Relationships

My Experience Being Asian-American Today

Elysabeth Ratto and her daughters

A spring morning in Brooklyn called for some mundane errand-running with my husband and my then 15-month-old daughter. On our way home, I pulled into a gas station as my husband climbed into the backseat to tend to some fussy pleas…

I’m leaning against my car, dazing off as I wait for the tank to fill. I watch a few people filter into a nearby vintage clothing store. It’d be nice to stop in there soon, I think to myself.

Suddenly, I’m interrupted by someone speaking, so I turn towards the voice.

I immediately regret it.

“Damn,” he says to me, his stare making me feel naked. His gas station uniform shows me that he works there. He’s on the clock but perhaps going on break or finishing his shift as evidenced by a low-hanging backpack that’s covered by his blond ponytail.

I turn back, hoping that’s the extent of his conversation. After all, how many times have I heard comments like these? In my 32 years of life, I know what to do now: avoid eye contact, ignore, and move on with my business. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In this case, it doesn’t.

“Are you one of those Asian girls who likes to…” he continues.

At this point, I’ll admit, I don’t remember the explicit words that followed. Because…how many times? Avoid eye contact, ignore, and move on. I know the drill. The drill is ingrained in me. But this time, my daughter sits in the car. This time, I’m doing a disservice if I just ignore it. She may be too young to know, but I know. So this time, I turn to him. And just as I’m about to tell him to stop, my husband gets out of the car.

“Hey, man, that’s my wife,” he tells him. “You need to stop.”

“Oh, I didn’t see you,” the gas station attendant fumbles a reply. Our windows are tinted, so he can’t see inside. “Sorry, man.”

I assume he will walk away, and we’ll get back into our car and go home. Instead, he defends himself, saying, “I was just complimenting her, you know. If I had a woman like that, I’d be proud, bro.”

My husband has more choice words to say as the attendant continues defending himself.

“I’m right here,” I interrupt. “Stop talking about me like I’m not.” I’m not sure anyone hears me.

We eventually get back into the car and drive home. My daughter’s asleep, but my husband is reeling. He’s upset that someone could be so disrespectful to me. Yeah, it’s infuriating, I explain, but that’s my experience as an Asian woman. That’s my norm. I explain further that while I appreciated my husband’s effort to defend me, I didn’t appreciate being talked about from both sides, being pitted as the damsel in distress when I could’ve handled the situation myself.

Fast forward three years. We’ve just surpassed the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. And reports have been surfacing more frequently in the media regarding hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. For the most part, the victims have been elderly. Horrible and heartbreaking.

But for the most part, I’ve felt largely removed from the hate crimes. That is, until now.

The media may hesitate to call it what it is in their headlines, but I won’t: six Asian women were recently shot and killed by a white male in a targeted hate crime. Suddenly, I am hit by the realization that avoiding eye contact, ignoring, and moving on — as I had done for much of my life — will not suffice. Doing so to save face, to not overreact, to not cause a scene has done little other than silence my own voice.

Hate crimes are not limited to physical violence. They include verbal harassment. They include the fetishization of Asian women. They include the demasculinization of Asian men. They also include the well-meaning but harmful perspective of: I don’t even see you as Asian.

And while the media attention to violence against Asians may be new, this is not new. And yet, we’re in 2021, and these are not anecdotes from our parents’ generation. This is today. Yesterday’s news forced me to go through my past, facing a roladex of memories that were painful.

Until recently, I worked at a Trader Joe’s in California for over two years, and while I loved my time there, the amount of microaggressions I received from customers coming through my line was simply appalling. “Konichiwa?” an old white man asked me. I shook my head. “Ni-hao?” he guessed again. I said, “Nope.” “Arigato?” I ignored him. “Then what?” he asked incredulously. “Just a simple hello suffices,” I said with a smile since customers always come first. “Yeah, but where are you from?”

Oh, that question. It always leads to that question. Should I tell him what he wants to hear? Korean. Or should I tell him the correct answer? I was born and raised in America and I speak English.

I took my chances and went with the latter. He insisted. “No, but where are you from?” At this point, I didn’t want to get a complaint for being rude, so I obliged. “My ethnic identity is Korean.” “Ah-ha! So ahn-yeong-ha-sae-yo!” he responded triumphantly. I chuckled uncomfortably, trying to finish the transaction as quickly as possible.

I hate to admit that I have so many of these stories in just the two years I worked there. I also hate to admit that the interaction at the gas station was not an isolated incident in Brooklyn. I have endless examples of racial slurs hurled at me on the street as I walked with my daughter to the park or the grocery store over the four years I lived in New York City. And even in a place as beautiful as Lyon, France, where I studied abroad in college, men would pull up the corners of their eyes to mimic what mine looked like. Proving that this was not a geographical problem. And as a child. Oh, so many incidents as a child. The way my cheeks would get hot when kids would yell out, “Chink!” or “Nip!” I’d ignore it or laugh it off because the only other option was to cry.

So, what’s worse? The fact that this is still happening today or that this isn’t new and every other Asian-American has experiences upon experiences they can share with you that they’ve suppressed for most of their lives? For many of us, we are just beginning to allow ourselves to face the history of hurt that we’ve become so good at disassociating from.

For this reason, I urge you to check in with your fellow AAPI friends and family to see how they’re doing. Send a text. Remind them that you’re thinking of them and that you see them. Because I guarantee you that many of them are seeing themselves and thinking of themselves for the first time in a very long time.


P.S. How to help support the Asian-American community right now, and illustrator Ruth Chan’s beauty uniform.

  1. Jenny says...

    I’m half Indian, half the kind of American whose relatives are in the DAR and have plates that came off the Mayflower. Every brown and Asian person jokes about the question “Ya, but WHERE are you from?”, because we get it ALL THE TIME – but we really shouldn’t. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be going about your day, at your job, with your kids, at the coffee shop, the gym….and have that question asked to you by a stranger? It’s incredibly cutting. We know exactly what is being asked and it is not a gentle question about our culture. The first time I was ever asked, I was in the first grade. My mom taught Spanish at my elementary school -my mom is Bengali, born in France, raised in West Africa and Nicaragua- so I kind of get why it’s confusing. But – this question is never asked in the same way to someone’s white mom teaching French. I’ve been thinking about how insanely inappropriate it was for adults to ask me, a child, about where we were from more and more lately. And how it’s framed my feelings about race and my own experiences. You aren’t owed anything by anyone, especially an explanation of why they’re here .

  2. Thank you, Elysabeth, and COJ. Please keep it up.

  3. Maria says...

    This is familiair: I have dealt with the micro-aggressions, the slurs… not just on the streets but also at work, at the office – mainly by (white) men. I live in the Netherlands and it happens here as well. It’s time for change. Thanks for sharing your story 💜

  4. Joanna says...

    Thanks so much for sharing your story and experiences. I was struck reading this by what feels like graciousness in your spirit. (This is not in any way meant to imply you should be nice or patient with the aggressors you described; it has nothing to do with that. That kind of talk is bullshit.) What I sensed is something beautiful, far too rare and incredibly powerful.

    I am really, really sorry that you (and others) are treated this way. I hope you continue to write about it. Your voice is powerful and I would love to read more of it, though I hope your supply of material runs dry.

    P.S. When I saw the picture for this article pop up in my reader, I thought, OMG she is so pretty! Such adorable little girls! I bet you’d make for a killer “beauty uniform” article :)

  5. Eve says...

    Thank you for sharing your experience and the processing of those experiences in light of recent events.
    I’m an Asian-Canadian and reading your story made me realize how much I’ve just gotten USED TO these microaggressions. Like you said, the deflecting, the dissociating, the “ah here we go again” and not questioning why it is that we should have to get used to this experience for the convenience of those around us. Like other commenters have said, we don’t want to “stir the pot” or create a conflict or “make a big deal” when the reality is that every time we go along with the other person, and passively tolerating, we are reinforcing the others’ oppressive behaviours. I don’t actually know how one should respond to these type of questions and behaviours (I would love for someone to teach me though-what is the appropriate feedback we should be asserting).
    However, what I do know is that every time someone asks “where are you FROM” it implies that we don’t belong here or couldn’t possibly be from here simply because of the colour of our hair or skin (like many Caucasians here have said, the frequency in which they are asked this question vs POC). That regardless of what we say we will never, in their eyes, have roots to this country because of how we look.

    • Diana says...

