Don’t Ask Me Where I’m REALLY From
I’m half-Asian. I struggle with the term.
Why hasn’t anyone ever called me half-European? Why does being “half” make me less of a person to some people? – but it’s something that’s defined my experiences as I’ve grown up, as well as when I travel.
My dad is Dutch, my mum is from the Philippines and I was born and raised in Australia. I’ve lived in all three countries during my adult years, and I’ve been living in the Netherlands since 2013. I deeply appreciate the combination of cultures that make me who I am. But… confession time. I have a bit of a cultural identity crisis – the feeling that I don’t belong is subtle but constant.
This beautiful quote by the Nigerian poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo sums it up well:
“So, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
Never enough for both.”
So when you ask me where I’m from, the answer is easy – I’m from Australia. I grew up in Perth, Western Australia and I love my home country.
A lot of the time, though, “Australian” isn’t enough. Even though my accent confirms my answer, it doesn’t match my appearance – so sometimes it feels like people think I’m trying to trick them about my Aussie-ness. The look of confusion shows me that my European half is always irrelevant. Instead, the most important part about me is the fact that I look Asian.
It can get annoying. Sometimes it feels like I have to constantly justify my appearance to others. My mixed-race peeps will know what I mean. There’s even a script:
Person: “Where are you from?”
You: [Insert country here]
Person is taken aback or confused, then clarifies their original question with some form of “But where are you REALLY from?”
Why does this suck? Because when the question is intended as “Why do you look Asian?” you’re immediately putting me into the category of Outsider. It sucks not to belong and it’s crappy to never feel accepted, no matter where you go.
It often feels like a game of chicken – some people just won’t give up until they figure out what sort of Asian I am. Sometimes I play my own game, only mentioning where my dad is from. Then they might reply with, “Oh, he must be Indonesian Dutch.” Indonesia was a former Dutch colony, so I guess it’s a logical thought. Then it becomes another game of “Was he REALLY born in the Netherlands?” I have to prove that he’s a white European because apparently, it’s an elite club to belong to.
And then if they make it all to way to the end of the game and confirm my Asian-ness, every now and then I’ll get a smug “I knew it!”
When I mentioned that I’m half-Filipina to a guy, he said: “Oh, I used to date a Thai girl.” Great, good for you. How is this information relevant to me? Making such a statement is reductive – it categorizes me as “just another Asian woman” when I’m actually an individual with my own personality. Imagine if the same thing happened in a European context (disclaimer: I strongly believe it doesn’t): “I’m half-Scottish.” “Oh, wow! I used to date a Czech guy.” Doesn’t it sound ridiculous? If you’re trying to find common ground, that’s a poor way to do it.
One of the shittiest answers I’ve gotten is “You’re not REALLY Australian then.” (Side note: This person once claimed they “don’t see color”.) What is a “REAL” Australian, though?
A Quick History Lesson of Australia
Australia’s indigenous people have the oldest continuous culture in the world, spanning at least 50,000 years. Several European explorers reached Australia in the 17th century, but it wasn’t until 1778 that Britain officially colonized Australian land. British convicts were transported to Australia and worked to set up the infrastructure for future settlers. During colonization, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders were subject to new diseases and countless massacres that almost erased their entire existence. But the tragedy doesn’t end there.
Did you know that Australia had a White Australia policy? The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 effectively banned non-Europeans from immigrating to Australia. The law was later changed by replacing an official ban with a language test, which was so hard that it might as well have said: “If you’re not white, you’re not welcome here.” Over the years the policy was gradually dismantled until finally the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 was passed, which made racial discrimination unlawful.
During the same period, indigenous children were taken away from their families and placed into institutions or foster care, with the idea that their culture would eventually be wiped out. It’s a shameful part of our history and the stats today are ridiculous – I think only 2.5% of the Australian population is Aboriginal.
If you do the math, that means the remaining 97.5% of Australia is the result of immigration. But decades of whitewashing Australia has resulted in white being the default race, despite the rich mix of colors and cultures that make up the country. Our dark history has had a wide effect on how people from around the world picture Australians – and I’m pretty sure people of color aren’t the first who come to mind.
Being Asian in Australia
Like I said before, I count myself as Australian – I never grew up in Asia and I wasn’t immersed in Filipino culture during my childhood. But my life in Australia is peppered with moments where people felt the need to remind me that THEY see me as I’m Asian.
1. In a high school class, my desk was closest to the classroom door. The bell rang and a guy sprinted past me to be first in the lunch line, muttering “Asian…” over his shoulder like it was a dirty word.
2. On the dance floor at a pub, a friend leaned over and told me “You know, I don’t even think of you as Asian. To me, you’re just Jodi!”
3. I started dating a guy seriously, and at one point he admitted to me that he’d always wanted to know what it was like to be with an Asian woman. I got angry and gave him a pretty cutting response. It might sound heartless, but I felt justified when I made him cry.
