No, where are you REALLY from?
For those who possess the ‘beige that don’t age’ gene there are two questions we often get.
First, where are you from?
Second, seriously where are you from from?
Of course, I understand the individual (almost) never has any real malice in mind. The inquiry stems from a color based curiosity that in jest is an altruistic anthropological exploration.
But why do I loathe this light-hearted interrogation more than getting an ethics lecture from someone who’s been a vegan for three weeks?
Because, this question, as well intentioned as it may be, is a quick one-dimensional reduction in self-worth that often misses out on a deeper connection, or more valuable dialogue, that two humans may have.
Admittedly, this inquiry unearths a mixed bag of reactions for me. When I am asked this question by someone in the beige brethren, I often relish the opportunity to find common ground on cultural challenges and fondness of foreign lands.
On the opposite spectrum, when this information is requested by white Americans, there is a cognitive reaction to be defensive, retreat from the individual, or aggressively retort back.
What follows is usually being someone’s cultural cliff notes, a sound board to justify one international gravitas, entertaining some Eastern insight inapplicable to me (e.g. yoga retreats), or a need to correct predispositions and misconceptions. After three decades, these experiences wane on you.
More importantly, the underlying frustration lies in the ability to be monolithically miniaturized. That regardless of my aspirations, values I adhere to, idiosyncratic personality quirks I have, or how ingrained I am into American culture I can still be relegated into a single “other” category.
Lest we forget, like many Americans, I too have a hyphenated identity that can described with a math formula. I’m half American, half Indian whose identity has been shaped by living in Nevada 60% of my life with the other 40% of my time being spent in the beautiful Bay Area (I spent the last six months in Seattle, but no one is perfect).
But even that description is often neatly chopped up to concoct a simple narrative. I spent my early adulthood fending off condescending assumptions from my fellow UC Berkeley peers and California coastal natives about the civility of Nevada (yes, we have communities, basic infrastructure and jobs outside the casino industry).
Coming home was no better, because there was a conception that those who migrated out of their hometown felt an air of superiority (I always clarified that I felt this air of superiority long before I left the Silver State).
And we can spend endless hours getting into the identity rabbit hole of being Indian. Early on, you start to find out one’s musing about your melanin are based off current events.
In 1998, my social studies teacher asked me to articulate my opinion, to the class, on the escalating nuclear tensions between Indian and Pakistan — I was 11. As India was gaining economic momentum, there was an implicit Caucasian demand for me to explain (and be somewhat responsible for) the extreme poverty, in India, seen in print magazine. Last month, at a bar, three females asked me about my personal dealing with tantric and how it differed from most Indians (I wondered if I had missed a press conference from the Prime Minister of India on this topic).
The point is, one’s cultural cargo is often attempted to be neatly unpacked when we are a combination of all of it.
My desire to attempt to understand the complexity of individuals comes from living in an immigrant household. Yet, it also stems from spending my teenage years traveling across Nevada and meeting bigots but also beautiful people in small towns like Elko and Fallon. I bleed blue because of my love for my alma mater, affinity for Lake Tahoe waters, and my politics.
I’m curious about the world because of the conversations I had in college and how warmly received I am due to my South Asian heritage whenever I travel. But the world would not have captured my curiosity if not for a high school debate teacher giving me hope that there is a place for me in it.
If you think you need a cultural platform to find commonality, think again, or maybe just think. No individual escapes the tensions of work, family life, or finances. There is no distinction in how stress affects us or, more importantly, how we receive joy.
I recently moved to New York. Every morning I walk to work through Central Park. And each day I witness families from all over the world appreciating time with their loved ones and the nature around them. None of this bliss is derived in one’s ethnicity.
Make no mistake, there are genuine differences among us. I also long for the day where my cultural nuances and the racial injustices I experienced are truly comprehended by everyone. There is an eagerness on my part to organically tell my story. However, the question that attempts to geographically pinpoint me only leads to stale banter that is void of deducing any idea of my character or the multi-layered life I’ve lived.
So, I urge everyone to adopt an alternative discussion strategy when you come across a person that has pigmentation that pops. Ease yourself into a chat like you would with anyone else you might meet.
Because asking me where I’m from may help others locate me, but it will truly never describe me.