It has been 18 years since I moved to the United States (well, New York City) and I still get asked “where are you from?” Or am assured “you have no accent!” While I’d like to say that such questions do not bother me, they do. It makes me feel as if I were still a stranger, a foreigner, as one who does not belong. It makes me feel as if I were not one of you.
It surprises me how otherwise well-educated and seemingly well-mannered individuals can lack cultural sensitivity. At a church I used to attend, a doctor exclaimed after I had read the lesson for the first time, “Your English is so good! Where did you learn to speak it so well?” He uttered the exact words the second time I read. And the third. A diplomat I know who prides himself in knowing where foreigners are from, wouldn’t think twice of telling the coat check person, “let me guess, Palestinian!”
For many nonnative speakers, their accent is a serious matter, and they don’t like being asked about it over and over again. They object to what they perceive as an unwarranted (even if unintentional) criticism of their linguistic abilities. They feel that no matter what they do to blend in, they will always be outsiders. Or whatever the reason, they prefer not to release information about their background.
Accent aside, always use restraint when it comes to satisfying your curiosity about others’ ethnic identity. People may be proud of being Hispanic, Arab, African or Native American, but may also resent off-the-cuff inquiries about “what” they are. They may think that you want to classify them rather than making the effort to deal with them as individuals (p.120-121).
I confess that I have done to others what I do not want done to me. Many years ago, in an attempt to display my knowledge that there are many Chinese languages, I asked a guest whether she spoke Cantonese or Fukienese. Rather than be rewarded for my erudition, I received a verbal slap. “I am not Chinese! I am Taiwanese! We are democratic, not communist!”
Last week, while discussing this very topic over a meal, a friend commiserated, claiming that she knows how it feels. At first I found this rather difficult to believe. While she is half Dominican and half Irish-American, she looks totally Caucasian. She agreed that no one would mistake her for anything but White. However, Latinos ask “where are you from?” whenever she speaks in Spanish. Never mind the fact that she speaks the language fluently and has spent a lot of time in Latin America.
Another friend suggests that I consider the possibility that folk who ask such questions might mean no harm and actually even think that they are being hospitable. Perhaps. Most likely so. Indeed, I can see how someone new to the United States might welcome being asked about their origins and other-ness. But for heaven’s sake, I’ve been here a while and I do speak A-merken!