No, where are you actually from?

Aliza Hirani
Ann Arbor, MI
Understanding Race Project- University of Michigan

I am a Pakistani-American, born and raised in Texas. When people ask me where I am from, I proudly tell them Dallas, Texas. Then, without a fail, I get the response, “No, where are you actually from?” I have realized when some people ask me that question, they don’t actually want to know where I am from. They want to “otherize” me. They want to hear that I am from a different country, but I’m not. If I say Dallas, Texas they don’t believe me. If I say Pakistan, I am lying to myself. There is no winning with this question… or my skin color.

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34 Responses to "No, where are you actually from?"
  1. Melynda says:

    People asked me that at Michigan all the time. It was so perplexing and I think they thought that a high achieving black woman at an elite school must have immigrant parents or be from Mars. Lol. I would just say my family has been in Texas for 9 generations, when did your family come through Ellis Island, before or after WW2.

    • SJ says:

      The answer to your question is almost always greater than the question allows for. The majority of immigrants haven’t come through Ellis Island. Furthermore, because I come from Texas but I was born in New York, I find that anyone from Texas in another (especially Northern) part of the country is a bonafide Martian. Ironically, I’ve gotten flack the entire time I’ve lived in a suburban/rural area of the Lone Star state for lacking in Texan behaviorisms and speech patterns. This, too, has two sides it seems.

      • mxwp says:

        Ha! Then you have an auto response.
        “Where are you from?”
        “No, where are you really from?”
        “Okay, you got me, I’m from New York.”

  2. Chris S. says:

    Thank you, Aliza. I will NEVER ask anyone where they are from again. I will turn off my curiosity about others, turn off my genuine desire to know more about others, and to celebrate their wonderful culture and heritage, to find common ground, and instead allow everyone to fade into the background of anonymity. It’s better that way, isn’t it?

    • Nik S says:

      Chris, You have every right to be curious and feed your genuine desire to know and celebrate their culture. But cant it wait until you know a bit about the person herself/himself?Like Aliza, I too find it a bit annoying if this comes as one of the very first questions- which is purely based on my skin color.
      I’m sure me or Aliza would be more than happy to share and explain our culture, if you first show genuine interest in knowing us.
      I know the difference is subtle but trust me- you genuine emotions will rarely be misconstrued.

      • Gail says:

        Nik and Aliza, I always get, “no what are you really” when asked about my heritage. I am black but people always want to mix me up. Of course, I’m mixed, my family came here as slaves and the slave owners often mixed with the slave women, so if you are black in America 9 times out of 10 you are mixed! Just what generation. So I feel you and Aliza on the “where are you from,” question. Just a BS way to say, you ain’t from here and I need to decide quickly if I should trust you.

    • sal says:

      Chris, assuming you are a white male. when people ask you where you are from do you ever think originally I am from Ireland, or Germany, or wherever you may be from? I assume you only think of your stance within America, no?

      • SJ says:

        As a white American whose family has been on this soil for a very long time, I would love to say to someone: I am French, English, Welsh, German, Dutch, Danish, Czech, and partially unknown. When I ask this question – and I do, although I try to do so tactfully and with an (ideally) imparted understanding of my desire to learn about other places through their people – the world broadens before me and my imagination runs wild for the places I can only hope to visit. There are two sides to this coin and it’s a valid conversation, but hopefully it can be understood as a pathway to greater knowledge as well as the ugly path to a box or label.

        • Gail says:

          True that SJ. However, being non-white you do get asked questions from whites, for the most part about your heritage in some way to make you un-American. I am sure Chris is curious as are you, but being the prevelidged (sp?) race (whether you believe this or not) it is hard for you to see it from their side. Which is totally understandable. I have looked at issues and thought I fully understood until I experienced it and found I had no clue. Maybe if you went to Afghanastan and you were the “other,” it may bring it home for you a bit. Or even just to go Hawaii! I remember speaking with a white guy, now mind you I am black, and he was goiing on about how the Hawaiians hated him just because he was white. I was like, “you’re kidding!” See what I mean? I am sure he has a totally new perspective about it now. This is what Aliza, Nik and others are eluding to.

        • You may be onto something here. Possibly, the more claims to different races, cultures and countries you can claim in your American history probably makes you more “American” than those with less, (assuming America truly is a melting pot).

    • Lin says:

      The problem is in your implied assumption that people of a certain appearance automatically have exotic cultures worthy of costumed celebrations and anthropological study. Also, cultures and heritages, like people, are not automatically wonderful merely because they are alien. Perhaps ask yourself why you feel this curiosity primarily with people of a certain appearance and not others? One does not find common ground by emphasizing a mutual difference. How do you find common ground with other people of your own race? Well-meaning though you may be, your question is reminiscent of a dog
      marking a tree to warn others off it’s territory.

    • mxwp says:

      Your response here shows why we hate this question and shows why it is subtly racist. My “wonderful culture and heritage” is American, the same as yours. I am not a foreigner or a tourist.

