"Where are you really from?"

Author: Monica Huynh

Photo by Joey Csunyo on Unsplash

Although global society has achieved a significant degree of progress towards cultural acceptance and celebrating diversity, there is still more progress needed in regards to reforming limited and often inaccurate perspectives towards differing ethnicities and race.

The common conversation starter, “Where are you from?” is often innocently asked by a curious person about another’s nationality. Usually, that person is not completely aware of the presumptions they are making about someone’s ethnicity or religion before asking this question. Often, the person will then proceed to ask this question multiple times, implying that the individual on the receiving end couldn’t possibly be part of their own community, a presumption which excludes the individual from their neighbourhood community or country and establishes  a strong sense of “otherness” and marginalisation.

I was caught in this scenario during one of my first society socials on campus with another student I had recently met. The conversation went something like this:

Student: So, Monica, where are you from?

Me: Oh, I come from western Sydney.

Student: But I mean, where are you...from?

Me: I’m from Bankstown.

Student: I meant what nationality are you?

Me: I’m Vietnamese and one-eighth Chinese.

Student: Oh, but you look Chinese!

Me: (silence).

In that moment, my friends felt both awkward and uncomfortable and I was quite offended. I thought that by choosing to attend an extremely culturally diverse university such as the University of New South Wales (UNSW), I would be avoiding these kinds of situations where presumptions would be made about me from the outset due to my ethnicity.  This early experience at a university social setting made it clear to me that there is still so much progress our community is yet to achieve before cultural diversity is accepted as the norm.

My recount of this event is not an attack towards this particular student - this is a conversation I’ve had countless times. The fact that I need to explain myself so often is a testament to the ongoing cultural ignorance that a number of people experience today.

I like to consider myself as someone who runs against the typical cultural labels and stereotypes. I have a French first name, a Spanish middle name and a Chinese last name. I am a nationally recognised artist, yet whilst I studied Visual Arts for my HSC I also took external university-level economics and econometrics classes outside of my enrolled high school. On chilly mornings when I catch the 891 from Central Station to Kensington campus, I listen to alternative and underground R&B music such as Chase Atlantic, Arctic Monkeys, The 1975 and Against the Current. On campus, I am known by my signature beret, ombre hair extensions or my oversized fur jacket and furthermore heavily participating in volunteering activities such as at the Stationery Reuse Centre as well as Carriageworks. Lastly, I commit to living a straight-edge lifestyle that additionally focuses on achieving a state of physical, mental and spiritual purity and resistance.

Yet when I’m asked the question “where are you really from”, I am reduced to the presumptions associated with my ethnicity.

So the question is, what can we do to eradicate cultural ignorance and shallow stereotypes to accelerate social progress? One solution is to learn how to become aware of our own biases and how our initial impressions of our peers are formulated upon this preconceived information. This (in theory) would allow us to revise our original and often incorrect perceptions of different cultures.

This can also be done by being conscious of the content we consume, and the extent to which it resorts to cultural appropriation to engage their viewers. We can do this by being more critical about the shows and movies we watch, the songs we listen to on our everyday commute and even the literature we choose to read and how authors, filmmakers, musicians and content creators choose to represent various nationalities.

We can further learn to correctly pronounce unfamiliar names whenever we make new social connections rather than taking a wild guess at how the name should be pronounced. We can go beyond this by refusing to let others incorrectly pronounce our own name and fixing their mistake. I recall taking English tutoring classes in 6th grade and my tutor constantly mispronounced my first name even though I had corrected his mistake on multiple occasions. Inside I felt deeply hurt and I dreaded every Sunday as I knew I had to face the sheer embarrassment of him mispronouncing my first name every roll call. If I had been more assertive back then as I am now, I would have put in the effort to correct him every single class because I realise that a name is an integral part of an identity and it is everyone’s right to have their name be pronounced correctly in all situations. Yet the onus shouldn’t be on me, and actively choosing to remember the pronunciation of someone’s name is a fairly basic sign of respect.

Finally, we should avoid the tendency of generalising other individual identities based on the people in our social circles. Even though it is a part of human behaviour to piece seemingly related information together to construct a false impression of others, we can all make the effort to try to understand a person for whom they really are. Through these actions we can cultivate a higher level of cultural understanding.

I want to be able to say that I live in a world where I can date a person of Bengali ethnicity without being judged by onlookers, where I can produce my own short films, productions and artworks without feeling ‘less Asian’, where my friends can write their own music without judgement and where I can walk around on campus without people constantly staring at my pale face and thinking I migrated from China.

We still have a long way to go, but I believe that by becoming more actively aware of cultural ignorance, we can get there.

“In sci-fi...we’ve transcended past races within humans, right? We’re all just the human race. So what I’m trying to say if you take anything away from this is that the day robots and aliens invade Earth, we’re gonna be okay, right? So if you start seeing cylons, get your head shots ready because we’re gonna start to make sense.” - Natalie Tran (communitychannel), 2015.


The views presented in this article only represent the views of the author and do not represent the views of the UNSW United Nations Society.


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