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March 18, 2019 | by  | in Features Homepage Splash | [ssba]

Where are you from?: A Loaded Question

“Where are you from?” has always been a loaded question for me. If the people who knew me in high school (yikes) are reading this, they’ll definitely think that I’m back on my bullshit. Truth is, I never got off my bullshit—at least not this specific strand. I just internalised it because of the fear of being seen as too loud, too divisive, too much of a killjoy; because somewhere along the way, I got tired of being The One Who Made Everything About Race. Internalised racism really does that to ya.

But I wouldn’t still be talking about it if it wasn’t important, and always, always relevant.

“Where are you from?”

My answer has changed over the years. Once I moved down to Wellington, my default answer became “Auckland”.

I get mixed responses to this answer, and that response very helpfully lets me place the other person on the Asshole Continuum. Here’s a handy chart to visualise:

Of course, the chart didn’t always look like this. Here’s what it looked like when I still lived in Auckland, and my answer was “New Zealand”:

And here’s what it looked like when I went to visit family in China over the summer:

“Where’s home for you?” is an equally daunting question. Is it where you’re living? Where you grew up? Where you quote-unquote “found yourself”? Where you had your first kiss, in the alleyway between the dairy with the broken glass, and the tiny, dried-out field?

Loads of people move to a different city for university because they want to get away from home: something new, something exciting, something different. For me, one of the defining experiences of moving down to Wellington has been being asked “where are you from?”, answering “Auckland”—and being able to leave it at that. Because everybody was from different places around New Zealand. So the follow-up, “where are you really from?” wasn’t necessary. It’s a weird kind of a relief to get ribbed about being from Auckland, rather than my place in NZ being questioned.

People might be just curious, but there’s only so many times you can hear it before it starts to sound like something a lot different: Why don’t you look like you’re from here? Why don’t you fit my perception of someone who’s from here? You don’t seem like you belong here.

I used to get angry: I would stare them straight in the eye and repeat my first answer, or I would get up and walk away. But never did I think of sitting down with that person and trying to explain why that question got under my skin so badly. And I would still never do it, even to this day. How do you begin to explain why something like this bothers you when it’s the tip of an iceberg you’re too exhausted to unpack? How do you unpack a history and a lifetime of otherness and be sure the other person cares enough to listen and your energy won’t be wasted?

And here’s the thing: Wellington, for all its warmth and friendliness and colour, is White. In Auckland, people will ask “where are you really from?”, but there’s also thousands more of people who look like me, who grew up like me, who understand what it is to be a person of colour, and how it colours everything. In Wellington, people won’t question my place. But they also won’t ask about it.

Do I feel grateful that I (mostly) no longer get racist microaggressions? Of course I do. But I also miss discussing shared experiences, making bilingual jokes, the abundance of milk tea shops, and dirt cheap karaoke lounges.

Moving away from home means that you go back and you start to draw up a comparison chart between now and then. Home now has a lot more hills than home at 16. Home now has more independence. Home now means I can say I come from Auckland casually instead of challengingly. Home now means I’m losing my mother tongue because I don’t have anyone to speak it with anymore.

I spent $263 on a single pair of earrings yesterday. They look like this:


I guess we all deal with our dislocation in different ways.


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