THE FOUNDATIONS OF A LOADED QUESTION
Iknow really. Really is an indicator of disbelief. An expression of dissatisfaction. A sign of entitlement. Even without it, you can hear it in the intonation and facial expression. You are being asked ‘where are you really from’. It’s assumed that you, an expert from birth because surely people will have asked you this since you came into existence, will detect the inference. You will know they are referring to your wide nose and strange surname and thus won’t reply with ‘England’, even though technically, really, that is where you were conceived, born, and raised. Really is implied and, if ignored, emphatically wedged into a repeat of the question as if you are teasing or mocking or lying. People do not want to be duped by your clever mixed race answer. They have no time for your complex identity.
Do they ever think about what they are asking? Do they know that their question could easily be misconstrued? Place of birth, father’s ethnicity, place of study, great grandmother’s city of birth, new residence, spiritual or cosmic descendance. But it is never actually misconstrued. They know and I know. And that’s why they ask and I answer, both of us scripted, at least one of us disappointed.
It was only in hindsight that I realized there had been a dramatic decline. Over the last few years, hardly anyone had asked me where I was from. This is only something you notice when it’s so doggedly attached to your presence in public. Your visible difference is magnetic and the question, charged and bound for one destination, is propelled towards you, no matter what metaphorical or literal hood you hide under. The number of times I have been asked where I am from, while my friend or husband or mother stands next to me, apparently a known vessel that requires no further inspection, cannot be tallied. I’ve never had a good grasp on time or numbers, could never even hazard a guess as to how many sweets were in the jar or how many miles in a lightyear. So, as with those calculations, I leave it at this: it is too many to be able to fathom.
I have an idea about why the question so enmeshed with this mixed race body has been absent recently: COVID and politics. The discourse and vocabulary around race, before, during, and after both the pandemic and the governmental nightmares we’ve experienced has changed significantly
over the last few years. For better and for worse, ever swinging on a pendulum of hope and horror.
Maybe people are afraid to ask in case being in close proximity to me, and thus Hong Kong and thus (mistakenly) China, will put them in danger. By way of my yellow y skin and almond eyes, I could contain an iota of the evil that immobilized the world and killed innocent people and caused lockdowns. Maybe they aren’t sure what is offensive anymore; if it’s OK to register someone’s race or not register someone’s race. Maybe they can see I am Asian and that is enough to know what they think of me. If I’m honest because there is an in built need to justify my words when I talk about this subject I don’t mind that it has stopped. But perhaps this in itself is problematic.
Six years ago, I wrote a piece about this very topic: Where are you from. I was 26. The point of the piece was that the issue isn’t being asked ‘where are you from’; the issue is how you are being asked ‘where are you from’. I wrote that to be barked at, as if I owe someone an explanation while I hand over the coins for a packet of crisps, does not lead to a successful interaction. I wrote that it was OK, however, to politely enquire, to strike up a conversation, to be sincere. And then, with the limited vocabulary and understanding of my own circumstance at that time, I gave an example to try and articulate my sentiment. I suggested that an acceptable way to introduce this topic might be: ‘You look a little like my Chinese friend do you have a Chinese background?’ Thinking about this now, there’s a rush of hot shame. This is not acceptable. Please, don’t say this to me or anyone else. We are not all the same. But I have a feeling that, back then, maybe I wanted to be, to sate the hunger of belonging, of ease. I have a clearer lens and stronger conviction in my place and my rights now than I did in 2016, when I was clumsily figuring out how to talk about myself because no one ever taught me.
The curse of the Internet is that nothing dies, and so that piece probably still exists out there somewhere. Over the years that followed, I sometimes panicked about someone somehow stumbling upon it and thinking of me as ignorant or hindering the cause. I tried to console myself by remembering that we’re always growing and that people would bear that in mind as if I hadn’t seen the way they slit throats on Twitter. It was only recently, equipped with age and experience and a healthy perception of myself that I realized that instead of me being concerned about society misunderstanding me, society should be concerned about the source of my words: what I tolerated or deemed OK was a product of what made everyone else (society at large) comfortable. In my twenties, I was looking for ways to help
people ask me the questions they wanted to ask that I did not always want to answer. A people pleaser at the expense of my own growth and comfort. I let them off the hook for their rudeness or interrogation because I am the interloper, I am the odd one out I believed that the job of educating adults on how to ask questions politely and sincerely and thus changing the world was on me, not them.
In my head now, I fantasize about a better response. About saying ‘England’ and repeating it as emphatically as their really, however many times it takes for them to accept it. About being more compassionate and cheerily giving them exactly what they want without feeling like I’ve had to expose myself for someone else’s benefit. About giving them the full story, whether they look impatiently around the room or not. But right now, all I feel able to do is assess it on an individual case basis and try my best to be all of the conflicting things that I am required to be as a modern, mixed race woman: open to questions, strict with my boundaries, eager to help, strong and sassy, part of the change, grateful, sorry, empowered.