5. A friend and I – both Australians – were on a weekend trip a few hours away from home, talking to a French guy in the hostel who asked us to write down our contact details. He added his own notes when we were done. Under my friend’s name, he wrote “jolie“, under mine, “chinois” – translation: pretty vs. Chinese.
6. After joining a corporate firm, a guy in my department found out I was half-Filipino. He excitedly started listing the Asian nationalities he had dated in the same way serial travelers list the countries they’ve visited. I asked him whether he considered that he was fetishizing Asian women. He denied it and told me I was feisty for an Asian. He later warned one of the partners of the firm that I had too much attitude, based on this one interaction.
What’s Wrong Here?
If you don’t understand why the above situations were offensive, here’s a quick rundown:
1.The word “Asian” shouldn’t be used as an insult or said with a disgusted tone. Here’s an exercise – look in the mirror and pick a word that describes your appearance. Maybe it’s “dark-skinned”, “short”, “blonde”, “fat”, whatever. Then say that word out loud to yourself with as much hate as you can. Would it feel good if other people did that to you?
2. Newsflash – Asians are all individuals! Why is the idea of developing a friendship with an Asian person so surprising?
3. The obsession with valuing Asian women based on what’s between their legs is appalling. There’s value in someone’s sense of humor, kindness, and intellect.
4. Let me say this loudly for the people in the back: Not every Asian you see is Chinese. Furthermore, looking pretty and looking Chinese are not mutually exclusive, no matter what language you speak.
5. A: Asian women are not prizes to collect. B: When I defied the stereotype of being a submissive, obedient Asian woman by assertively calling out my colleague, he thought the best course of action was to try to sabotage my career.
Being Asian in Asia
In general, I found everyone really welcoming when I traveled through South East Asia. The locals could tell that I didn’t come from their country, but they showed me extra kindness compared to the already exceptional kindness extended to white tourists. I think it’s partly because they assumed part of my DNA came from their country, and partly because they wanted to look out for the girl traveling alone.
- A local shopkeeper in Bangkok talked to me about her family and asked if my mother was Thai.
- A hotel owner in Hoi Chi Minh City bonded with me over our shared Eurasian roots.
- On a Mekong Delta boat trip in Vietnam, three Korean men took me under their wing and treated me the same way they’d treat a daughter. One of them used the Google Translate app on his phone to tell me I had courage to travel solo.
- In Hong Kong, a Chinese family stopped to ask me how I was. We took photos of each other along the Avenue of Stars and before they left, they asked to take a photo with me.
India was a different story. My lighter skin automatically gave local men the right to take photos of me and film me without my consent. It went a step further when I got to Varanasi, one of the most sacred cities for Buddhism. Here, men would elbow me while I walked through the crowded streets. It didn’t happen to my travel companion, who blended in much more due to her Sri Lankan heritage.
I met a local kid and sat down with him for a chat. He explained to me that a lot of Japanese Buddhists pass through Varanasi, leading the locals to resent them. I don’t know exactly where the animosity comes from; however, it’s sad but true that people tend to dislike tourists from a particular country if they come in masses. The kid told me that my lighter skin and perceived East Asian features meant that people assumed I was Japanese, meaning my arms and ribs were open targets.
Being Asian in Europe
My favorite exchanges are when someone asks me where I’m from and they accept it with a smile and move on.
However, unfortunate as it is, the bad interactions are more vivid in my memory:
- In France, a guy asked me where I was from. When I told him I was Australian, a puzzled look took over his face and he responded by pulling up the corners of his eyes.
- During a conversation with my European relatives, one of them decided that she knew more about my parent’s relationship than I did. She then told me that my dad paid for my mother and that’s how they got together. Her ignorance left me speechless, then angry.
Here’s the real story: While still living in different countries, my parents were introduced by mutual friends who encouraged them to write to each other. This lasted for over a year until my dad flew from Australia to the Philippines, where they realized they got along really well. And, as they say, the rest is history.
- I learned my first Chinese words in Amsterdam when someone cycled past me and mockingly yelled “Ni hao!”
- In a nightclub, a guy motioned at me to dance with him and opened the conversation with the Japanese greeting “Konichiwa”.
- I used to work in an Irish pub. A Scottish customer complimented me on how good my English was.
- Another time, we had two Dutch guys as customers who had a beer each. One of them went to use the restroom and then they both left laughing to themselves. The cook had to use the restroom soon after, then came back with some disgusting news: the Dutch guy used his shit to paint a swastika on the toilet door. I was the only non-white person in the bar.
A Racist Attack
Now, I’ve dealt with some bad situations on trips. I was low-key taken hostage by a policeman in Mexico in the middle of the night until someone paid a bribe for me. I fought off a guy in Byron Bay at 3am then spent hours at the police station giving my statement. I was dragged along the road by a taxi truck in Thailand and had to hold on for my life.
Although they were awful experiences, none of them left me sobbing uncontrollably for hours the way one other incident did. This time someone personally targeted me based on my race. A man saw me as Chinese, and his immediate reaction was one of anger, hate, and violence. It was terrifying, and even though another man was there to see it all, I was all alone.