      Hi Eve! Like Elisabeth, I thank you too for sharing your story. It has added to an important and long-overdue conversation. I am a Nicaragua-American living in Austria. Nicaraguans come in all shades of color and sizes and I have the kind of unidentifiable features that make people curious about where I am from as I could pass for Middle Eastern, Northern African, European, Asian, and African-American. I sometimes get this question by the most curious of the bunch but definitely not the majority as it is considered rude, just like asking what a person does for a living is. In the USA, I have been asked where I am from on a frequency that is off the charts and by all kinds of people of all kinds of ethnicities including Blacks, Indians, Hispanics, and Whites. Sometimes, when I sense an implied otherness from the question, I simply answer the district I live in and cut the conversation short because. It’s offensive! This took time to perfect because like you, I was taught, to be polite to a fault! The US where people are absolutely obsessed with race and identity is a whole other story. Once, an African American guy followed his question about where I was “really from” by asking me about my legal status in America. This is the otherness people are talking about and it is not just being perpetrated by “whites”. I have to admit though that I have also had some of the most interesting conversations come out of this question and here context and nuance is important. When I sense genuine childlike curiosity, rude as it may be, I usually ask the question in return, no matter who’s asking, and out comes the acknowledgment that America, a land we are all borrowing from Native Americans has and will always be fueled by immigrants. I also use the question to push tourism in Nicaragua and tell them about a gorgeous country full of sunshine, lakes, and volcanoes- to a point where some probably wished they hadn’t asked me in the first place! Anyway, Eve, chin up. You belong but ignorance is hopefully on the way out.

  6. LTT says...

    Practically every Asian woman in this modern world has experienced some form of fetishization. As an Asian-American woman (and immigrant), I’ve even had non-Asian friends say I should feel complimented by guys with “yellow fever.” I also grew up feeling like I needed to keep my head down, work hard and ignore aggressors. I was the “meek, quiet Asian” for most of my life, but as an adult in my early 30’s, I’ve discovered who I am, and I’m not meek. I am very much an opinionated and vocal individual who does not take crap from people anymore. If something doesn’t feel right, I do something about it. It took years of experiences living in urban cities like Oakland, NYC and Seattle to become a much more confident and outspoken individual. I wish Asians can learn to speak up, because centuries of outright racism and accepted microaggressions are enough!

  7. Sly says...

    Cautiously I’d like to comment on my experiences as a half white and half hispanic woman. First, people (friends and family I’ve confided in) tell me I have nothing to complain about, as they don’t believe I’ve ever experienced “real” discrimination. True, that I haven’t experienced being taunted or threatened, but what I’ve experienced is real. White people often try to veil their curiosity about my background as a compliment. “You’re so beautiful, what nationality are you?” I’ve heard this dozens of times over the years. I’m attractive, but nothing close to beautiful, so not only does it seem nosey but gratuitous. Hispanic people see right to my roots and often address me in Spanish. When I say sorry, they are dismissive in a way that is hard to explain. It seems I’ve let them down somehow. (I said I’ve never been taunted but I’ve been told I look “like a wetback” when I’m tan, asked if I want enchilada sauce on my meatloaf, and told that I wasn’t like a real Mexican and the comments they were making didn’t pertain to me.) Thanks for letting me speak!

  8. Nancy Chen says...

    Thank you for speaking into existence the thoughts that I’ve had in the last few weeks and months and the why behind my anger – angry at myself for spending my entire existence up until now believing and acting like we as Asian Americans would be seen by just putting our heads down. Angry at the world for not seeing us until we are being murdered in the streets. And even then, not acknowledging that we’ve been targetted because of our race. Thank you Joanna for carving out space for our voices and stories.

  9. ST says...

    I’m a white woman living in New Zealand and my family moved here from the UK when I was 7. Whenever someone notices a slight difference in my kiwi accent I say I’m actually from England. This article made me think about the responses I get as a white woman. ‘oh so you are pretty much a Kiwi then.’ And I reply ‘well no, my whole family is British but my children are first generation Kiwi’s.’ Where as if you aren’t white, you are pressed for ‘where you actually came from’ and are not accepted as being an ‘actual Kiwi’ or ‘actual American.’ It’s so important to keep working at changing these narratives, I have work to do myself and I’m so thankful for these articles.

  10. Michelle says...

    Why are so many commenters choosing to defend asking “where are you from” when Elysabeth, many of POC in list COJ community and likely your own POC friends and family can tell you simply it does not feel good. Take that in, trust it and move on.

    • Jules says...

      I think a lot of Americans born IN America claim their heritage as their birthplace. You’ll hear a lot of “I’m Irish but I was born in Massachusetts “ same for the “Italian” born in New York State.

    • Mika says...

      Exactly! The question itself implies that you don’t belong, and that there’s no way you could be *from* here because you’re Asian! Non BIPOC, you need to understand and learn why the question is offensive to ask before you get to know someone!

    • Alexandra says...

      Thank you, yes indeed. I am a white European immigrant with an accent, and I do not like this question either, I feel it’s invasive and often offensive, like I don’t belong (and like all Germans drink beer and yodel). If we have a conversation and in the course of the same you ask a person where his/her heritage is, I feel it’s fine (at least for me), but not from the cashier at the grocery store, for example. Thank you for emphasizing this. No need to get defensive, just stop asking people, unless the context is right. It does not matter that you don’t mean any harm, clearly, it’s not wanted.

  11. Rebecca says...

    Thank you for this post and the thoughtful comments. As a white person, I appreciate hearing how these inquiries impact nonwhite people. It made me think about my own actions and realization that these questions are rarely asked of me. I don’t ask this of other white people although they could just as easily be from Canada, Sweden, or anywhere else in the world as America. These conversations are so important so please keep them coming.

    • Mika says...

      Thank you, Rebecca!

  12. Mika says...

    I have a question for my AAPI sisters (or brothers). One of my best friends is half Chinese, but when I asked her a few years ago if she identifies as Asian American, she said she doesn’t, because she doesn’t want to exclude her mother’s side of her heritage (german). I told her it doesn’t mean she’s necessarily excluding that side of herself because she’s Asian American, but that she can be *both*, in the way that Kamala Harris identifies as Asian American AND as a Black American. I didn’t push the issue further because I respected where she was coming from, but inside, it secretly hurt me, because the last name she grew up with IS Chinese, and because I guess I wanted to feel some solidarity with my bff.

    Last year, she told me that she *finally* had a talk with her white husband to stop saying, “ching chong” around her, and making racist jokes about her Dad having a broken English accent. It shocked me because she has been with him for nearly 10 years now, and I had NO idea he was using that sort of offensive language towards her. In the past she’s laughed off offensive Asian language (like her white Mom still calling her “oriental”) and told me she didn’t like “pc culture” or being seen as “too sensitive”.

    Things changed after George Floyd, but after writing her an email and asking her if she’s taking any actions in her life to combat anti-Asian violence/racism, she hasn’t replied.

    She’s always been a good friend to me, but I feel myself pulling away. I want to be surrounded by people who push me to be better, and inspire me to speak up for my community and the people I love. I also don’t want to lose her, but I’m getting really frustrated because I feel like she’s being performative with her words, and not really doing anything to speak out against racism. Does anyone have any advice??

    • em says...

      I don’t have advice, but I do wonder if she might be somewhere on a journey of processing some of these experiences, and sorting out over time how she wants to respond? when I was little, I wanted to make others laugh and to my horror, I recall one time that I tried to do so was parroting an offensive trope about asian eye shapes. this is really shameful to me now, that I not only internalized but was also willing to promote this racist bs & give others permission to do so in order to feel like I was funny. in middle/high school I wanted to be ~azn~ (if you know, you know) but despite this blooming pride, I wasn’t ready to swallow the discomfort of speaking up against casual/unintended racism to my friends or classmates, who were almost all white. it was puberty awkwardness and I was just thankful to have people to blend in with. honestly, despite having a growing awareness of white supremacy, it is still a process for me. if a stranger were to say something racist to me on the subway my instinct would be to ignore it or walk away because I don’t want to be spat on, stabbed, be hit in the face with a rock-filled sock, etc.

      there are risks to be taken when speaking up, and in ways they are much greater when speaking up against people who know and love you, even if you know they aren’t going to physically attack you. still, I agree that that is SUPER offensive shit going on in her family. maybe she’s been raised to prioritize not being “too sensitive,” but I guess until she sets boundaries by informing people that their words are hurtful, she will have to accept that the hurtful words will continue and someday, she may just decide she is tired of it. maybe she already is – truly, I’m curious to know what led her to finally talk to her husband.

      you love your friend, and this can be difficult to navigate. hugs.

    • Diana says...

      Hi Mika, for people who grow up with more than one culture or ethnic identity, the question of cultural affiliation is a very personal one. Some identify with neither (think, citizen of the world!), while others may prefer one culture over the other, and even this may fluctuate throughout a person’s lifetime! Having said that, there’s also the issue of internalized oppression which some of us carry around until it’s not sustainable anymore. Your friend may eventually reach this conclusion but may not be ready to at this point as admitting it might be too painful. Ignorance is bliss! Give her some time. I wish you lots of luck and patience!

    • Ali says...

      It sounds like your friend may have been suppressing the Asian side of herself for a while. This may have been shame, confusion, or possibly trying to assimilate because it just made life easier. Maybe she’s been trying to grapple with that side of her identity more recently. I also know that instead of feeling like they are a part of both cultures, many mixed-race people actually feel a part of neither. I think it’s fine if you want to find more friends who are riled up, like-minded, and participating in activism. Good! But please don’t put pressure on your friend. You can still be friends, but she is probably exhausted, confused, and possibly doing more than you know in her own ways. The responsibility to end racism is on the majority, not on the victims and marginalized populations. More pressure should be put on your white friends.

    • E says...