When you don’t look like the illustration from a geography school textbook, people can feel unsettled. Where can they put you in their existing categories? They can only decide once they have identified your species. The disconcerted feeling that may arise within them when they cannot place you can manifest into fear, discomfort, or, sometimes, sincere curiosity When you stand at the traffic lights with your family and each of you looks like you belong to a different family, people can be amused, fascinated, unable to look away, forced to make an out loud observation that they feel they simply cannot keep within the confines of their bodies. Genuine curiosity in these situations the situations of being not white or of being too many things in places of neat whiteness is quite rare, but years of being accosted teach you how to spot it in the melee of ersatz sincerity. There’s a softness of the face and a depth in the irises, a major key and gentle melody in the song they’re singing to you. And, unlike every other time, you want to answer. You want to tell this person about you because you know that sincerity is rare, and education is everything.
There is identification for the ego’s sake. And then there is, lurking in a shady swamp within its borders, identification for fetishism’s sake. Because I am an exotic breed, a rare ornament, something to be looked at and slotted nicely into the framework that has been built in western culture, in male culture, from my demographic details. I am submissive, I am wild in bed, I am poor, I have the ‘best of both’, I am mysterious, I am into rich, white men, I am going to give birth to the cutest babies. It doesn’t matter that so many parts of this structure contradict each other The men who ask, visi-
bly sick with yellow fever, can manipulate these aspects the way they want them once they have confirmed that I am in fact this, from there.
I am not anti The Question. I have had nourishing conversations that have flowed from where are you from. A few have been with white people, but the ones that have sustained me and stayed with me were with fellow ethnic minorities. Paradoxical, fellow and minority, but there is community in the margins. Between us, there is a mutual understanding that we are not like the people here, even if our passports and fluency and years spent on this soil say otherwise. There is an implicit knowing that we have experienced something under a shared umbrella, be it torrential verbal abuse, a flurry of micro aggressions, or gusts of ‘everyday’ incidences involving accents and minor workplace thefts and menus We know that we have both been made to feel, by the newspapers, by individual people and the nation in general, that we should feel lucky to be here, in this country, and to have what we have, considering. Considering off white, considering minority, considering mixed blood.
Recently, I asked the couple who run my local café where they were from (Turkey and Greece respectively), and when they asked me back, it felt like a deep, familiar connection that already lived in my body had been reawakened It needed no time to open its eyes and stretch, it was fully conscious and satisfied, just like that A homing radar, a muscle that is rarely exercised yet able to spring to attention, full of warmth and eagerness, when it experiences a specific type of connection. Our cultures are miles apart but our shared experience of difference in this specific way is not. This question is extended back and forth, a rope pulling us closer to each other. It is not, for once, a way to size up the level of fear or loathing (or of smugness at ‘being cultured’) we should be feeling. It is a primal lifeline.
Of course, there is no one rule. One of the things I got right at 26 years old is that what matters most is intention and approach. I have been asked The Question by other ethnic minorities in brusque, intimidating, apropos of nothing ways and felt as harassed and self conscious and fetishized as with many white people. But I suppose what I’m trying to say is that the majority of fulfilling conversations I’ve had about background and family and place have been with people who understand what it is to be the public, access for all embodiment of their background and family and place.
Everywhere. People ask everywhere. They ask in supermarkets lit by strips of artificial glare, and they ask at international airports as they hold the
passport page open. They ask at a point in conversation where they have already verbally established that your physical difference is conversation worthy (‘exotic eyes’) and at a point in conversation where they have barely even said hello. The location is ever changing and thus meaningless.
Perhaps that is the sticking point for me. No matter my location, I can, have been, and will be asked. I am always the contrasting pop of color against the white wall, always the question among the full stops, whether I’m in England, Hong Kong, America, Italy, Mongolia. This question will follow me wherever I go, the family friend I don’t like but, out of familiarity, feel obliged to open the door to, the shifty man down the street I can’t seem to shrug off no matter which roads I erratically veer down. It’s important to reiterate here that I do not mind being asked. I want to share and learn and feel connected. I don’t want obligation and pressure and transparent intentions and that is mostly what I get But perhaps there is a deal to be made. People utter these four (not five) words if they’re curious and honest and believe that the ensuing conversation will enrich both of our lives. In return, I am equally curious and honest. I give as much as I get but no more than that. I can’t; I’ve run out of energy. Maybe this is how we grow together; we stop depleting each other’s reserves for quick, self serving fixes, and we start filling them up with sincerity and true curiosity, instead.