Living abroad is an exciting and at times delicate beast to behold. One of the first prolific things I noticed when trapezing in and outside of state and country lines was the near-constant reminder of being asked to know who I was, where I came from, and to be able to explain my background succinctly.
Appearance, voice, accent, even the way I carry myself signifies different things to different people in a way I have not been able to contain. On occasion, I’m mistaken for being from somewhere else, sometimes questioned even in my home country.
It’s a curious, interesting thing: identity, where nationality intersects with ethnicity to compound the complexity of you. An equation that is somewhat the sum total of your parts, plus or minus the other experiences that also may have defined you nonetheless.
“Where Are You From?”
In the six years that I’ve lived in Japan, a country that is 98% Japanese, it is no surprise that it has become commonplace to have to identify myself and where I’m from on a regular basis.
My approach and my reaction to this seemingly uncomplicated “Where are you from?” question have changed over time. Perhaps that’s due simply to the number of years I’ve spent fielding it in a homogeneous country as a semi-mixed person.
Conversely, it could be that the question doesn’t comprehend the complexity of which I’ve come to associate it with, especially depending on who’s asking and why. That said, I like to keep things simple. “The States,” is my usual response, or sometimes even, “I live in Tokyo.”
In order to better understand the subtleties of this location-identity phenomena myself, I reached out to thirteen people to see how they navigate this question and the conversations born from it.
An Innocent Question, A Frustrating One
Interviewees responded that they were, for the most part, unbothered or trying to be unbothered by being asked “Where are you from?” in Japan.
Of the thirteen people interviewed, nine of them mentioned the same word in their answer: curious, or curiosity, usually citing that if the asker was Japanese, the question was most likely coming from an innocent, “curious” place.
Despite understanding what seems like an innocuous intention, some interviewees cited feeling frustrated due to the sheer amount of times being asked in a week, and to the implication that being asked, identified someone as being different or other than the asker.
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