      I can relate with your friend and her struggle to “choose” white or Asian or both. I’m half Asian (Chinese/German/Irish), and while I can’t speak for other mixed race folx, my relationship with my identity is certainly complex living at the intersection of different identities and cultures. I often feel “racial imposter syndrome”. There’s a great podcast called Code Switch that has done some episodes on “racial imposter syndrome” that might be helpful for better understanding your friend’s struggle with her (Asian) identity: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/578447949. Hope that helps!

    • B says...

      Hi @Mika, Thanks for your comments and sharing your thoughts and experiences. I so resonate with how you remember every single instance of racism from strangers and others. They are interwoven throughout my life and memories, and often painful to recall. I’m sure strangers have zero memory of what they said to me much less how it affected me, and here I am several decades later remembering those encounters and how they brought pain (and continue to bring pain).

      Regarding your friend, we are all on our own journey of understanding our identity, discovery our voice, and recognizing how racism has and continues to affect us. It sounds like you are much further along than she is and it is probably not helpful/effective to push her along if she is not willing. Your example can help illuminate and encourage her in her journey, but it is also not your job to do so. If this friendship becomes a painful burden and exhausting hardship for you then perhaps it’s time to give it some space. You can pursue friendships that push you forward and inspire you to speak up with or without investing in this current friendship. Only you can decide how much energy and heart you are willing to give at this time.

      Thanks again for sharing. Good luck!

    • Mona says...

      Let her come to you when she’s ready <3

    • Michelle says...

      I feel like my concern is not that your friend hasn’t spoken out against racism, but that she has herself endured racism for so long from those closest to her. I don’t have much practical advice to offer, but I think that for people who are biracial, it is really tricky to navigate their racial identities. Might the following help you to understand her position? https://www.apa.org/pubs/videos/4310742-rights.pdf

    • LTT says...

      I would just tell just what you told us, that you think she’s being performative with her words. Her reaction (or lack thereof) will tell you what you need to know about your friendship and if she’s someone you want in your life. And yes, I think it’s very disappointing that it took her THAT long to speak out about her husband’s offensive words. I wouldn’t have stayed with someone who made fun of a part of my identity.

    • N says...

      Mika, she is half-Asian, so she will always be fighting racism simply by existing in a racist system. Asking her to identify herself in the way YOU see fit is exactly the problem she is fighting. If she doesn’t identify as Asian-American, that is for her to say, not you. And for you to accuse her of not doing enough to fight racism—when by your own account she is fighting it within her own family—is utterly baffling. Her husband is the one acting racist, not her. In addition, she now has to put up with judgement from you, her friend, for what you see as performative work. Support her, accept her for the way she identifies, and don’t expect a response to your email that pressures her to fix a problem that is the responsibility of white people to fix.

    • N says...

      Mika, she is half-Asian, so she will always be fighting racism simply by existing in a racist system that requires her to label herself. Asking her to identify herself in the way YOU see fit is exactly the problem she is constantly fighting. Anything she calls herself will never seem right enough to satisfy some people; yourself want her to be more Asian; some people want her to be more white. If she doesn’t identify as Asian-American, that is for her to say, not you. And for you to accuse her of not doing enough to fight racism—when by your own account she is fighting it within her own family—is utterly baffling. Her husband is the one acting racist, not her, and I can’t imagine how tough it must be to realize the ones you love regularly commit racist acts. In addition, she is now experiencing judgement from you, her friend, for what you see as performative work. Instead, support her by accepting the way she identifies, and don’t expect a response to your email that pressures her to fix a problem that white people created and is the responsibility of white people to fix.

    • Mika says...

      Em, Diana, Ali, E, Benita, Mona, Michelle, and LTT:

      Thank you all so kindly for your words of advice. I’ve taken what you’ve all said to heart, and I appreciate you all taking time to share your experiences.

      I’ve emailed her my thoughts, and if she feels she’s not in the right space to answer right now, I’ve accepted that that’s where she is, and I will not push her any further.

      In regards to what Ali said about “more pressure on your white friends” – I agree, and hope they are putting in the work of being anti-racist, but I’m definitely not taking it upon myself to teach them anything. I was more concerned about my best friend because we share so much of our lives, and what is important to us. If I couldn’t share this part of my life with her, it would be heartbreaking, but I could eventually accept that she just needs more time.

      Thank you all again!!

    • Mika says...

      N,

      I actually just asked the uncomfortable questions to my friend – it was an open discussion. I didn’t *tell* her to identify as any one race, I simply asked *if* she identifies as Asian American – it was a question I was curious about. When you have a very close and intimate friendship with someone, I think these discussions are important and help us to know more about each other. Furthermore, I didn’t judge her for her answer, or question her. I accepted it.

      I want to clarify that in the past she’s laughed off Asian jokes, and has never once brought up that she was upset or hurt that her husband was calling her “ching chong”. It was only AFTER George Floyd and the BLM movement that she started to point out that it bothered her. I know these discussions are hard to have, but if I held these questions back from my own personal circle, how can we progress or advance the discussion? These uncomfortable topics can’t be taboo – especially amongst ourselves, our family, and friends. I think you’re dismissing the fact that I love and support her, but these are legitimate questions I have. If her husband was calling her a whore or slut, and laughing off anti-women sentiments, I would discuss those with her as well.

  13. mika says...

    YES YES, THIS so much. Yet, I know the reality. They won’t. Most people don’t want to have uncomfortable conversations – especially about white supremacy. It’s sad and it needs to change.

  14. Mika says...

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, Elysabeth. It’s crazy how I can remember every single incident of racism from a stranger (and former acquaintances/friends) that I’ve ever experienced, starting from a young age. The boy on the boy who stretched his eyes upward to me on the school bus, the first guy who called me a “nip”, the time a woman screamed at the guy I was on a first date with and called him a “chinaman”, the time a teenager called me a “jap” at a McDonald’s, the time a co-worker asked me why “jap” was offensive – “isn’t it just short for Japanese?”. The memories are indelible, and though they do not define me, they are marks forever etched into my experience as an Asian American woman.

    To our white and non BIPOC allies, please speak up for us and fight white supremacy in your every day lives. We all need each other to make this a better place.

  15. Amanda says...

    Conversations I have had over the years:

    – Are you Chinese? I have a friend who looks like you.
    – No, I’m Korean.
    – Well, that’s the same thing, isn’t it?
    – …it’s really not.

    – (with an origami book) Can you show me how to do this?
    – (extremely busy with other customers and already annoyed with this person) I really can’t right now.
    – But…origami’s from Asia, and you look Asian.

    White Asian studies major: You don’t listen to k-pop?
    Me: No, it’s not really my thing.
    WASM: But don’t you want to be in touch with your cultural heritage?
    Me: (walks away)

    – Aren’t all Asian women supposed to be tiny?
    (For context, I’m a pretty stout lady.)

    – The Leftist media only reports this stuff to make Asian people fearful and feel bad about themselves.
    – That is literally the stupidest take I have ever heard.

    All true and all incredibly frustrating!

  16. Diana says...

    I appreciate Elysabeth’s willingness to share some of her experiences so candidly. It was eye opening and absolutely infuriating. We really need to try harder to stand up for each other.
    As for the numerous comments on the validity of the ‘Where are you really from?’ question, I will tell you that I get asked this at least twice a week and I’m almost 50. I’m a pro! In my experience it has, at times felt completely benign and other times flat out offensive. I know that for better or for worse, this country is obsessed with race and identity. And although people may always define me by my unidentifiable features, dark skin color or accent, I don’t have that external way of defining myself. Sometimes depending on my mood, and if I smell foul play, I will throw the question right back at them, “How about you, Sir? Can you tell me where are you from? No, I mean where are you really from?” They usually get the hint.

  17. Stephanie says...

    Thank you so much for writing this. It brought tears to my eyes. I am a Korean American woman living in NYC, born and raised in Chicago. Your story resonates with me so much. As a healthcare worker, I have seen first hand racism and microaggressions in the healthcare setting. It is a regular thing for me to laugh off and deflect questions about my ethnicity and “background” from people ranging from male physician leaders to patients. I had one doctor regularly speak to me in his “Asian accent” and think it was funny. I don’t remember a single person saying anything in my defense. My superiors told me not to stir the pot. People don’t believe me when I tell them this still happens. This is just part of life and it’s sickening. Thank you for eloquently putting into words your, our, story.

  18. em says...

    I find it difficult to talk about some of these experiences, as if I dig a little and my brain says NOPE nothing to see here. so an extra thank you to elysabeth for sharing this for greater awareness, and in so doing, taking the time, effort, and energy to relive an awful experience.

  19. LEA says...

    I want to give a special shout out to all the amazing AAPI health care workers (especially the thousands of amazing Filipina nurses working hard every day in US hospitals, and who have sadly died of COVID-19 at rates higher than white nurses). You are dealing with racism and hate in addition to the responsibility of helping this country survive a pandemic. I’m a white nurse, and I can barely process the pain and suffering I’ve seen in my work throughout COVID-19, and I cannot imagine how hard it is to add this anti-Asian bullshit to the stress we are already feeling. This is not the thanks you deserve. I see you, and I offer you all my respect and masked, gowned, distanced hugs.

