of answering. If I wanted to be friends with you, I would make every effort to not do something that would make you uncomfortable.

          • Nichole says:

            Clint, you assume they are trying to make a connection. You are making an assumption. You do not know this to be a fact. (Anymore than the rest of us truly know they are trying to put us in a box, really.) You are assuming good intent based on your desire to not see the inherent racism of the question — intentional, deliberate or not, it IS a racist question, whatever drives the speaker to ask it.

  5. Ana says:

    I moved to the US 6 years ago and the first time someone asked me “what are you” i didnt quite understand the question so i laughed and said “what do you mean? Im a human, biped, a woman!” Now i understand it is just a bad habit some people have developed but i still have fun finding ways to answer the question. People always realise their mistake and ask a better question to get the information they are looking for. And in the meantime i get to enjoy people’s reactions.

  6. Dave Hong says:

    I think you hit the nail right on the head. I heard this story today as I was driving on NPR and found myself reflecting on how I’ve handled this situation in the past. I totally agree that it’s not that big of a deal if the intention is one of truly getting to know me versus someone trying to know how to “handle” this unknown Asian.

    That said, it’s hard to say if there’s a right answer to this. I have friends and family who are Korean Brazilians that are called Japanese by their fellow peers as an affectionate term but are undoubtedly seen as Brazilians. I think given how racial dynamics have been viewed traditionally in white/black terms in the US, it’s hard not to shake off that feeling of being viewed as a perpetual foreigner with that question.

  7. Peter Pipper says:

    “as a nondescript white male of miscellaneous Eastern and Western European descent”
    Don’t worry , there are plenty of classifications for you…redneck, cracker, white trash, pollock, guinea, etc…
    The point is everybody has some identity and every identity is subjective to some degree by the observer. So if you are getting stressed out about being what you are, just relax and have a little more confidence in yourself. It is you own insecurities driving this train. Your not a victim. America has enough of those already.

  8. Johnny Vineyard says:

    Odd, this question has never bothered me. I think some people are too sensitive about these things; maybe it’s important to realize that both sides are doing some assuming in this case. I’m obsessed with genetic diversity, and so I ask out of fascination when I’m not sure.

    Some people ask to label, and others ask in order to learn. When people ask me “What are you?”, I delight in telling them about my genetic diversity even if I don’t personally identify with anything other than “American”. When people speak to me in Spanish, I respond in Spanish that I’m American, but I learned Spanish because I wanted to.

    Consider yourself interesting, and consider them interested. It’s really all about perspectives on both sides of this question. If you want to be offended in life, people will always provide a good reason. Or, you can simply choose to see it as people trying to be friendly. Look up the Tedx talk about coming out of the closet. A really good message that applies to this situation rather well.

    Also, I would absolutely tell you about living in Korea for several years if I met you, because that is a connection. I’d ask if you like kimchi, and if you can speak Korean because I have studied it for years. If my attempts to make a human connection offend you, chances are I wouldn’t ask, though, because I’m not interested in talking to people who don’t find themselves interesting.

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