  3. Guest says:

    Your six words are mine as well. I think people are truly ignorant

  4. Quercus says:

    Your six words are mine as well. I think that people are truly ignorant of their racism, and don’t realize that it is not the asking, it is the way of the asking that is offensive. If someone wants to know about your ethnicity, why not ask that, instead of using words that indicate they assume you are from ” somewhere else?” That ignorance is demonstrated perfectly by Chris S. below. Of course, then there begs the question of why is it the first thing people ask? It is because it is the most important thing on their minds. That would never be the first question asked when meeting a white person.

  5. Daniel says:

    My wife’s father was born and raised in Webster, Texas, but with a name like “Kobayashi” people always want to know where they’re “really” from. I had to explain to my (first generation German-American) grandfather that her family had been living in the US longer than our family had.

  6. Lisa Brown says:

    Let’s look at it this way…..when really old people speak about ‘the old country’, they speak with heartfelt pride about coming to America. My uncle escaped from Hungary in the 40’s. He and 7 teenage boys escaped….snow….and starvation turned them to canibalism to survive. He is truly a 1st generation immigrant and American patriot with awesome stories to tell. When I hear 2nd and 3rd (etc..) generation ‘American’s’ speak…I hear “in my country” we do this, or “in my country” we do that….Wait a minute. So it is a double standard that is confusing. You live in America, you are born in America yet you refer to ‘my country’ (where your family heritage is from) NOT refering to the country you live in (America)!! Sometimes I even see flags from ‘my country’ hanging from your rear view mirror, and they are not American flags. Don’t feal angry when asked ‘where are you really from’. Just understand that the people who are asking are just not educated in such areas in that they have probably never traveled. They should educate themselves. It would sound better to ask someone where their ancestors or family history is from. Would that not be as bad? Teach me.

  7. Ten Thousand Tags says:

    As I was scrolling through all the Race Cards, I found myself immediately drawn to this one. I recently wrote a poem on my blog that took a similar direction. I tend to get that question a lot too, or similar ones. I find that a lot of people ask me “What are you?”, like I am some sort of alien. And, I agree, most of the time people don’t really care what you say as long as it separates you and makes you different in some way.

  8. Al says:

    As a white person who was born and raised in southern Africa, I get this a lot. I can’t possibly be African if I’m white, right??

  9. Jenny Tong says:

    I completely understand where you’re coming from. The conversation usually goes like this:

    Where are you from?
    Me: Chicago
    Where are you actually from?
    Me: I was born in Australia.

    Then they give me a confused look because I have no Australian accent and my ethnicity is 100% Chinese.

    It’s more annoying to interact with people who assume without asking that I’m from China though, considering I’ve only ever visited the country twice on vacations. At least elderly Chinese Americans are respectful enough to ask: Where are your parents from? I find that a much more palatable question.

  10. AMP says:

    I was constantly asked were I was from too, but because of my last name not because of my skin color. When I married I was glad to take my husbands name and blend in. Now, albeit after a twenty year reprieve, I miss it. No one is ever curious about where I may be from anymore.

  11. aseem says:

    I think that people consciously or subconsciously try to exert control and judge their surroundings, in order to feel safe or comfortable. Curiosity also plays a part. So when they meet new people, it becomes natural to stereotype. Stereotyping is the easiest and fastest (but not necessarily the correct) way to judge someone. So when they ask “where are you actually from”, it is possble that they really want to know what your ethnicity is, since a lot of stereotypes are based directly on ethnicity…

  12. Corrie says:

    I hated this question and it was so frustrating to me. Until one day someone asked me “Where have you lived?” Ever since, I have done the same. It may not be a perfect solution, but it’s a way to connect with a person without offending their sense of identity or belonging.

  13. Rabia says:

    This is grear, I love you Aliza!!!

  14. M. says:

    I left a similar card to yours – I am continuously asked by people “what are you” by people who seem to share one characteristic with me but can’t figure our the rest and want to confirm that there is a difference. I’m a white Muslim physician who speaks English and Spanish. Countless conversations have gone like this:

    What are you?
    Umm… (trying to figure out what part of me they are trying to label) American.
    No but where are you from?
    Uh.. here – America
    And your parents?
    Umm.. Minnesota
    No but before that?
    Oh.. Sweden and Ireland
    Yes but what about….
    Oh my hijab? Yes I’m Muslim.
    OOOOHHHHH… and your husband?
    I’ve been Muslim since I was 17 – he had nothing to do with it.
    And you speak Arabic?

    Cricket, cricket….

  15. Nona says:

    Unfortunately, prejudice is alive and well in the United States. Prejudice against people from the middle east is at an all-time high in the country and we need to do everything we can to dispel the prejudice, the false assumptions, and the otherizing. I have known middle easterners who have had a hard time getting a job. I knew a Baha’i from Iran who was unable to get a job as an engineer, so he became a car salesman. This is true. His talents were way underutilized. That is a crime! With our prejudices, we are cheating ourselves out of receiving the contributions of many good people.

  16. It takes time for assimilated cultures and races to adopt other cultures and races that are still assimilating. Be patient. The future is promising.

  17. Matt West says:

    A Real American child who was raised in Pakistan would never identify as Pakistani. “Where are you from” is about more than just “where did you live last?” It’s about who you ARE. And you’ll never be a Texan.

    • Name says:

      Wow. “A Real American child…you’ll never be a Texan.” In your mind, who are the real children of America, and what does it take to be a Texan? Is it duration of occupancy or do they have to think like you?

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