    • As a Filipina woman, THANK YOU Lea for seeing us and acknowledging our contributions.

  20. Joanna says...

    Thank you Elysabeth for sharing your experience and for highlighting the layers of hostility that you and so many others experience daily. It is fitting to always remember the expression ‘walk in someone’s shoes’. That is a heavy and painful baggage to carry.

    Responding to some comments respectfully, I would please ask not to demonise the human interest in human connection, and the instinct to learn about the people we encounter in our lives (and by that I just don’t refer to being asked by random passing strangers about our own heritage), but how many times have we struck friendships by getting to know each other and asking ‘where are you from?’ and ‘what is your story? in the first few meetings. We can all discern when there is a racial and ignorant undertone, and I fully condemn those, but isn’t it a beautiful thing to connect at human level and find cultural bonds and learn about each other? I know that no-one owns me their story, and I don’t walk around with that expectation regardless of the colour of my skin or ethnicity, but having lived overseas for over half of my life, I can say that I have made many deep lifelong friendships that started following a comment on my foreign accent, or my different looks, or a common love for my birth country.

    • K says...

      I agree! Once again, context matters. Earnestness, good. Contempt, bad.

    • Emily says...

      Joanna, as the person whose comment you mention as “demonizing the human interest in human connection” I think it could be good for you and others in this comment section to learn about the “Oops/Ouch” method for navigating conversation. It’s one we are increasingly using in social work (my field) and schools for having difficult conversations.

      In Oops/Ouch, imagine you step on someone’s toes. Whether it is a purposeful or accidental harm, the other person still yells out “ouch” and you apologize, move forward, and work to not step on their feet again. The same goes for stepping on someone’s figurative toes. What is important is not why you stepped on their toes but that you did, and it hurt them. Maybe you can take some time to reflect on why you are so adamant that it is more valuable information that you didn’t intend to harm rather than the fact that, as multiple commenters and the author of the article have stated, your words and demands for someone’s place of origin have been harmful.

      For further reading, the people at this link do a better job of explaining oops/ouch that I: https://www.diversityinclusioncenter.com/archives/ouch_files/Archives/Ouch_Vol5No1.html

    • Kate says...

      Now imagine being asked those questions every. single. day. Not just while on vacation experiencing a new place, but everyday of your life. Exhausting. These are two very different scenarios, and I would discourage you from trying to convince the writer otherwise. Many people (Americans) seem to think that everything about other people is their business but really, the only reasonable answer here is “IT’S NONE OF YOUR F—ing BUSINESS,” whether earnest or not.

    • Eileen says...

      I’d just like to point out that there is a big difference between “where are you from,” which is a perfectly fine conversation starter, and “no, where are you REALLY from.” The latter is rude, assumptive that you know better than I do (of my own history no less), and yes, a rejection of the idea that I can also be American.

      and yes, having this exact conversation on repeat is, in fact, very tiring.

    • Yael says...

      Do people shout “go home!” at you on the street? Do they mock your facial features and call your food smelly? Do they make fun of your name and language as nonsense-sounding? I’m guessing not. But why then are you discounting the experiences of so many people whose culture and identity is degraded relative to the majority culture? Why do you insist that your experience has to be theirs? It’s not. Recognizing some difference might help you to connect with others more, not less. People also respond to human connection in context. Hugs and kisses are connection, that doesn’t mean I want some random stranger to do that to me and act angry that I don’t appreciate their attempt to humanly connect. I may welcome that question in the context of a friendship but if we are standing at a market and that’s your first question after “here’s your change” it’s quite frankly rude and off-putting.

    • Erin says...

      I have lived overseas in various countries, and am familiar with the curiosity and questions that can come with being a foreigner. I am also married to an Asian man, and have had to field the “wear is he from…no, where is he really from” question.

      The two are nothing alike. It is one thing for someone to assume that you are a foreigner when you have an obvious accent, different way of dressing, are a different race in an otherwise homogenous community, etc. It is another thing to tell someone in your *own* country that you are e.g. American, too, (in perfect English) and for them to essentially tell you, “No your not.” For someone in your *own* culture to imply, “But you can’t be culturally American because you’re Asian.” For someone to *not* want to get to know you, but rather just put a category label on you and continue on with their day.

      And we don’t do this to e.g. Italian Americans–they can celebrate their Italian food and traditions openly, and no one (today) says, “You’re Italian, so you can’t be American.” I have white, European-American friends who immigrated in middle school—first generation immigrants—and I’ve heard no stories from them about their American identity being challenged.

      And then, of course, there are other interactions that provide context, too. Like when our daughter was a newborn, and I’d take her out on my own, and people would comment on how dark her skin was. (They couldn’t identify her as half-Asian, and again, they wanted to know what label to put on her and our family.) I’m lucky that didn’t happen often, but it shouldn’t have happened at all.

      We can tell the difference between someone who genuinely wants to connect and one who’s trying to other us or our families. To condemn the latter is not “demonizing human interest”; it’s standing up for ourselves and our loved ones. To conflate the two suggests a significant gap in understanding. To tell the person living it what not to do….not even going to go there.

    • Andrea says...

      I’m white and my best friend is Asian-American. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard strangers ask her where she’s from. And usually, once she tells them she’s from Tennessee, “No, where are you REALLY from?”

      Whether they’re aware of it or not, their intent is always different when asking her that question than if they had asked me. It shouldn’t be up to Asian-Americans to educate white people on this.

      And on a side note, she doesn’t use dating apps because she gets BOMBARDED by creeps with Asian fetishes.

    • Polly says...

      Joanna, your comments make it crystal-clear that you do not face this issue on a personal level – if you did, you wouldn’t have made this comment. Why are you so invested in tossing aside the lived experiences of others? Can you not just listen to what people who actually experience this have to say about it? Trust me, we are so deeply tired of having our identities questioned and debated; furthermore, we are exhausted by people who want to keep poking and prodding and asking “why can’t I do this? why why why?”.

  21. Christina says...

    Thanks for writing this! Same experiences and comments from men of many races who feel “Ni hao” is a good way to approach me. This hasn’t changed from when I was 18 to now (41). It always makes me feel the same way: irritated, fatigued and suspicious that they don’t see me as the American that I am and they will forever see me as “other.”

  22. Rosie says...

    Finding the right balance of honoring other people’s culture and ethnicity and not pigeonholing them can be really difficult. I live in the US and have for most of my life and I am a citizen, but I don’t identify as American because it isn’t my heritage. I’m Canadian. That’s where I was born and it is the cultural point of view I was raised within and it is very different than being raised by Americans who have never lived anywhere else. I have a dear friend who was born and raised in the US, but identifies as Lebanese. I feel like I am erasing someone’s identity to just call them American regardless of their citizenship or their race. As a white woman, I enjoy being asked where my family is from because I can tell people a bit more about my upbringing and my cultural perspective. I don’t ask complete strangers, but as I get to know someone I usually ask where someone’s family is from because it gives them the opportunity to say, “I was born here, but my parents emigrated from the Philippines” or “I moved here from Sri Lanka for college and loved it and never left” or “I was adopted and grew up here, but I was born in Romania.” Am I wrong to ask or is it just wrong to ask a stranger? Do people of color all resent being asked? It seems like such an important part of getting to know someone.

    • Sam says...

      I think that most people of color hate getting asked that question because it seems like the answer we have, is never the answer that people wanted to know. I think if you really want to know where someone is “from”, just ask if they are from around here. So for example if you’re in NYC, just ask, “are you originally from new york”? Then you can just continue the conversation from there.

    • Dolan says...

      Rosie,

      Most people of color hate this question. It seems that it is not good enough to be American, but have to be ‘Japanese’, ‘Chinese’ or something else. Even if the family could have been living in the country for many generations. Honestly it can be a bit insulting.

    • Anna says...

      You may love it when people “other” you, but as a person of color, it just sucks. I’m glad you asked the question if it’s “wrong” to ask someone where there family is from, but the fact that you asked it AFTER reading this person’s essay says a lot. Why is it that our points of view and perspectives are dismissed? The author shared her story. Why not sit with it and think about it yourself? I’m going to make an educated guess and say that most of the readers here are white. You’re posing your question to mostly white folks. Maybe a BIPOC person will chime in and validate you, which is fine, but it gets so old having to explain things to people who are looking more to assuage the notion that they might be perceived as not being culturally competent, rather than learning through reflection and self examination.

    • em says...

      I am really puzzled by how multiple people expressing hurt or disbelief upon hearing that some folks don’t like being asked where they are from, because what I hear is that your good intentions matter more than the hurt others are expressing. “most of us asking aren’t complete strangers” – how do you know if that is my experience? many times when I have been asked this, it isn’t by someone hoping to get to know me, find an avenue of connection, or make a new friend, and it frustrates me that you assume this to be the case. it is often by a random person that I don’t have a relationship with, and I am being asked to satisfy their curiosity or help them feel adept at correctly guessing what my heritage is. also, if someone asks and I answer that I was born in texas, why is it that often they keep pushing for the answer that they want (“no, but where are you really from”)? if you care, take the hint that maybe I don’t feel like sharing this with you. if you build a relationship with me, my heritage will come up when I want to share that. please also understand that your experience of being canadian in america is different from my experience of being an asian-american in america. at a glance, nobody is labeling you as “other” and you can choose when you want to disclose that you are from canada. for me, however, one look outs me as someone to whom it is acceptable to shout: go back to china (wrong country), konnichiwa (again, wrong), ching chong ding dong (???).

      as others have noted, this question often doesn’t have the warm glow of kind curiosity for many of us and instead can have hurtful associations with many prior experiences of being made to feel like an outsider. furthermore, generally speaking, if someone – and among these comments, multiple people – tells you something is hurtful- if you care, wouldn’t you just…stop it?