It happened in the Netherlands and I found myself in a situation that involved verbal abuse, spitting, and the threat of being stabbed. I shared it on my Facebook page:
I sobbed non-stop for about 3 hours that night. Later I thought about how sometimes not all people recognize my Asian side. Then I imagined how bad it must be for people who look “more” Asian and might encounter this sort of thing on a regular basis. After I reported it to the police, I learned a fun fact: if spit makes contact with your body then it counts as assault.
Traveling While Australian
Despite the shitty things I’ve described, the times I feel most Australian are when I’m traveling. People generally welcome Aussies with open arms – the positive stereotypes of Aussies as friendly and social people definitely benefit us. It’s nice to be the go-to source for what’s Australian because it means I can finally be a spokesperson for my culture and upbringing. If, on the off chance someone hesitates to speak to me, I know I can always use my accent to my advantage. It’s an underrated tool.
There’s also a strong sense of camaraderie amongst Australians when we meet on the road. I’ve done the long-term travel thing and I’ve met a lot of Aussies who are on extended trips themselves. Although getting to know the locals is always a big highlight, it’s nice to have a reminder of home when we’re away for a long time.
You Won’t Stop Me From Traveling
As an Australian, I’m aware of my privilege. My parents sacrificed a lot to give me a good education. I come from a wealthy country that is relatively well-liked internationally, I have a stable job, English is my first language, and I’m lucky enough to travel several times a year. And you know what? I’m going to keep on traveling as much as possible.
My favorite part of traveling is making connections – whether it’s with locals, who can teach you about their way of life; other travelers, who are in the exciting position of exploring new lands; immigrants, who had the courage to leave their homes behind for something unknown; and everyone else in between.
It’s inevitable that I’ll encounter some ignorant or outright racist people on my travels. Despite the frustration, it’s always a good opportunity to speak up. My voice is finally strong enough to call out casual racism or question people in a way that makes them think about their actions or comments, no matter where it happens. Even though I’m too foreign for most places, respect and acceptance shouldn’t be too foreign for the world.
5 Ways to Stop Making Asians Feel Inferior
Asian people are often forgotten in talks about race. The idea of Asians as a “model minority” is held across several countries, and many non-Asian people think they have the right to mock, insult or abuse Asians without any consequences.
So what can we do to reduce this way of thinking?
1.First and foremost, we need to communicate more with each other, no matter how uncomfortable the topic is. The more we talk, the more we’ll see our similarities instead of focusing on what makes us different. Listen to our stories. Don’t dismiss our experiences. Don’t compare that one time someone was rude to you to the ongoing aggression a lot of us face – it’s not a competition. Accept that White privilege exists and hold back the defensiveness. Ask what you can do to support us and get a better understanding.
2. Consider your motives for asking “Where are you from?” Are you asking to calculate the level of respect you should give a person? If you’re genuinely interested in their ethnicity, maybe you should ask about that instead. Otherwise, a simple “Are you from around here?” will do.
3. Don’t assume that every Asian you see is Chinese. There are 48 countries in Asia, and each one has their own rich culture, traditions, and history. Be curious and learn more about our diverse world!
4. Remember that casual racism is still racism. That joke you made about eating dogs or bad driving? RACIST. Thinking that Asian women exist to be sexual objects? RACIST. Laughing at a comment that all Asians look the same? RACIST. These throwaway comments may seem harmless, but they can really ruin a person’s day. So just imagine being reduced to a joke for your whole life. Asian people are not your punchline.
5. Speak up if you see or hear something racist! Confront or challenge people if they say something offhand. I’m going to repeat what I shared on my Facebook profile after I was spat on and threatened: If you see someone being targeted for their race, please stand up and say something – if it’s safe to do so. It takes a lot for the person to speak up alone, so please do whatever you can to help out your fellow human being.
Content That Struck A Chord With Me
Please check it out – I guarantee it’ll make you think:
- Where Is Home? This TEDTalk by Pico Iyer considers the possible answers to the question “Where do you come from?”
- What kind of Asian are you? This funny video shows how dumb you sound when you ask this.
- 4 Reasons Why Asking Asian People ‘Where Are You Really From?’ Is Racist Rachel Kio explains why it sucks to be on the receiving end of this question.
- How to Ask Someone About Their Ethnicity Without Being an Asshole The Asshole Way versus the Non-Asshole Way.
- Why is it still OK to be racist towards Asians? Expat Edna discusses casual racism and white privilege.
- What would Yellow Ranger do? This comic by Shing Yin Khor covers nuances to what “Where are you from?” means to her.
About the Author
Jodi is an Australian with Dutch and Filipino heritage and currently working as a content marketer in Amsterdam. She has traveled across every continent and will continue to explore different countries, cultures and customs as much as possible.
If you feel like creeping on her Instagram, check out her personal account for travel pics and Amsterdam life or her other account where she shows off her love of beer.