San Diego. Born and raised. Yearning to one day experience living in other areas of the world.
But, seriously, where are you REALLY from?
I absolutely LOATHE this question when it comes from someone who has no purpose for asking other than to justify their notion that you’re definitely not from “around here”, also known as not looking “American”.
Story of my life.
The idea for this blog post came from the following experience this past Tuesday night…
I stared intently at my computer screen, fingers tapping away. I bobbed my head ever so slightly to the low music playing smoothly through my headphones that sat hidden underneath my black hijab adorned with gold leafs. The white wire visibly snaking its way from the sides of my hijab, down the front of my human-blood red colored shirt, and connecting to my iPhone.
The door to Peet’s Coffee and Tea in La Jolla opened to let in a costumer and blasted cold air into the shop. I shivered slightly and looked out the large window I was facing. I hadn’t thought to grab a jacket before leaving the house. Everyone else in La Jolla remembered the moody La Jolla weather and carried or wore a jacket or sweater at night when the fog swooped in at sunset.
Suddenly, a girl sat next me, leaving only inches of space between us. I looked up and arched my left eyebrow in her decision. There was easily space for four chairs to sit next to me, and yet she had decided to pull one up close enough to check out every detail on my laptop screen. I turned my body slightly, facing her in the process, so I was able to angle my laptop away from her view of sight.
Before getting back to my work, I noticed she was shivering and constantly fidgeting. I noted her thin, long-sleeved shirt, a barely there skirt, and Ugg boots, of course. As I returned to my typing and head bobbing, she opened a textbook and, what I believe to be, a notebook to complete her homework. As she got up to grab a cup of coffee, I lost myself in my work again, only being distracted by the insistent fidgeting.
After half an hour, I took a break to sip my cold coffee. I noticed she hadn't touched her work. She was staring at my reflection in the window. She quickly leaned in, startling me.
“Excuse me?” She retorted loudly in a thick accent I couldn’t place. It came out as a question.
“I’m sorry, what?” I looked directly at her, thinking she thought I had spoken to her.
“What?” She asked again.
Now I was thoroughly confused and irritated. Personally when someone has headphones on, working intently on a computer screen or perhaps studying, I take that as a signal to NOT speak to them. They want to be alone. I took out my right earphone and stared at her, putting the conversation ball in her court.
“Where are you from?” She enunciated her words, as if throwing them at me, her thick accent filling up the space. I couldn’t tell if the reason she was speaking slowly was for me.
I controlled my facial expressions so as not to show how much I hated that question, when in a situation where that question was not relevant or appropriate. I assumed she was asking for one of three reasons: 1. she was curious and had been trying to validate what country she thought I was from; 2. she thought we may have been from the same region and wanted to tell me this; and worst case scenario, in which I was in no mood for, 3. she was about to start a discussion with me. From experience, telling people my heritage is Palestinian illicit either positive or negative responses, not in between.
“San Diego.” I smiled.
“What!?” I was taken back by her angry response.
“I’m from San Diego.” I inched my body away from her reach.
“Yes. Really.” I held back the sarcasm, still unsure by her motive. My reaction was jilted by her angry tone.
“No. Where are you REALLY from?” She leaned forward, too close to my personal bubble of space.
I always found it incredibly ridiculous that someone would ask me where I’m from and then when my answer didn’t suit their views, have the audacity to insist I was wrong. Umm, what??!
This time, I didn’t hide my irritation.
“I was born. And raised. In. San. Diego.” This time, I leaned forward waiting for her next move. She let out an audible sigh.
“Not here. You know. From where?” I noticed her eyes were slowing turning into slits. Why was she the one who was angry??
I was now aware that we had a little audience of listeners.
“Are you referring to my heritage?”
“What?” She chuckled. It was my turn to hold back a large sigh.
“I’m from San Diego, but my parents are Palestinian.” She let a high pitched laugh startling everyone around us.
I should have been angry, but I couldn’t get the smirk off my face. It was all I could do from reply, “Are you freaking kidding me??”
“What.” This time it wasn’t a question.
I cocked my head to the side and leaned forward, “I. Am. Palestinian.”
She stopped laughing as quickly as she had begun.
“Oh. Uh, huh.” I watched as a mix of confusion and what I recognized as fear spread across her face. We made direct eye contact before she turned away, picked up her phone, and began typing furiously.
I looked behind me to find a table of two girls around my age and a guy who was studying looking at her with confusion. I considered asking her why she had asked me, but I decided against it.
It was an uncomfortable rest of the time I sat there at the coffee shop, mainly because every time I looked up, I saw her staring at the window, taking glances at my reflection. Every time I caught her looking, I smiled. She looked down and fidgeted in her seat.
Let me make something clear, I get the “where are you REALLY from?” question regularly. The situation varies from normal to bizarre and uncomfortable. I might be taking a walk, out running errands, standing at a coffee cart, or in line to buy something. I’m always minding my own business when the questions comes out of nowhere. Sometimes, I’m sending a text and someone will come up to me directly and say, “So, where are you from?” as if we had been having a conversation the entire time I was standing there. It takes me a few blinks to realize they’re not going away until they get the answer that they want, and it’s never the one they want to hear.
