A Regularly Scheduled Rant on Being Bugged about Foreignness

Long-time readers know that I passionately hate it when people with whom I share a fleeting interaction cannot curb their rudeness and curiosity enough to stop themselves from either inquiring about or making stupid assumptions about my origins. This post has been brought to you by the three separate incidents  that happened between Thursday and today. This is a high frequency even for me; something must be in the water.

1) Today, I was leaving daycare with Smurf. One of the office staff came to us and asked about Smurf “Does he speak Vulcan?” (I wish she had asked that. No, it was a certain Earth language). I said “No, and neither do we.” She laughed like what I had said was the funniest thing ever. This led me to suspect that she didn’t get my point, so I explicitly said “We are not Vulcan.”

WTF? This is not the first time people assume we are from Vulcan. In fact, my planet is not even a neighbor of Vulcan. We are from Romulus and share perhaps only the most distant past with the Vulcans. We live on Earth and my kids speak only the Earth language known as English.

The woman who asked, by the way, is an Earthling from Thailand (I only know that because some info on her was in the newsletter some months ago, where she was introduced as a staff member). I would have never asked her where she was from. Never.

2) Last Thursday: My husband usually picks up Smurf from daycare in the afternoons. Near as I can tell, nobody asks my husband anything ever, perhaps because he looks like someone who doesn’t want to talk. (No unnecessary eye contact. Smart man. I should learn from him.) When I picked up Smurf last week, the afternoon teacher, with whom I had interacted 3 times in my life for 5 seconds each time, absolutely had to use the 5 seconds to ask me where I was from. I took a deep breath and gave her my canned response in a robotic voice. That’s the best I can do not to pop a vein and to try not to embarrass the person who was asking. Then she asked about where my husband was from, and then she proceeded to tell me about the erroneous assumptions of  where she thought I was from; I am not sure why sharing her thought process about my origins was supposed to be interesting, informative, impressive or anything to me.

Why? Why does she have to know? That has nothing at all to do with any of our interactions. Tell me about what my kid did, or what other kids did. I will tell you that the roads are bad because it is snowing or whatever. I promise I will not ask what godforsaken village in this fair state you are from.

3) I saved the best for last; this one happened on Saturday. Eldest has been swimming non-stop, and the winter boys’ swimming season was  kicked off by a 2-hour breakfast for parents as well as swimmers. There was information, but mostly food and mingling (parents and swimmers separately); I was nursing my coffee in the corner, only surfacing to top the cup off or checking out team apparel. Of course, I was asked where I was from a few times, after I shared my name; I didn’t mind it too much as I was expecting it and was psychologically prepared with my trusty canned response. But one dad made my day (not). First, he interrupted the conversation as I was saying my name to someone else, then proceeded to tell me that when he usually hears my name it is pronounced differently (because I do not know how to pronounce my name and I need to be set straight by a random dude; what you are familiar with is a different name with a different spelling, a$$hole, which explains the difference in pronunciation). Then he asked where I was from, told me all about his trip to a country in the neighborhood when he was 13. The discussion was mercifully cut short by the coach who started with the announcements. Unfortunately, the dad managed to corner me twice more with questions thereafter, such as which town I was from, surprised that I was from a big city (I was close to telling him that we shockingly had indoor plumbing and electricity, too). Then he asked me what the main industry in my country was. Then he asked me what my parents did — are you fuckin’ kidding me? How is that an appropriate question for someone you just met? (I said they were middle class.)

Why can’t we talk about our kids swimming? My kid is a freshman, his is older, how about tell me about your experiences on the team. That’s why we are both here, right? If you are making small talk, have mercy and stick to the subjects that you know are of interest to the other person (such as school and boys’ swimming for a meeting of parents of the boys’ swim team).

