The Curiosity Of Asking Someone’s Ethnicity


Curiosity is often one of the main reasons someone asks about a person’s ethnicity. Where are you from? is a common question that many people are asked throughout their life. When I was younger, I would respond with ‘I’m from Auckland.’ As I got older, I began to respond with ‘I was born and raised in New Zealand, but my parents are from Taiwan.’ which would save time with questions such as ‘Where are your parents from?’ ‘Are you an immigrant?’ and ‘Were you born in New Zealand?’. Often it can become a bit of a guessing game where someone may try to guess what your ethnicity is.

Depending on the person’s intention, asking about someone’s ethnicity can bring about certain stereotypes. There are times it can create a sense of judgment when it’s the first question someone asks. There are other times when people have good intentions and are asking out of genuine curiosity. It’s a difficult question to answer because it’s also asking someone where is home? Taiwan is home to me but New Zealand is my natural response since I grew up here. It’s great to be interested in someone’s culture but I’d advise not to ask it as the first question when you meet someone for the first time.

The question also asks where do you belong? What’s your history? What’s your culture? Why do you look the way you do? and an endless array of questions that can really go deeper into one’s background. Stereotypes, assumptions, and generalizations are sadly often drawn from ethnicity. Growing up, I’m grateful to have been brought up in a home where Taiwanese and Chinese culture were a significant part of my life. Speaking Mandarin at home, eating Chinese food, reading Chinese books, and watching television in Mandarin.  

I was reading Mabel’s post on Reasons Why The Question “Where Are You From?” Is Offensive. And Not Offensive here and she writes “No matter how polite the conversation, when we get asked, “Where are you from?”, often there comes a case of mistaken identity, a case of “othering” in the sense of “Us” and “Them”. It can often lead to a lot of questions for example in my experience ‘Why did your parents move here?’ and ‘Your English is very good’ or ‘Do they speak Taiwanese in Taiwan?’ and other interesting questions.

In The Guardian it states “People move an average of 12 times during their life. The notion of a ‘hometown’ or culture can be complex.” It can be a personal question that we may be more comfortable in sharing with those we feel close with or once we’ve opened up and had deeper conversations. Nowadays I’m upfront about expressing my cultural identity, which has taken time as I felt a lot of shame during my teenage years. As you get older you realise those differences you perceived growing up that made you feel left out are an important special part of your identity.

The article says “We seem to want to put people in boxes, to size them up quickly.” When we are asked the question predominantly because of the way we appear, it can make one wonder about the intentions behind the question. It takes the focus away from who we are as a person and our personality. It causes those aspects to be tied to our ethnicity. Perhaps, if you ever want to know someone’s ethnicity, ask once you have talked to them more, shared about your own background, and be sensitive, curious, and interested.

We’re all visual creatures, and when we see someone we may become intrigued by their features, appearances, and the way they speak. Those are all the external aspects we can see and hear. When you’re living in a multicultural society it’s common that these curiosities will happen frequently. It’s natural that we want to know, but it’s important to think before you ask, why you want to know. Sometimes we might be interested to know what other languages they might speak or understand more about their culture. Our stories are ultimately what connects us with one another.

I recommend reading these articles:

What’s Wrong with Asking “Where Are You From?”

How To Politely Ask Someone About Their Ethnicity

‘Where are you really from?’ How to navigate this question of race and identity

Photography by Leslie Zhang

5 thoughts on “The Curiosity Of Asking Someone’s Ethnicity

  1. Thanks for mentioning my post, Katie. What a wonderful topic, and thanks for addressing it. It may seem like such a harmless thing asking about someone’s ethnicity, but for some it can be a really sensitive question. The other day a well-meaning person who I just met asked me, ‘What are you?’ I replied along the lines of what you mentioned, saying I was raised in Australia but my parents are Chinese and from Malaysia. The person went on to ask more questions about my background. In short, they were really curious about my ethnicity.

    I agree curiosities will happen frequently and it really is our stories that connect us all. That said, it would be nice to tell our stories as and when we want to – be appreciated for being a person in the first instance and not be judged based on how we look.

    1. Thanks for your comment Mabel, I enjoy reading your blog posts and hearing your thoughts about different topics. It’s interesting how the question is approached in different ways.

  2. I wonder if you and Mabel would feel the same way if the person asking you was another person of color? If not, then what’s the difference? As you both might already we aware of, I’m an Asian American in Asia and I get ask this question regularly by Asians…

    1. That’s a great question Lani. In New Zealand I’ve been predominantly asked the question by Caucasians. When a person of colour asks me the question “Where are you from”, I usually say I’m from New Zealand and my parents are from Taiwan. It can be tricky at times because the question can either make me feel more connected to the person or it can make me feel not Taiwanese enough. Ultimately, I think it’s about the intention no matter who’s asking. I’m very curious to hear about your experiences. What’s your experience been like as an Asian American living in Asia, and being asked similar questions?

      1. Yes, I understand about the intention bit, and I try to keep in mind that NZ and Oz are different lands, very much so, than the US and SE Asia.

        Yeah, living abroad for over 10 years + growing up in Hawaii has given me a different perspective on “the question”. :P

        In Hawaii, it’s a normal one because ppl are proud of their ethnicities – it’s as popular as asking “What school did you go to?”

        In SEA, it’s also commonplace. They might even throw in “How long have you been here?” and “When are you going home?”

        It’s a point of conversation, folks are curious, and at this point, I’m so used to it. Usually, it creates more questions whereby I either start to practice my Thai or them, their English, or both… The worst question is “Why are you here?” because it’s a complicated one. :)

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