    • Lindsay says...

      Hi Rosie – I am a fourth-generation Asian-American and I have hated being asked this question since I was a little girl. I wonder if you don’t mind being asked where you are from because there is less risk for you (being white) in your response — most POC have, in some way or another felt otherness or even oppression simply for being a POC. Either way, Elysabeth bravely shared her story and her feelings/viewpoint need to be heard and respected as they are.

    • Ral says...

      Em –
      Oh my goodness, thank you for your response. I couldn’t agree with you more. I will never understand why my answer isn’t enough. I’d love to one day ask – “You don’t believe me? You think I am lying when I say I am from California? Or when I say I was born in the US? Why must I “satisfy your curiosity”? What business is it of yours anyway? Especially when I don’t know you or when I just don’t want to say any more than I already have?” I am from the US. That should be enough for you.

    • Emily says...

      I mentioned this to another commenter, but it could be good for you to look into the “Oops/Ouch” method for having difficult conversations.

      The point is not if you are offended or you meant harm, the importance is that harm has been done.

    • Kate says...

      Oh, @Em. You nailed it, my dear. Holy hell, try to tell someone that it’s none of their business and they get their panties all twisted up.

    • Ami says...

      Hi, Rosie. I’m a AAPI. Since you asked directly, I’ll respond directly. Don’t ask “where are you from” or any version of this. If someone wants you to know, they’ll tell you. Your curiosity about getting to know them doesn’t matter. How a person feels about disclosing details of their life story matters. POC are asked this question all the time. Often, we are pressed to respond by strangers, coworkers, and acquaintances. YOU personally might not ask strangers and enjoy being asked, but (from what you’ve disclosed) you’re not a POC. For us, the effect is cumulative and we’re tired of being asked. I hope you hear us and think about it.

    • SP says...

      I’m married to a Canadian of Asian decent, and we live in the US. If people ask, “Where is your husband from?” I’ll say, “He’s Canadian.” Or he/we might say, “He went to school in Toronto, but he grew up in Calgary.”

      I’m guessing that if you answered someone that way, they’d ask you about Toronto or mention Canadians’ reputation for niceness. But he/we get the, “And where are his parents from?”-type questions.

      The white Canadians I know in the US tend to be embraced by Americans as if they’re “part of the fold”, culturally (even if the Canadians themselves don’t want to be lumped together). That assumption of being “the same” doesn’t extend in the same way to my Canadian husband.

      So while you might enjoy being asked, it seems pretty clear why others would not. There are lots of different ways to start getting to know a stranger beyond, “Where is your family from?” or “What do you do for work?” or “Are you married?/Do you have kids?” Start with those other conversations first, and if a relationship builds, all these other “important” details will be volunteered.

      Also, identity is personal, but does my husband complain that people are “erasing” his identity by referring to him as simply “Canadian?” No more, I’m sure, than you do when someone fails to describe you as “Irish-Canadian” or “Polish-Canadian” or whatever your ancestry happens to be. Why presume it is different for him?

      People also make erroneous assumptions when they hear an ethnic label. What country my husband’s family is from, what language they speak, etc. So sharing his “identity” isn’t as helpful as you might assume. Strangers really get the most accurate starting point by simply knowing he’s Canadian.

    • Jen says...

      I think that these discussions are really important so non PoC can understand our experiences. It’s personally not a pain point for me being asked about my ethnic origins. I am Chinese American. But I know it is for many ppl I know. I do believe many ppl have good intentions when inquiring “where are you/is your family from”. I’ve asked ppl that question before to bc I was genuinely wanting to know more about their cultural identity but it can be a micro aggression to be assumed you are not “from” America [or whichever country it is may be where while ppl are the majority.] I think every person of color will likely have different degrees to which they are comfortable being asked that question. Some may be okay with it. Many will not be. Many hate being asked but may respond politely with the “answer” they know you are looking for. I think the point is, please don’t assume you are entitled to know someone family background. And for God’s sake, don’t keep on digging and pressing if it’s clear they aren’t giving you “the answer” you want. As a white person, you may welcome this question or line of inquiry more than a non-white person would. Also, regardless of whether someone has an accent or not an accent, I do think this line of questioning is inappropriate especially if you are strangers or just met someone, because the assumption is that you are foreign/other. Your curiosity and good intentions don’t supercede how this line of inquiry makes a PoC feel whether they have generations of family who were born and raised in America (country where the majority are white) or more recently immigrated. Not everyone is willing to get into their family history bc it may not be a simple one word response, especially if someone is bi/multiracial or adopted. For anyone that wonders, why can’t you just answer, stop being a snowflake! Well, I can just as easily flip that around and ask why are you offended that someone won’t answer questions about their ethnic or cultural or racial background? If PoC are saying they don’t often like this question and consider it a micro aggression, why is that not enough? That white ppl (or anyone) feels entitled to demand these answers from PoC shows your privilege. That being said we all make mistakes. We don’t always know how to phrase things and that’s ok. If someone is clearly not responding “in the way you would like” that tells you maybe to stop asking, accept their answers, apologize for stepping on their toes, make a mental note to yourself, and try to do better moving forward. Asking or wanting to know more about someone’s culture isn’t a crime and doesn’t make you a racist asshole in and of itself and that’s not what we are saying. We are sharing our experiences to speak up and tell you look, what you may think is a totally benign question, may not be so benign after all..

    • Mika says...

      Rosie- this might be an odd analogy, but maybe it could get you to understand where the AAPI community is coming from. If you saw a woman who had a bump on your stomach, but you weren’t quite sure whether or not she was actually pregnant, would you ask, “how far along are you?” without being 99.9%-100% SURE that she was pregnant? It’s pretty established in society that it’s a rude question because, what if she WASN”t pregnant? What if she had a miscarriage or she gained weight? It’s a question you might ask if she was your friend, and had an actual relationship, right? Imagine if you had gained weight and some stranger asked you that, several times a month? Wouldn’t you get tired of it? Is it any of their business? Even if their intention is to congratulate you if you WERE expecting, the question is just not appropriate to ask. Does that make sense to you at all?

    • Hi Rosie, I’m Asian-American and I don’t mind being asked where I’m from or what my background is, because most of the time, I know what they mean. I think for the most part, at least this is how I choose to see it, it comes from a genuine curiosity.

      Now that I live in Australia, I find that I identify as American first, because it’s pretty obvious I’m Asian. I’ve had rude encounters with people assuming I’m a Chinese tourist who doesn’t speak much english (there’s nothing wrong with being a Chinese tourist but some people have an attitude about them) and that’s when I’m like “Actually, I’m American” in my crisp American accent and they’re like “oh.” But what can you do, there are dumb people everywhere.

      And I’ve discovered, especially now that I’m in a new melting pot place, I also like to ask people where they’re from and do so ALL THE TIME. Even other Asian people. So yeah, it just depends on the person and the context. When I lived in New York, I also asked where people were from but it was more like “what state” because people came from all over and that’s what made it interesting.

      I wouldn’t stop asking. But I’d read the room too.

  23. Emily says...

    Seeing all the comments from (mostly) white people asking about how to best ask people “where are you from” to satisfy their curiosity – no one owes you an answer to your curiosity. No one.
    I think that’s a great example of the depths that white privilege is ingrained in our society, in that somehow I, as a white woman, am owed an answer to a question I have about a person of color.
    No one owes you their life story. No one owes us answers to questions we may have. Why do we think our curiosity must be satisfied instead of just being left unknown?

    • Elena says...

      THANK YOU, Emily, for your insightful comment. That very question is a form of “othering”. THANK YOU!

    • Glenda says...

      This 1000%

    • Rosie says...

      I don’t think we’re saying anyone owes us their story. I think it is a big part of people’s life experiences and identity and learning about that is a big part of getting to know someone. I want to be asked and I’m white! I don’t disagree that it is incredibly inappropriate for a stranger to try to force someone to talk about it, but most of us aren’t asking complete strangers.

    • JT says...

      Thank you Emily! I feel like we should allow our non white friends the opportunity to drive the narrative here, and tell their stories when and how they are comfortable. White people, like myself, have been the story tellers for far too long.

    • Beth says...

      Yup! Why can people not hear the many, loud, and persistent voices that say they do not appreciate that line of questioning?

    • Jen says...

