Answers to deceivingly simple questions

by Sarah Lauren 13 days ago in humanity

Self-introduction of an Asian American

Answers to deceivingly simple questions

"Where are you from?" and "What's your nationality?" are two of the most frequently asked questions I would get when meeting new people. The first question has become increasingly difficult to answer ever since I graduated from college; since I can no longer assume they meant to ask me where I was before I started college.

For anyone who has moved around a bit in their lifetime, the question is just too vague. Is the question poser trying to ask me where I was two days ago? two years ago? or two decades ago? Does the question poser actually care about what my answer would be? Sometimes, I would ask them to clarify and be more specific, but most of the time, I just tell people I'm from California, or Central New York, depending on the setting.

"But where are you originally from?"

Really? Why do people always ask Asian people this question?

This is when I have to tell myself, "Be nice, Sarah, people could be simply curious. Maybe they are just ignorant and don't know a better way to ask the question without sounding like a xenophobic..." But in the case that they did politely ask me about my ethnic background and have enough time to stick around for the long answer, I wouldn't mind elaborating.

I am a 1.5-generation immigrant. A term that refers to people who moved to another country in their tween to early-teen years. I was born in Taipei, Taiwan. Shortly after I was born, my family moved to Hualien, where I spent the rest of my childhood. I immigrated to the U.S. when I was 13. In the summer of 2007, Palo Alto, California was welcoming with its warm weather and English Language Learners programs. But different than most other Chinese students in my school, my family was dirt poor, and I was not from China.

Chinese, but not from China?

It's a long story.

Between 1945 and 1980, many people moved from China to Taiwan as a result of the Chinese Civil War. My grandparents were among these people. My maternal grandmother once told us that she was the first member of her family to escape her hometown. She said she escaped to Taiwan with the military, cross-dressed as a soldier. People in Taiwan refer to people like my grandparents as "mainlanders" or "外省人". Since my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandfather are both mainlanders, their descendants, my parents, are also mainlanders. By the same logic, I am also a mainlander.

According to the 1990 census, 13% of Taiwan's population are mainlanders. At the time, the census included a question on one's "ancestral hometown", the where one's paternal ancestors reside. Ancestral hometown is the subject in question when people talk about whether one is a "mainlander" or an "islander" or " 本省人". Other ways to tell if one is a mainlander or islander are one's mother tongue and physical appearance. The majority of the population in Taiwan speaks Minnan, or simply known as Taiwanese, at home. There is quite a strong correlation between being Taiwanese (islander) and able to speak Taiwanese. Since I didn't speak Taiwanese and I often heard people of older generation commenting on our appearance, ("I can tell you are a mainlander just by looking at you.") I never really considered myself Taiwanese growing up.

I was a minority in my "home country" and a minority in the country I immigrated to. The forever not-quite-American-not-quite-Chinese-Taiwanese feeling. Never completely belonging to one nor the other, but at the same time can easily assimilate to both. The 1.5-gens Asian immigrants are not your stereotypical Asian, and I'm pretty proud to be one. But I wish that there comes a day when we don't pass judgments based on each other's race. After all, there's much more to a person than the country or town where their ancestors lived.

Sarah Lauren
Sarah Lauren
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