As I wrote before, having a hard-to-place accent is like being perpetually pregnant. People badger pregnant women with all sorts of intrusive questions all the time, some even touch the belly. Random strangers think it’s fine to ask you when you are due, if it’s your first, if you are having a boy or a girl, and then proceed to give unsolicited advice. If you were pregnant once, maybe you found it endearing. With multiple pregnancies, it gets old. Now imagine being perpetually pregnant and FOREVER having to endure the inquisitiveness of strangers, whenever, wherever, without regard for what you may care to talk about instead. FOREVAAAAAAH…

Usually when I complain about this, I am told to lighten up because people are just making conversation. Why is it my job to satisfy everyone’s curiosity? Why can’t people stop to think that, while the fact that they noticed the accent and don’t know what to do with it may be riveting to them, it is likely completely unimpressive to me?

Lastly, I may be cynical, but I am not sure that people are so well meaning. There are a great many people who really just want to emphasize that they have noticed I have no business being where I am. I wonder when one of them is going to ask me to show them a valid visa. They ask because they want to remind me that I am Other and to let me know that I have been spotted.

I have taught veritable hordes of undergrads over the past decade. Only very, very infrequently does it happen that a student asks where I am from, and only after they have been coming to office hours for months. Most never ask, even if we have spent a lot of time chatting, even if they have had multiple courses with me. How is it that the students don’t care, or care but don’t want to bother me with their curiosity, while the grownups, who should know better and presumably have more experience, cannot bear not knowing exactly which stupid compartment to put me in?


UPDATE 11/26/2014:

Here are some old posts from Academic Jungle on the same topic.
Accentuating Deflection
The Return of Where are You from
So Where Are You Really From?


  1. I think you’re probably right that some people are asking out of desire to place you in the Other box (perhaps an unconscious desire, to be charitable). I know what you’re talking about – as a second-generation American I often get “But where are you *really* from?” I wonder if one conversational tactic you could use is to feign a similar interest in where your conversational partner is from. Express surprise that they’re from Buffalo, not Rochester, talk about the wonderful trip you had to Niagara Falls that one time 20 years ago, etc. That way if they’re genuinely just asking to make conversation, you’ve reciprocated nicely. And if they’re asking out of rudeness, you’ve changed the subject in a way that reflects it back on them (and may reveal the absurdity of their questions if they’ve been going down an especially rude route).

  2. “How is it that the students don’t care, or care but don’t want to bother me with their curiosity, while the grownups, who should know better and presumably have more experience, cannot bear not knowing exactly which stupid compartment to put me in?”

    They check your last name on Google and determine by the first ten links where you’re from. Grownups are not that computer savvy.

  3. I have a colleague who always responds to such questions with “I am American.”. If the questioner persists, she says “No, I am _really_ from America.”

  4. Just as a note: we like being asked what forsaken small town we’re from, and we get super excited if you’ve heard of it. It’s also totally normal to ask what your parents did/do in many parts of the country as small talk. Bonus points if the asker has a relative in the same profession.

    The rest is them not treating you like an American. (And anything followed up with but where are you *really* from is flat out racist, not to mention impolite.)

    The students don’t need to make small talk because they already have something to talk about.

  5. I hear you. I wish people would stop to consider that those of us with funny accents get this question all the freaking time and then stifle the urge to ask it. We don’t care whether you know anything about our country, whether you’ve visited it, or whether your ancestors come from the country next door. In fact, in my country, nobody cares where you come from or what your parents do and wouldn’t dream of asking those questions. It would be like laying a big social turd in the middle of the room. When I’m tempted not to indulge the conversational opening, I do try to remember that this is not the case in the US and pat my heckles down.

    I do think USians are different and that they care deeply about where people are from (even within the US) and that there is the added desire to show to the “visitors” (even if we’ve been here 20 years) that there is no reason to be ashamed of our origins and they they even know something about the country of our origin (or the vague geographical neighborhood) and that they don’t realize that some of what they are saying is almost the same as “some of my best friends are black/Jewish…”.

    I typically put on a US accent when meeting people casually (cashiers, servers, etc) to avoid these questions, or smile instead of saying anything. I do think it’s very rude for people in the service industries to ask customers any personal questions and again I try to remember that in the US this is not the case.

