Why it is not ok to ask "Where are you from?"

Why it is not ok to ask "Where are you from?"

Aïda Yuen Wong, Professor of Art History at Brandeis University; Founder and Head of Design of Callimode, an Asian American contemporary jewelry brand specializing in luxury designs to express antiracism in Asian calligraphy. Ethical & Sustainable Jewelry with Recycled Gold and Non-Conflict Diamonds.

August 22, 2022

Anti-Chinese violence was rampant across the U.S. West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This history is often been bypassed in narratives of racism that are fundamental to the making of the United States, narratives that have mostly focused on the experiences of Native Americans and African Americans. In a few decades since Chinese migration to the U.S. West began in the 1850s (due to the gold rush in California and in the wake of the Taiping Rebellion and other turmoil in China), the newcomers were perceived as competitors to white citizens for certain occupations.

On the other hand, Chinese took some of the lowest-paid and hazardous jobs such as extracting natural resources and railroad building. Those who were fortunate to find economic success still struggled to fight the fear of "yellow peril" during this era.

After the American Civil War (1861-1865), African Americans and many assimilated Native Americans were given rights of citizenship, while the status of Chinese migrants remained uncertain. Perceived by white ethnics as vile, cunning, uncultured, infidels, strange eaters, too industrious, etc., Chinese migrants were treated as threats that must be excluded rather than simply assimilated. Chinese suffered violence as the perpetual others: they were spat on, thrown rocks at, called racist names, and more. In 1885 in Tacoma, a mob including prominent business people and politicians rounded up Chinese residents and forced them to board a train to leave the city, then burned down buildings of the Chinese community.  

Tacoma Chinese Reconciliation Park

Tacoma, WA USA - circa August 2021: View of the Tacoma Chinese Reconciliation Park which broke ground in 2005

Historian Beth Lew-Williams points to the making of Chinese as aliens: “White Americans coveted Indian lands and required black labor, but many saw no reason to tolerate the Chinese.” Many Chinese migrants were expelled by force from their homes, neighborhoods, and cities. As its solution to the escalating violence which evolved into an international crisis, the U.S. government created discriminatory policies to limit Chinese immigration.

Cover of The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Harvard University Press, 2018) by Beth Lew-Williams

Cover of The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Harvard University Press, 2018) by Beth Lew-Williams 

In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed into law the barring of all Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. and getting naturalized. (2022 marks the 140th anniversary of this exclusion act.) When this law failed to stop tens of thousands of Chinese from arriving between 1882 and 1888, due to loopholes and certain American interest in maintaining goodwill for China trade, U.S. legislators moved to adopt more stringent rules in response to escalating anti-Chinese racism.

In 1888, under President Grover Cleveland, Congress extended immigration restrictions against Chinese laborers, denying re-entry to even those who had been previous residents. 20,000 holding U.S. Certificates of Return were stranded overseas. Merchants, students, and diplomats were exempted. Still, to single out the Chinese alone as a target of exclusion was unprecedented, creating an enduring feeling of shame and alien-ness.

Legalized anti-Chinese racism discouraged countless Chinese from settling in the United States between the 1880s and 1943 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally lifted. Similar policies were repeated on a number of other Asian groups ("Orientals"), such as Japanese, Korean, Southeast Asian and Filipino migrants. This is a dark chapter in Asian American history. 

Today, “Where are you from?” “Where are you really from?” are still common questions thrown at Asian Americans simply because of their race.

Many Asian groups, even if they are American born, are often assumed to be aliens not belonging to the United States. "Where are you from?" may seem like an innocent, even friendly question, but underlying it is a long history of racism.