In high school I worked at the local Santa Cruz County Immigration Center in Watsonville, California, an agricultural town inhabited largely by Mexican immigrants and their descendants. One service we offered was assisting clients in filling out immigration paperwork, as the majority of them did not speak English and a number of them could not read or write, even in their native language. A peculiarity that stood out to me was how, when filling out the race and ethnicity section, we instructed all our clients to check Hispanic for ethnicity and white for race. Clients were periodically confused at the race box: why did they check white when in the United States they were constantly made aware of their non-whiteness?
To most people, being asked, “Where are you from?” seems innocuous enough. Someone is just trying to get to know you a little bit better. Asian Americans, however, have almost universally had a different experience with this question. At first we’ll answer with “California,” “New York,” or a variety of other places. But then comes the dreaded follow-up question: “But where are you really from?” It becomes immediately clear that there’s a certain answer that is expected, and a failure to comply will just result in more questions.