      This is exactly the point. When I am getting to know someone I’ve just met, “where are you from,” or “where did you grow up,” it is meant as such. If you ask me these questions, I will tell you, I grew up in California, in the Bay Area. That’s it. But I am well aware that most of the time, what people are often asking is “what is your ethnic or racial background.” White people are not asked where they are from with that kind of intention, nor does the asker expect someone to offer that they are of German or Irish descent, or anything like that. Stuff like that generally comes up in deep conversation as people get to know each other, as a relationship or friendship goes beyond simple, casual conversation. So if you want to know where I’m from, I welcome the question, because I am far from home and my family these days. But if you want to know my ETHNICITY, then just ask that question. Beating around the bush is simply offensive.

    • Amy says...

      Yasssss!!! Totally AGREE

    • Erin says...

      @Rosie

      “I want to be asked and I’m white!”

      Have you stopped to consider that as a white woman, the conversations you’re having after being asked that question might be very different from those who are not white?

      I’m white, and conversations I get about where I’m from and my ethnic roots are very different from what my (Asian) husband gets.

    • Margaret says...

      YES. As a white woman, I think this is the best comment in this whole thread.

      We each have the right set our own boundaries about what we want to share in any given moment.

    • Jess says...

      Emily – thank you SO much for this comment. As a white woman, it really has led me to reflect on how I have asked that question in the past to satisfy my own curiosity, which I’m now ashamed of. I will do better.

  24. Andrea says...

    Thank you for sharing your experience Elysabeth. As an Asian American woman this is all too familiar to me as well and I am glad more are speaking out against the racism we have faced. Admittedly I would have uncomfortably ignored any comments that were made about my ethnicity (Chinese) but now I feel braver to stand up for myself and for other Asians. Thank you Joanna for using your platform for the Asian community to be heard. It means so much (especially as a long time reader) xo

  25. Esther says...

    Thank you so much for sharing. So much of what has been said by Elysabeth and many of these comments resonate with my experience. Let’s keep this discussion going and not be silenced.

  26. Robin says...

    There has been an 700% increase in violence against Asian people in Vancouver, Canada. I am a white woman and I lived in Vancouver for over 7 years. In daily life, I overheard racist remarks against Asian people constantly – how immigrants from Asia are “taking over”, how Vancouver isn’t a “Canadian” (aka white) city anymore. In the smaller city I live in now, my co-worker who recently emigrated from China has spoken of the several times she has been profiled and hassled due to her ethnicity. This xenophobia disgusts me. Canada is not exempt from racism just because the country is perceived as “nicer.” Western Canada in particular has an entrenched history of systemic Sinophobia. I will work hard to stand up against it. https://www.covidracism.ca/ and https://ccncsj.ca/

    • Mara says...

      I’m half Korean and moved from the US to Vancouver a few years ago. Something that’s totally new to me here in Van is that older white women think I’m white, and make racist comments about Asians to me! I’ve never been able to respond, but I vowed that next time I will. Canadian multiculturalism is a work-in-progress.

  27. Libbynan says...

    I am an elderly white woman from the South. Our Presbyterian church shares premises with a Korean church. We frequently have joint services and shared meals. It breaks my heart to think that these wonderful people must face this kind of harassment in their daily lives. I simply cannot fathom people who think that this type of behavior is acceptable towards anyone at all. As the Southern expression goes, “ Were they raised in a barn?”
    All people deserve the respect and dignity that is owed to any child of God. Remember, the Bible says, “ They shall know we are Christians by our love. “

    • d says...

      Hi Libbynan, I love that song, which is close to but not a quotation from John 13:35. The quote (translated) is Jesus speaking, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

  28. Kim Schultz says...

    Thank you for sharing your story, Elysabeth. It’s very upsetting to read, but important. I also appreciate the thoughtful dialogue in the comments.

  29. Jenny Z says...

    Thank you for this post! This describes my experience as a mixed race Chinese/Caucasian woman almost identically. I think for me, the most painful part was when the harm was caused by other POC, which has happened a lot in my lifetime and it’s so complicated. I expect the ridiculous questions and disgusting fetishizing situations with white folks but it’s more painful to know that we haven’t supported other POC and we aren’t supported by them quite often. I hope the silver lining in all of this is that we develop our political voice and ally with other POC and feel empowered to take charge of our own identity even more than we already are.

    • K says...

      I am familiar with what you are saying. That’s why I think it’s important to acknowledge that anyone can discriminate and be discriminated against in different contexts. To acknowledge that certain types of discrimination exist but overlook the others types is not the full story and thus cannot solve the full problem.

      “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
      ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956 (via Coddling of the American Mind)

  30. Alexis says...

    Thanks for sharing, Elysabeth.
    The Trader Joe’s incident hit home. As service industry workers, there is no escape. And it is part of your role to defer to the customer and treat them kindly and respectfully. I used to wait tables, and was constantly asked why my English was so good. Well, it’s because English is my first language, old sir! On top of that there’s the whole misogyny thing – guys pulling at my apron to get my attention, upsetting the full tray of drinks I’m slowly unloading because they think they are “helping”, asking for my number, etc. It’s all so smarmy and creepy. An old boss of mine used to call me shitake!
    It comes from both sides, too. I’m ethnically Chinese but have never been to China. Or Taiwan, where my maternal grandfather is from. My parents were born and raised in the Philippines, so I grew up with all kinds of mish-moshed culture, food, and languages. Even our dialect of Chinese is not widely spoken, so when I encounter other Chinese in Chinatown (I live near the Brooklyn one), there is all kinds of confusion when I am spoken to in Mandarin or Cantonese and cannot answer.
    So I’m definitely not American-looking. But I’m also not Chinese enough either. Best I can do is order my food in Cantonese, so take it or leave it!

  31. Paige says...

    Thank you for sharing your story!

  32. Katherine Hancock says...

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so sorry you have to go through this and the gas station scene is freaking infuriating and scary.

  33. Thank you for sharing your story. The “konnichiwa” and “ni-hao” comments are infuriating! Gotten so many of those from leering men in Paris, France where I live.
    Plus the differential treatment you receive as an Asian vs a white French person in a shop or a restaurant – I can’t believe how I took it all as “normal”. We have so much work to do as a society.

  34. Charlene says...

    I am a 37 year old Filipino American woman and always assumed the cat calls and unwanted derogatory attention I have received very similar to the experiences Elysabeth shared, were all a common experience for females. Reading the comments from white women appalled at this behavior is really eye opening to me. How could I myself have been so ignorant? I really appreciate this story and the comments, but feel more sad and confused than ever.

    • Christina says...

      I got plenty of unwanted attention which often scared me when I was young and visited France, Spain and Greece. Some men even cut off my way with their car up on the sidewalk. It didn’t happen at home though, maybe it’s more a thing in southern Europe. (I had waistlong blonde hair). I do know that Asian-presenting women get negative attention in my country, which infuriates me.

    • susanna says...

      Reading these comments as a white woman I have learned that I have been largely ignorant of racism. I knew it existed on an abstract level but could not really relate because I thought everyone knew racism was wrong and a thing of the past. I thought race crimes were random isolated events that the media hyped to generate paychecks. I am beginning to understand that it is actually as real as the sexism I’ve dealt with as a woman. While it is mortifying to learn this I am both super saddened but also super grateful to finally begin to understand. I so appreciate how much everyone has shared of their personal stories. It’s really helpful.

      So far a few perspectives stand out that rely on social nuance to understand depending on the situation:
      1. acknowledge cultural differences. Conversely,
      2. be mindful of inclusive language instead of generating otherness by focusing on cultural differences
      3. be aware that some people may be unable to forgive or correct unintentional gaffs and the workload of processing that awareness after an awkward incident must be accepted as a personal social responsibility

      As I learn, more will come to clarity.

      All these stories have been lifechangingly helpful in that I am beginning to understand how it feels for people and thereby gain enough understanding to include you all in my heart. I have also signed up for the bystander workshop posted in the comments so that I’ll be more prepared should I ever be in the position of standing up for or offering support if an occasion arises.

      Sexist misogyny is really the enemy of all women. I have had to handle it on my own since age 12, sadly, and dealt with it on the regular until I aged-out in my 40’s, as have most women. We need to take responsibility and begin to correct this where we have the most power, where it’s easiest: on the home front with our husbands and sons. We cannot wait for them to do it on their own. Women must lead the way into the future with love and mutual support.

    • Jules says...

      I would assume that a lot of the women who are appalled have also been cat called and heard derogatory comments but are also trying to be mindful that this isnt about them, but trying to listen to someone else’s story and learn. And it’s also always appalling and disgusting when you hear these stories. I just wanted to comment to make sure you dont feel alone here. The derogatory comments may not always be the same or come from such a place with cross cultural issues, of course.

    • Kelly says...

      My experience as a white 36 y/o woman has been that yes, I’ve experienced the cat calls and unwanted attention from men — but without the racist fetishization (not sure that is a word) that Elysabeth described.
      I only experienced anything like that once when I traveled to Egypt in college. Men followed me walking down the street, asked all sorts of personal questions, asked to take pictures with me, wanted to touch my hair. It was terrifying.
      It disgusts me that this is such a common occurrence for so many women here.

  35. Meri says...

    Thank you, Elysabeth for posting your story. It’s frustrating.

