the all-time dreaded question

“I’ve been wondering,” the man says as he turns on the deep fryer, “which country you come from.” He guesses South Korea. “Because you’re tall.” Phenotypes are a poor indicator of origin, I say, and correct his answer. “How many generations?” Does it matter? “Of course.” He’s quite emphatic on that point.

So I remind him of the history of European colonisation of my country and conclude that by his criterion, no Canadians today can lay claim to that identity except the First Nations people. He packs up my French fries – “No plastic bag, thanks” – and asks, but really, where am I originally from. Sigh. Wasn’t he listening for the past ten minutes? We can discuss it next time, I say, and wish him a good evening.


I’m an Asian-looking person living in Germany. Very, very frequently I’m asked where I come from.

Those who’ve heard me speak English usually guess the US. When I correct them, they’re cool with it.

Those who’ve not heard me speak English usually guess China or South Korea. When I correct them, they don’t accept it as a legitimate answer. Based on the way I look they’ve already made up their mind about where I’m from (a country in Asia) and want me to confirm it. When I don’t, they try to get me to confirm their belief by asking the question in another way.

Were you born there?

Where are you originally from?

I reject both questions because I know why they were asked. I refuse to discredit (in their eyes) my own initial answer.

Occasionally I answer ‘Hong Kong’ right off the bat to counter their China guess, to which they always assure me that Hong Kong means China. Yes, you sure do know more about my own place of birth than I do.

This happens a lot with strangers, which irks me. These are very personal questions. I don’t want to tell a stranger my life story.

Sadly, my experience in Germany has been that the ones who ask – and then ask the inevitable follow-up question – tend to be Turkish. (I guess I go to the Döner shop a lot?!?) Germans don’t normally engage in small talk and they are also very sensitive about privacy of information.

I can’t help but wonder if the way Turkish people are treated in general in Germany contributes to their reluctance to accept that an immigrant can ever identify wholly with their host country.


About an hour after today’s incident I was biking home when some doucebag asshole of the highest prickishness yelled fake Chinese at me from his car. You know what it sounds like: “Chonnng-ya!” or variations thereof.

It was the first time I’d had fake Chinese yelled at me. It rattled far more and was far worse than being greeted in Japanese, Korean or Mandarin. At least those are real languages and real words, and I can pretend that the purpose was to connect with me (it’s still racist, but not as…).

Fake Chinese is not a real language. Its purpose is to drive a wedge between us by ridiculing a real language and explicitly demonstrating the perpetrator’s shameless ignorance.

So it upset me.

Worse than any ‘not a real Canadian’ or ‘not a native English speaker’ allegations, prejudices or biases.

It was racist, pure and simple.

It was easily the most racist thing that I’ve been subjected to. (I should probably be grateful for that!)

I didn’t confront the young man in the car. I was speeding past on my bike anyway. The worst part is that I turned around, thus letting him know that his stupid racist call worked in that it got my attention.

That makes me hopping mad!


One thought on “the all-time dreaded question

  1. I’m so sorry you had to go through this. It’s happened to me a couple of times here in the UK and it does hit hard. I totally empathise.

    Stupid man. Mentally cursing him now :/

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