My wife and I were both born and raised in New York. Our parents immigrated from Asia in the 70s, and are all naturalized citizens. We speak fluent English without an accent. We have always identified ourselves as Americans.
This question comes up disappointingly often, typically asked in a few variations sequentially until it is clear how the asker wants us to respond – allowing them to categorize appropriately. Having many friends with different cultural backgrounds, I understand that this question is typically out of curiosity rather than spite, and I try my best not to conclude ignorance too quickly. However, when asked by complete strangers the translation is typically “you are foreign”.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I were on the bus going to a restaurant for dinner. A white woman sat a few seats in front of us, glancing back at us and smiling. Eventually, she made her way back to us, beginning with “Ok, I have to ask you…” We knew what was coming next. “Where are you from?” she asked, like countless had asked before. I responded quickly, “New York”. She shook her head unsatisfied, “Where are you REALLY from?” My wife repeated my answer, “New York”. The woman tried again, “No, where were you born?” Getting annoyed “we were both born in New York.” And then a third try, “Ok, where were your parents born?” At this point my wife and I were in different moods on how to continue this exchange. My wife gets this question more often, even within her workplace, and responded curtly “why do you want to know?” Simultaneously, my interest was in ending this conversation as quickly as possible and gave in to what I knew the woman wanted to hear “China”. The woman’s eyes grew bright, “China!” she beamed “I’ve seen a documentary about Shanghai. It is beautiful.” This is where it should have ended… but it did not.
The woman continued to speak at us for several stops about how exotic Shanghai seemed, and how her son had taken on the noble task of traveling there to teach English (anyone who has lived abroad in Asia among English teaching expatriates will understand the humor I found in that). Finally, she asked “what’s it like over there?” My wife responded, “I don’t know – I’ve never been… You know, your questions can be taken as quite offensive. Even though we may look different than you, we are American.”
The woman responded very clearly, “No you’re not”.