    As an adopted Asian American (born in Japan), I don’t really know how I feel. At first, I was ambivalence but my next experience was…nothing. Perhaps I have not yet experienced outright racism, and if so, I did not quite catch it being somewhat naive.

  36. Elysabeth Ratto says...

    I have been so incredibly moved by these comments. I wish I could respond to every single one of them (and I might still try!) because the vulnerability and courage shared in these comments keeps bringing me to tears. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to respond. My heart breaks that my story is so many of our stories. But I am hopeful that we will continue to amplify our voices even after the media attention fades.

    • Emie says...

      It’s you who deserves the THANKS. Thank you for sharing yourself in such a vulnerable way. Because of your story I have texted my AAPI friends to check in on them.

    • Mika says...

      Thank YOU, Elysabeth! So proud and inspired to read all these comments from the AAPI community. I feel so seen and validated, it’s really what I needed this week. Thank you Cup of Jo, for featuring Elysabeth’s story and for all the readers for taking the time to write about their experiences.

  37. Anne says...

    Thank you for the eye opening, beautiful read.

  38. Kara in Seattle says...

    The only silver lining (if you can even call it that) to all of the racism that’s been exposed during this time of the pandemic is that I’ve had the time to read and really think, and I’m always surprised that even someone like me, who’s traveled & lived all over the world & tried to expose herself to difference, still finds more layers of ignorance to shed. Thank you for your bravery in sharing your experience. As a teacher, woman, friend, and citizen, I’m committed to dismantling racism & listening to these experiences, and listening to experiences like yours really makes me think what more I can do to be a better ally.

  39. Jung says...

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, Elysabeth, as well as so many CoJ commenters. As someone who doesn’t have a local community of fellow Asians to lean on for support during these times, reading every one of these stories (as awful as many have been) has been just the support I needed.

  40. Jenny says...

    Thank you for sharing. I am scared for my parents, for my 8 year old daughter, and for myself. So many countless times, I’ve been asked “where are you from?” The correct answer is Texas. The follow up question is inevitably “No, no… where were you born?” “Yeah, same answer, Texas”. I still get these questions and I live in progressive California!

    My husband is from England, and ten years later, I still reel over how I was described (not by my husband, but by in-laws) to relatives and friends in England when we were first engaged: “She’s American, but she’s Chinese-looking?” Apparently, I had to teach a lesson in the difference between ethnic identity and nationality. As first-generation Americans, I feel like I was taught to ignore and avoid, rather than stand up and use my voice. I can tell you now, my daughter is receiving a very different lesson.

  41. Olivia says...

    Close friend of mine is Indian-American. Born and raised in mass. She also happens to be one of 2 infectious diseases drs at the hospital we work at, and tiny and young looking. Once, an older male md (an immigrant from South America, no less) asked her, where are you from? She responded, Massachusetts. He goes no, where are your parents from. She responded – oh, you mean why am I brown.” Burn, man

    • Linda says...

      LOVE this! i need to have a version of that comeback.

    • Angel says...

      Ooh. That’s a good one!

    • riye says...

      YEAH. Go girl!

    • em says...

      really wish I could have been there to applaud her on the spot!

  42. Nicola says...

    I am 3rd-generation Canadian, of Japanese descent, on my mother’s side. My (white) father immigrated from Germany when he was very young. He, the immigrant, has never been asked where he is from, or told to go back. My fully Canadian mother and I (who look Asian) have been told to go back to where we come from. I have never even been to Asia.

    I have also been asked where my accent is from. I only speak English, and the person who asked me the question was also speaking English.

    When I was 10, I was told by classmates that the other Asian kid in my class had to be my boyfriend (presumably because we were both “Asian”.)

    And there are too many stories I could tell about inappropriate questions like “where are you really from?”, “what is your ethnicity”, etc. Tip: If you wouldn’t ask a white person, then don’t ask me!

    • Ella says...

      This is interesting to me because I come from a family that travels a lot and tends to be interested in people’s heritage.

      My grandparents are German immigrants and have always been curious about where others come from and what their family history is like, maybe because of their personal experience with immigration and maintaining their family heritage and story. My parents have continued this and will often ask people of any skin colour about their family roots. My husband talks with interest about how his Native Canadian, French, and Irish roots all contribute to his family heritage. It’s not uncommon for me to know because of conversation that friends are of German background, or Polish or Irish or English, etc, and skin tone doesn’t play into the question. I’ve found the people are often happy to talk about their heritage and family background and I love hearing about their history. So while this question CAN definitely be racially motivated and it’s a problem if it is, it can also just be genuine friendliness and interest in humanity.

    • JTella says...

      I have a similar experience. I an Eastern European who has lived in US for over 30 years. I speak English with an accept and I’m constantly being asked where I am from, being told I’m Russian, or asked how “I like it here”.
      It’s exhausting and funnily enough I only get it from white people.

    • Hannah says...

      Well said, Nicola. I’m also part Japanese and part Irish. While the Irish side of my family openly talks about their immigration to the states (because they never receive those questions as you and your mother do!), the Japanese American side has been through a painful history in immigration and living in different areas of the US. The guessing games and the question “where are you (really) from?” most frequently comes from a place of entitlement asked by white people.

      I always think, maybe if the person asking and I were genuinely friends, maybe it would come up naturally, but I’m not owed to answer someone in a grocery store or somebody at work. It never follows with a good conversation and I feel horrible afterwards.

    • Julie N. says...

      I’m also 3rd-ish generation Japanese-American. This article really resonated with me, but there was no mention of the model minority myth or internalizing racism which has been part of my upbringing/psyche lately. Is this something you think about?

    • Julie N. says...

      I meant to add that I wonder if this (model minority myth/internalizing racism) is more unique to the Japanese-Canadian/American experience.

  43. Alison Marcell says...

    Elysabeth, thank you for sharing your story with such beauty and vulnerability. I was really moved by your words, and by so many of the comments shared as well.

  44. L says...

    So dismaying to hear just how pervasive this all is. And that we seem to currently be taking big steps BACKWARDS! Thank you to all the commenters here being vulnerable and sharing your experiences – big love to you all. And big love to the entire beautiful, diverse Asian American community in this dark, effed-up time. I want this country to be better.

  45. Ellen says...

    I dislike confrontation so much! But in the past few years, I’ve come to realize that it is an uncomfortable necessity. We can’t give these micro-aggressions room to breathe, lest they get bigger and more violent.

    I hear you, and I’m sorry for what is happening. My sister in law (she immigrated here from Japan) recently explained to me the many small and not-so-small aggressions she faces and it’s heartbreaking and discouraging. I fear for her and my niece and nephews. Thanks for sharing your story; I think it is part of the way forward.

  46. I don’t even know where to begin. Just BARF. And heartbreak. Any words I say feel insufficient, so I will simply say THANK YOU, Elysabeth, for your courage and generosity to share these stories with us. Sending so much love to the entire AAPI community. I stand with you.

  47. Adel says...

    Wow. Just wow. It’s always so interesting to hear different peoples perspectives. Your story and perspective is so fresh and relatable.

    @cupofjo, have you considered a post on antisemitism? There has been a rise in antisemitism in the last few years, both blatantly and veiled, and I think it would be nice for your readership to discuss. I would love to hear from readers how this has impacted their lives.

    • K says...

      i think that would be a nice post. it’s so easy to think time has passed and everything is fine now when in reality “historical” hate is something to be managed.

    • Adel says...

      Thanks K! I feel like when it comes to antisemitism, the whole concept is invalidated by so many who otherwise display such compassion for all other forms of hate and racism. It is truly puzzling. And unfortunately, it is by no means historical. My semetic looking husband is literally afraid to drive through certain parts of this country. A few years ago, I was denied a job from a government agency because I had “too much Jewish experience.” Yet, somehow, there is a notion that Jews have some level of privilege, and so that negates the racism, both on a micro level and even direct hate crimes.
      As a blog that has championed the perspectives of so many recipients of both blatant and concealed aggressions, I think it only makes sense to do a post showcasing this perspective.

  48. Meghan says...

    My Chinese-Portuguese mother looks Asian, but not Han Chinese because of her darker skin tone. Everyone assumes she’s Filipina. When I (white-passing mixed-race) was little, everyone (meaning white people) assumed that she was my nanny – to the point where some would try and recruit her (“Is your employer good to you?”). My mother has told that story to many people over the years, and I always assumed she found it funny. It’s really only been in the last few years that I recognize the subtle anger behind it, but also the fear. Years ago, when we were attending my uncle’s Las Vegas wedding, my mum and I had to fly down without my dad. I remember her coaching me about how to talk to the customs officers at the border if they took me aside to talk, “Yes, that’s my mum. She lives with my dad. My dad is white, that’s why I look like this. My dad is coming tomorrow. He can’t come on the plane today because he’s working.”

    My friend who has a German mother and a Japanese father, even had a notarized letter they kept in the car. They lived near the US-Canada border and would cross the line to get gas. If my friend, who looks completely Japanese (to most white people, at least), was with her mum but not her dad, they always questioned her. The notarized letter came about because there was an incident where the two were kept at the border for hours until the dad could come and confirm that she was indeed the mother of his daughter and that she hadn’t been kidnapped.

