“Where are you from?”
I take deep breaths. My heart races. My silence is a refusal to answer. I do my work and look up his appointment.
“Iran?” he insists.
I take more deep breaths; my face contorts into a scowl.
“I’m from the United States of America, and your appointment is down the hall to the right.”
This scene took place about two years ago when I was stuck with a job for almost a year before beginning a PhD programme at the University of Louisville.
As with any job, there were glimmers of good days, which meant few appointments and minimal irritation from the outside world. Then there were days that made me worried about a high blood pressure-induced health event. The latter happened more frequently.
What became part of the bad days was an increasing interest among certain patients, not necessarily the same ones every time, to pinpoint where I’m from. There's nothing unusual in being curious about someone’s homeland, city of birth, or heritage, and for the most part those exchanges are important, beneficial, and enlightening.
In all the years of living in the US, the question “Where are you from?” has run the gamut of meanings for me. First, in the early days as a new immigrant, I was from Bangladesh. Then, as culture shock and identity crises hit, I felt love for the city of Chicago, where we settled. Overwhelmed with the need for belonging I began asserting that I was from Chicago.
You’re brown. I have to know before I can sleep peacefully tonight that you come from a foreign land that exports brown people to this country. Brown people are unnatural to America
Next came the time to say I’m from the US, yes, I’m American. This was where matters got complicated for me, because by this point I was living in post-911 America. I recently settled on “I am a Bangladeshi who is a citizen of the United States.”
I’ve come to learn that the question “Where are you from?” is loaded with undertone, with double-meaning, with coded inquiry-within-inquiry that ultimately has to do with my physical appearance. Put another way, if I’m with a friend who is Anglo- or African-American, and they’re asked where they’re from, they can mention anywhere in the USA and be taken at their word. They’re American. But when I claim Chicago or Illinois or Louisville as home – no, that's not good enough. A typical, micro-aggressive follow-up will be: “Where are your parents from?” In other words: “You’re brown. I have to know before I can sleep peacefully tonight that you come from a foreign land that exports brown people to this country. Brown people are unnatural to America. You don’t ‘look’ American.” (To say nothing of Latinos and Latino-Americans, of all of Mexico that was invaded and branded with the letters USA).
“Where’re you from?” another patient asked, on an otherwise bearable afternoon.
Deep breaths, in and out, in and out, while I looked up his appointment in the computer, and asked him the procedural questions to identify him in the system.
“You’re American?” He said, his tone incredulous . “You’re too dark to sound the way you do.” He laughed.
“Too dark?” I caved, and responded. A tiny explosion made the pit of my stomach fill with heat. My heart became a raving maniac. “I’ve never quite heard it put that way.”
“I used to know some great people from Bangalore. But you sound nothing like them.”
Ah, yes, of course, how could I forget that we brown folks all spring from one eternal fount of brownness?
I deciphered his coded message thus: “I’ve known other “too dark” people, and they knew their place and didn’t offend my senses by sounding ‘American.’ (And, while you’re at it, applaud my gold medal effort at progressiveness!)”
The same patient returned a few weeks later. This time, on his way out from his appointment (I was at lunch when he checked in, so my more American co-worker covering me for the hour had that honour) he had exited the building, and, noticing I was back, made a pivot, strode back in through the sliding doors and asked, “Where are you from?”
“I’m from here, where are you from?” I was on my feet, grinning, waiting for his next response.
“From here? From Louisville? Great!” Then he held out his hand, a thick, beefy, butcher’s hand attached to a fleshy, sun-reddened arm, suggesting I take it in the spirit of a bro. His “too dark” bro with whom he had just made a connection.
I am more than happy to engage with someone in an informed, mutually respectful conversation about my heritage, and ask about theirs. I will, in fact, proudly brag about Bengali culture, Bangla language, literature, music, history, and emphasise that I’m Bengali, always will be.
If I'm ignorant about something, it’s my responsibility to learn about it. If I don’t know about something, someone, a place, a culture, a way of life, it’s my responsibility to seek out the information and educate myself. It’s absolutely not the job of the other person to drop everything and run to my side to enlighten me because I’m ignorant.
Unfortunately, too many reasons, not all maliciously motivated, and many determined by factors such as socio-economic circumstances, pooe access to proper resources, discrimination – exist to keep ignorance alive and well. There are those individuals and groups that embrace ignorance. They prefer it, wilfully, to make “others” of those that don’t fit their definitions and their labels; or they hide behind a more benign form of ignorance that helps them keep out harsh truths threatening their illusions.
I’ll add a third kind: When a person doesn’t know he or she is being ignorant. Example:
“May I ask what your background is?”
The man asked respectfully. I obliged him.
“I was born in Bangladesh, grew up there till I was fifteen. So, Bangladeshi, Bengali, that’s my background.”
“Oh, that’s great! We just spent a year living in Tunisia!”
He grinned. I grinned. His wife grinned. I waited for more. Perhaps stories of more travel. I love to travel and maybe he’d tell me about the non-touristy spots in Tunisia.
Northern Africa. South Asia. Infuriating though it was, it was not on me, as much as I’d love it, to suit up in my unabashed chainmail armour of arrogance and disaffection, and say, “I get what you’re trying to do, and I’m sure I share physical attributes with many Tunisians, skin-tone included, but remember that Tunisia is in Africa, Bangladesh in…” Oh, never mind. Look them up.
I nodded respectfully and directed them to their appointment.
Where am I from? Well, that depends. Where would you like to hear I’m from?
Nadeem Zaman is a Bangladeshi-born American fiction writer. Occasionally he likes writing nonfiction.