The Curiosity Of Asking Someone’s Ethnicity

b6a6f7dc454666b0e826e23b347f2d53.jpgOne of the questions I get asked frequently from strangers or meeting someone new is Where are you from? What’s your background? Where are your parents from? or What’s your ethnicity? It’s understandable, because it’s tricky to tell what my ethnicity is, especially when no one has ever guessed Taiwanese. I commonly hear Malaysian, Thailand and Japanese. It’s natural to feel curious about a person’s ethnicity. I was working yesterday, and a customer asked me out of the blue “Where are your parents from?” and I replied “Taiwan.” It would of been fine, but that was the only thing they asked before walking off.

I’ve talked about the question Where are you from? and how it can be innocently disrespectful at times, as it imposes the idea that you’re not from where you currently live. On the other hand, asking someones ethnicity, is often out of curiosity, but sometimes it can be quite strange to suddenly open a conversation first thing by asking someones background. It can be invasive in asking someones racial makeup, before having a good conversation. When I watched the video What kind of Asian are you? here, it allows others to have awareness of how you ask certain kinds of questions.

There’s nothing wrong with asking someones background, but it’s having that layer of sensitivity and letting go of any assumptions. It’s asking the question in a way that’s respectful and polite. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve gotten offered to join an international group or how many homeless men say “Konichiwa” to me on the street. I still remember when someone asked me if I was from the Philippines. As soon as I said I wasn’t, they stopped talking to me. It sort of makes me smile thinking back to it, but it makes you realise how some people do feel more comfortable speaking to those who have the same cultural background as them.

There was a moment at a sushi store several weeks ago, where the checkout person asked me if I’m from Thailand. I told her no, but that I hear it quite often. She told me “You look like our people!”Most people may be curious, because they often say “I’m wondering what your background is, you have quite a strong Kiwi accent.” I don’t mind, because I’m used to being asked. The only thing I find is that sometimes asking someones ethnicity, can bring about certain stereotypes. There are aspects of my backgrounds culture, that I can’t relate to. For example, I was born and raised in New Zealand, and feel more Kiwi in many ways. It’s harder for me to be able to truly connect with a lot of aspects of Taiwanese and Chinese culture.

We’re all visual creatures, and when we see someone we may become intrigued by their features, appearances and the way they speak. Those are all the external aspects we can see and hear. Especially when you’re living in a multicultural society, it’s common that these curiosities will happen frequently, and you will have others ask you, or you may ask others about their background. It’s natural that we want to know, but it’s important to think before you ask, why you want to know. Sometimes we might be interested to know what other languages they might speak. Every individuals story is different.

image via alice roxy

14 thoughts on “The Curiosity Of Asking Someone’s Ethnicity

  1. Nice article. As someone who is biracial, I get asked this question a fair bit too. Because of my features, and/or my accent, it’s often assumed that I’m not from New Zealand, even though I’ve lived here almost my whole life.

    1. Thanks Angela! I understand that feeling of living in NZ, but still being asked those questions. Although, interestingly in the video I linked above, a lot of Western people have different backgrounds too, and have family that moved from Europe or America.

  2. This is a great post! I hope lots of people read it. I’m multiracial, so although my features are predominantly European (I’m very white-skinned) I have a vague look of *otherness* about me, probably owing to my pacific/Caribbean heritage. Over the years, at work or just on the street, I’ve had strangers come up to me (most often men for some reason) asking me if I’m this or that (“you look Polish, are you sure you’re not from Poland?” or “you really do look like you’re from Eastern Europe”) and I have to say no, I was born here in New Zealand. They often compare me to people they’ve met in X country, as if that’s somehow relevant to my experiences or is going to change my ethnicity/nationality.

    1. Thank you Beth :) It’s funny how that happens, when people compare. I’m sure most of the time people ask out of curiosity, but sometimes I can’t help think why it’s necessary to know or if they’re asking to form their own thoughts of what sort of person they are based on stereotypes.

  3. I get this and I’m not even biracial. Most of the time from people who think I’m either Greek or Italian.
    “Where are you from?” is confusing. I usually say “uuuuhhh..here?” which makes the person backtrack a little and makes them reword their question.

    1. That’s interesting, and I feel the same in terms of usually answering with Auckland or NZ. For example, today a lady asked me if I was at university, and I said I was. She asked me “where did you come from?” and my answer was up north of Auckland. Although, I think she meant to ask what was my background!

  4. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, about how curiosity can be insensitive and how best to approach it. I think it definitely depends on the person too – you seem lovely and approachable, but it may be different with someone else. A lovely girl recently reached out to me and I’m about to feature her post on my blog, about moving from South Africa to the Netherlands and it’s interesting. She has a similar theme to your piece.

    Really enjoyed reading this!! xoxo
    https://seafoaming.com/

  5. So interesting to hear you say you get approached by international groups too. That happens to me quite a bit. Whenever I am in the city, every now and then I will be stopped by international students from Asia, who would usually be promoting their church group and will invite me along. They will usually open the conversation by asking, “Are you as student?” to which I say no and these days I just move along. The other day someone, a young Asian guy, came up to me in the shopping centre. He was holding what looked like survey papers. He asked me, “Are you Chinese?” I am Chinese, but I decided to say no anyway. He promptly walked away without saying a word. None of this offends me. I suppose some of the time we based assumptions on looks because sometimes, looks can seem what they look like.

    1. That is interesting to know it’s quite common to be asked. Haha, yes that reminds me of moments when a stranger speaks Chinese to me, but if I don’t want to engage, I will pretend I don’t understand. That’s very true, and naturally when we appear from a certain ethnicity, those assumptions will be made. Although, looks can be deceiving!

  6. I get people asking me this sort of question often as well. People thought I was from Philippines, Thailand, or Taiwan. I always give a big smile and reply them ” Guess we are all lovely, aren’t we?” You will not go wrong with smiles and positive attitudes.

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