  6. I want to contribute to this discussion, but am unsure of how to say what I want to say without sounding like a troll or sounding dismissive of a set of experiences that is clearly causing you stress. I guess I will say that it seems like you’re attributing a lot of negative intentions to people who are probably just trying to be friendly, in whatever capacity they have. Along those lines, I have asked these kinds of questions. However, it has never once been with an agenda of letting someone know they are ‘other’. I also frequently ask people who ‘look’ American, whatever that means, where they are from. Hardly anyone I know grew up in the town I live in, and we generally enjoy talking about our different traditions and experiences growing up in different places.

    It’s good to know that this infuriates people so much. I will definitely consider it carefully.

  7. Part of the problem is the identity politics that are so unique to the USA. Around here (i.e. not the USA) “where are you from?” is considered a neutral conversation starter akin to “how about that rainstorm last night?”. People then readily share where they are from. If you’ve been there you mention some place you particularly liked, and if you haven’t you make some comment about their place like “boy I wish to go there” or “didn’t they just have elections last month?”. From then on the conversation moves to more familial topics like “what do you do for a living?” or “come here often?”.

    Like Andrew said, some of them are trying to slot you in your group: “ah you are vulcan american” and you are correct in sensing that.

    Others might just ask out of genuine interest. E.g. I met the most charming woman the other day and turned out her background was Ugandan-German. She went on to talk for a long time about her experiences growing up with this interesting cultural mix.

  8. My father gets upset when anyone refers to him in the third person in his hearing. Apparently that’s incredibly rude in his birth country. But it isn’t rude here. He’s been living here for 60+ years (and has no accent)… it’s hard to say whose culture should be respected. Culture is a tricky thing.

    My suggestion would be to ask the same question to the person who is asking you. If it’s inappropriate or rude, then that should come out in the return question, but in a polite way. (Same thing with intrusive pregnant-lady questions.)

  9. I don’t think you should feel obligated to not respond in ways that might make the questioner feel uncomfortable. Intrusive rude motherfuckers might moderate their intrusive rude behavior if it regularly leads to them feeling uncomfortable.

  10. I don’t understand why these questions offend you, as every native American gets asked similar questions about where they are from/what is the major industry in the area they are from. I’m from Ohio. I live in Texas. When my accent is perodically noticed, I get asked “you don’t sound like you’re from around here – where are you from? Oh, Cleveland? That place isn’t doing so well – I went to Detroit several years ago. Are there even jobs there?” It’s called making conversation.

  11. I have to agree with several previous commenters. I’m native to this country and am asked where my hometown is and what my parents do on a regular basis. I think students already have a reason to speak to you, and adults are looking for an ‘in’ to build a connection.

  12. Like others here, I don’t mind this as small talk – either when visiting or living in another part of the US or traveling abroad.

    But you’re definitely not alone in your feelings. I had a friend from New Zealand who also loathed these sorts of conversations. Particularly in small talk situations like the grocery store. So decided to make something up and ended up blurting out that she was from Antarctica. The small town grocery clerk didn’t know what to think and said “oh I didn’t know anybody was actually born there”. I think the conversation ended pretty quickly.

  13. I’m American and I am awkward so sometimes I default to these kinds of questions. I practically realize they are rude but I don’t always have lots of ways to make neutral conversation without being idiotic (like the dad from the swim team — maybe you would think he was annoying if he started telling you all about the team? whereas asking you questions is seemingly more polite since he is asking you questions instead of talking about his own experiences?.) For places I have been to I love to hear more about them from people, even when I realize my own perspective is so limited. I also love to tell people where I have lived. However, your post now makes me realize that no one probably cares. So what to talk about in awkward social situations! Tread more carefully I guess …

  14. I am also not from Vulkan, but people assume that I am. I can usually easily identify awkward folks who are desperately looking for a conversation topic from those who find it so very interesting that I don’t even speak Vulkan and want to share all their misconceptions with me. With the latter, I sometimes like to go on a rant about how bad American education can be and how ignorant people can be about other countries and cultures, etc. Amusingly, they nod and count themselves among the non-ignorant ones, because they just learned so much from me about my exotic little country.