My reactions are usually very consistent. I can slightly understand if the person who asks is desperately trying to start a conversation. I’ve been told this is because I “look interesting” and people will try to start a conversation in any way possible just to hear me respond, either because they have never met or spoken to a Muslim, or it’s because they actually just want to hear me speak.
I know friends who are highly offended by this, and I can understand. It’s an uncomfortable situation to be in, but this question doesn’t just come from me wearing a hijab. Simply looking “different” these days can generate the “where are you REALLY from?” question. When someone asks this question, it tells me one thing. You are quite certain I’m a “foreigner”.
I am going to be straight forward. If you really want to know someone’s background, even if you think you may share the same heritage, culture, etc., there is a respectful way to ask. This is true 100% of time.
The interaction I had in the coffee shop with this girl was highly disrespectful. Regardless of her reasoning, whether it’s because we disagree religiously, culturally, politically, or perhaps socially, there is absolutely no reason at all for to be inconsiderate and just straight up rude. Have a little respect and decency to not look so shocked when I tell you with my flawless Southern California, English accent that yes, I was born and raised in this country.
Yes, more times than I should, I have also gotten, “your English is so good!” Why, thank you. Yes, yes it is.
I personally don’t mind being asked about my background because I love chatting with people, but only if done so respectfully. Not everyone agrees with me. In fact, the majority of my friends disagree with me, especially when they are just grabbing coffee as they rush to work or when they’re studying. I understand. I felt the same way on Tuesday. It was bad timing and really bad phrasing of the question.
If you are going to ask, if you’re legitimately curious or trying to validate the guilt you’re having for asking yourself if I do or do not speak English, find a way to start up a conversation with me. I have people wait until after I order, sometimes I visibly see their faces relax after they hear me chatting with the barista and asking how his or her day has been, to strike up a conversation. As offended as I am by this, I heave learned to let this go in hopes that the stereotype they have will be replaced by new education.
“You ordered a caramel flan latte? I did, too. Have you had it before?” a woman once asked me. Smooth. Be nice and I’ll be happy to tell you I’m from San Diego, but proud my parents immigrated from overseas.
DO NOT under any circumstance be shocked and then proceed to ask, “No, but where are you REALLY from?”
Don’t ask me, “where are you from?” at all. Ask me about my heritage or perhaps where my ancestors are from. Asking about my culture is just as vague. I was born and raised here. My culture is just as American as any of my friends who were born here, too. Yes, my parents have tried to instill the Palestinian culture into the lives of my siblings and I, but just like my English is more fluent than my Arabic, I’m your average SoCal girl who has a vocabulary filled with “totally,” “awesome,” and “DUUUDE!” when chatting informally with family and friends.
I also don’t appreciate the awkward “OMG, I can totally relate” extension to the conversation through comments like:
Middle Eastern? I love hummus!
I can’t stand hummus. GASP I know.
There’s this great little kabob place near my house, it’s like being back there.
I actually don’t eat meat. I’m more of a warak dawali and mansaaf kind of girl.
I love baklava!
Sorry, not a fan. I’m a knafeh lover!
Say something in Arab. I love the language!
Do you mean Arabic? What dialect do you want to hear?
I love your culture!
What part and from which country?
Belly dancing and your clothing is beautiful!
Oh, no. Write down DABKE and look it up, okay? And while you’re at it, Google Palestinian Thobe. That’s only one beautiful way of cultural dress from the numerous other gorgeous styles across the Middle East!
There are about thirty-five countries that are considered to be a part of the Middle East. While Arabic is the common language, the dialect differs greatly and is highly distinct in every single country, and even city, that you visit. Stereotyping to look like you're culturally aware never gets you anywhere. Instead of trying to relate or make assumptions about my culture, I prefer you ask me a question so I know you’re actually trying to learn something.
My favorite part of these conversations are when I ask the same person back, “so, where are you from?”
They respond, “here.”
“I mean what country did your ancestors come from before coming to the United States?”
This is usually met with confusion, frustration, or just a simple, “I actually don’t know. I’m just American.”
“Interesting. I believe the Native Americans might disagree with you.” I laugh to make light of the situation…
This really should come as no surprise, but unless you have any Native American ancestry in your blood, you are not from “here.” Your ancestors came over to this country just like every single non-Native American person to escape harsh conditions, build a better life for yourself and family, or possibly just gain the freedoms and rights this country is known for.
The reality is that we are all American, unified by our history of having had family come over to this land to live in a country where being different is okay and it is possible to live together, as one.
Believe it or not, the following video pretty much portrays the story of my life. Yes, I have used the, “wait, so you’re Native American” response to the confident statement, “I’m from here. I’m American.” I don’t believe I’m the only one who did this long before this video came out. Her response is an over exaggeration, but be honest with yourselves. How many of you have wanted to throw out a few stereotypes to counter the person who’s telling you how much they love your culture by throwing out all the stereotypes?! Haha!
Here’s to being more respectful while learning from each other!
So, where are each of you REALLY from?