  15. am also not from Vulkan, but people assume that I am. I can usually easily identify awkward folks who are desperately looking for a conversation topic from those who find it so very interesting that I don’t even speak Vulkan and want to share all their misconceptions with me.

    Tigerlily, YES! This!!!
    You put nicely in 2 sentences what took me a whole lengthy post, and apparently I was still not clear.

    I don’t want to terrify the poor folks who are really socially awkward into never asking this question again; it does come across clearly when people are honestly struggling to make conversation in situations like parties, and I am happy to help. We can always discuss the weather, football (don’t know squat, but can fake it with the best of them), movies, music, or my all-time-favorite: work! I looove talking about people’s jobs, it fascinates me. With some people, excellent topics also include kids, neighborhood, and schools.

    Many well-meaning people who are American-born don’t realize that there is the “Where are you from?” that they receive (e.g. like the Ohioan living in Texas) and then there is the version that many reserve for foreign-born Americans; that version is weird, intrusive, and slightly (or not-so-slightly) xenophobic.

  16. “I looove talking about people’s jobs, it fascinates me.”

    Actually this can be a pitfall with some people. I’m told that many British people think it’s rude (and typical of Americans) to ask straight out what somebody does for a living. (Apparently you’re supposed to approach the subject very indirectly like “Oh yes the traffic is so bad. Do you have to commute by car?”) I guess – as with the “where are you from?” question – it depends on whether you’re asking out of genuine interest and making small talk, or whether you’re trying to slot them into a box based on class. (Perhaps the latter apparent motive is why xykademiqz found the question about her parents’ occupations so intrusive?)

  17. That is why when any one asks me I tell them I am from the US and the big city where I lived for a couple of years. Saves me the conversation of justifying that I am from_a_Third_world_country_that_you_probably_heard_on_CNN_and_do_not_like

  18. FR, when people ask “So where are you from?” I have tried saying that I am from one of the cities where I used to live, and it never works. They always ask, “No, where are you really from?” Not once has the person taken a hint that perhaps my point of origin is off limits/I don’t want to talk about it; instead, they always assume I must have misunderstood what they really meant by the incredibly cryptic first question which no one on Earth has ever thought to ask me before they came along, so they press on, because their curiosity just has to be satisfied. Who cares about my uncomfortable squirming and attempts to deflect? This is intrusive, rude, insensitive, and is not the same as when a similar-sounding question is directed at American-born folks.

    Here are some old posts from Academic Jungle on the same topic.
    Accentuating Deflection
    The Return of Where are You from
    So Where Are You Really From?

  19. The students are always desperate to know where I am from and I tell them. Sometimes they forget or don’t believe it. Once they ran bets on it. Only one was really convinced I and my parents were all born in the US, so he won a lot of money because he was right.

    I like travel and like to know where people are from, but have surmised that this question could seem outright threatening to, for example, Middle Easterners, and I know it is to Haitians, because a common followup is an insult to their country.

    Living abroad I do not always tell people I am American because American women are supposed to be loose and I do not want trouble. Then I say I am from some other place I have lived and can plausibly talk about as home. It is very interesting when I say I am from somewhere else because people tell me different things than they otherwise would.

    Anti American talk from people from elsewhere, I don’t mind, although it gets tiresome when they want to be the first person I ever heard criticize the US or want to mansplain simple things they imagine I would never have thought of. Anti California talk is much more irritating: people have a lot invested in projecting whatever they saw on Baywatch into me, it seems. Anti UC Berkeley talk is also irritating: I must know how to grow alfalfa sprouts, be a certain kind of flaky hippie, etc.

  20. I love the way people sound, and am always curious about accents, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a Wisconsin one (like my mom’s, which a few people can hear in my voice at times, though I’ve never been there) or one from someplace much farther away.

    My mother’s father had a hint of the German he grew up speaking, just as my father’s father had a hint of Texas twang. I find it fascinating. Most English-speaking people on TV/movies sound very similar, much like the Midwest I live in, so hearing someone who is different is very pleasant.

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