    • N says...

      Hi! I am Canadian and from Vancouver, and of Japanese and German descent. I am not saying racism didn’t play a role here (it probably did), I just want to point out that any parent travelling solo with a child under age 18 and crossing the border to the US must produce a letter from the child’s other parent/guardian(s) (if there is one), saying they are aware of the journey. Same if the child is cross-border with a group (like a school trip): a letter must be shown proving the parents are aware. It’s just a precaution to prevent cross-border kidnapping a by a child’s own parent or someone known to them.

    • M says...

      Wow, I also had a similar experience growing up as a hapa kid. My (white) mom would always tell me not to scream in public because people might think she was trying to kidnap me (as I’m pretty Asian-looking) and call the cops.

    • Rue says...

      I’m white and Canadian-American. We crossed the border by car several times per year through my childhood (and my entire adult life until the pandemic). I was never once asked to produce documentation that my white father or white mother had permission to take my white self across the border. Maybe this is because I was born in the 80s, and you’re referring to newer policies. But. Never ever ever came up, and again, before aged 18 I crossed the border… probably a hundred times, including with one parent, one aunt or uncle, or with one grandparent.

    • Rosie says...

      My mom had to show a letter at customs every time we flew across the border without my dad. I don’t know if it was notarized, but they always took it and read it and then looked at me and asked me where we were going. I assume to gauge my understanding and participation in what was happening.

    • Lani says...

      Another hapa here and – to the people saying that everyone had that letter traveling with kids: yes, true, but did you have multiple, notarized copies and a script you rehearsed? Did your parents anticipate being pulled over? Anticipate the border guards making assumptions based on perceived race and prep you with answers to questions? Did you get rejected and were forced into a holding room and separated from your mother and missed your flight until your father could lawyer up and come sort it out? Because yes to all of the above, personally.

      It is a general precaution for all children traveling with one parent or school groups, but it often affects POC differently. A rule or law being equally applicable in theory to everyone doesn’t mean it’s going to be equably applied by authority, especially when assumptions about race come into it. Look at the rates of traffic stops for Black vs white people for another blatant example of that principle at play. Racism definitely plays a role here.

  49. Steph says...

    Thanks, Elysabeth, for sharing and allowing us to connect with your experience. I am also Asian American and in addition to feeling horrified and worried for our larger AAPI community, and society in general, on a personal level I’m also reminded of my childhood and feeling like I will never look like “an American.” And having this reinforced by the where-are-you-froms, how-long-has-your-family-been-heres, I-don’t-even-think-of-you-as-Asians, and gross/lewd looks and comments. And I’ll never be used to them.

  50. Rose says...

    Thank you to the author and everyone else on this thread sharing their personal experiences. You are so brave, and deserve so much better.

  51. Reanna says...

    Thank you for sharing your story, Elysabeth, and please know that it’s having an impact.

  52. H says...

    As a Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant child, it was ingrained in me to be respectful of authoritiy and elders, to not argue back, to be the bigger person and ignore the aggressor when verbally attacked, and to put my head down, study, and work hard because, sooner or later, I will be acknowleged for all my accomplishments (As if accomplishments can erase all the hurt that was caused by countless overt aggressions and microaggressions by ignorant, racist people). Now as an adult, I realized the mistake my parents unknowingly made in teaching me to be an obedient child. That is, my inner voice was traded for approval from my parents, my teachers, and authority. Growing up in the US, it was difficult to speak up to defend myself in many settings. For example, in high school (early 90s), a teacher (white male) allowed kids in my class to share racists jokes against minorities, and I was so uncomfortable and refused to participate while students around me laughed. Yet, I didn’t speak up against that teacher because of the power dynamics of teacher and student relationship and the ingrained respect I must show my teacher. Thinking back to that time, I can still recall the awfulness I felt in my chest and stomach. I regret so much not speaking out against it.

    I am now a mother, and I am teaching my girls that their voice matters, that their opinions matter as much as their parents or any person, even if that person is the President of the United States. They are allowed and encouraged to disagree. My hope is that they will use their voice to speak up for themselves and for anyone who experiences any form of racism or aggression. Their voice is their power.

    I’ve always suspected that there are many of us with this experience, but it was still a relief to hear it from someone similar. Thank you for sharing yours, Elysabeth. Thank you, to CoJ, for highligting this issue.

    • AMK says...

      👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽💕💕💕

    • Linda says...

      this so much. growing up, it wasn’t even that it was explicitly told to me- stay quiet and be respectful. it was just absorbed through the cues my parents were giving in how they acted and moved around white people. as poor immigrants with broken english, they felt inferior and that sentiment bleed through in their interactions and behavior and affected me as well. as a child, i was silent. i didn’t dare speak up or even talk much. and i see this a lot in the quiet asian stereotype. i think we all came from a similar environment that. i’m 38 years old and i’ve processed a lot of that and doing my best to take up space and speak up. i’m still not quite there but getting better every day. it’s so important to me that my two sons know their worth, their identity and have pride in their culture.

    • Yael says...

      Don’t blame your parents. That’s a survival mechanism they were trying to teach based on their knowledge of the racist immigration policies and culture of this society. There is a time and a place to confront racism. Maybe they didn’t think they could protect you as a child from racist attacks and the best they could do is teach you to stay out of conflicts you couldn’t win. It’s one thing for me to teach my kids to speak out at among their diverse and well-educated classmates, and maybe another thing for my parents to tell me to do the same in a state dominated by a strong KKK history. There’s always room for critique, and it is valuable. But I think many parents of color are doing their best in the face of a hostile reality.

    • H says...

      Linda and Yael, your comments are spot on. What you’ve written mirrored the experiences in my life and that of my parents, and surely, in the lives of so many immigrants and refugees here in the US. Thank you for reaching out.

    • Yael says...

      Thank you also for your comments, H, and for sharing an experience that resonates with so many. I too chafed at these limitations as a girl. I see them a bit differently now, maybe because in many ways my parents’ sacrifice of their self-assertion and dignity is part of what enables our generation to be in a better, more privileged place. I try not to forget that even as I raise my children the way you are describing. I hope to make them aware of the privilege of voice, and help them understand the condition of the voiceless. We will get there.

  53. Becky says...

    I’m tired. I’m tired of feeling wary of what might come my way when walking down my own street. I’m tired of well-meaning white people telling me how nice the feng shui is of this little free library we are standing in front of. I’m tired of people asking me where I’m from as if I don’t truly belong where I am now. I’m tired of white people asking me how to use this “weird” vegetable or ingredient I have in my cart at the grocery store. I’m tired of having to prove that being Asian doesn’t mean I’m exotic or an outsider. I’m tired of being worried that my BIPOC team at work will be passed over because we’re not “white or mainstream enough.” I’m tired of explaining my grief and anger and the history that seems to repeat itself. I’m tired of feeling tired.

    • K says...

      I hear ya. I’m tired too. Tired of being scared, tired of explaining, tired of thinking…having heard all the same offensive comments in this post, and already worried about covid-19 virus. hearing about all the attacks going on makes me even more scared to walk around outside.

      Tired of being told that it isn’t offensive to ask someone “where are you from?” the first time you meet them. If it’s offensive to me (and a bunch of other Asian Americans) it’s offensive – end story.

  54. Mary says...

    My personal preference in replacement of “where are you from” is- where do you call home? I don’t love being asked about my ethnicity by a stranger (Chinese), and personally think it’s pretty rude and intrusive.

    But yes to all the micro-aggressions described by the author. Thank you for sharing this and to CoJ for proving this safe space.

    • Liz says...

      respectfully, is that much different of a question? By asking it, the implied assumption is “not here”.

    • adele says...

      I think that even a worse question meaning your home is not here. My home is in Texas but I’m from Eastern Europe. My accent is always questioned.

    • Christina says...

      When with a new colleague or someone else that I will continue seeing, regardless of name or skintone, I sometimes ask if they’re from here or moved here for studies like I did (university town). That has felt like a respectful way to start a conversation, but maybe I am wrong.

    • JTella says...

      I’m tired of being asked that by complete strangers.
      I have lived here in US for 30 years.

    • Danielle says...

      I’m white (and trying very hard not to tread on other people’s experiences- apologies if I err) but “where’s home?” is a common question in my world. This may have to do with the fact that I’m a physician and it’s common for us to have moved multiple times for training (I have). So I currently live in Missouri. I moved here from Louisiana. Home is coastal South Carolina. It gives me a chance to share my love for my hometown and alleviates some of my homesickness. Context matters for this question, and it probably only works when the person being asked has already introduced the idea that their home is not “here”.

      I recently went out a few times with another doctor at my hospital (ill-advised, but dating during ‘rona is hard) who calls Alabama home. We were at a friend’s house and a new acquaintance heard his accent and immediately asked “Where are you from?” “Uruguay,” he answered with quiet frustration.

    • Alexandra says...

      I don’t feel the re-phrasing of the question helps a lot. I dislike being asked – I have lived in California for over 20 years and that is my home. Often when I get asked “where are you from”, I tell people the city I live in, because I don’t care if you have been to Oktoberfest or like German beer (and preferably older guys: German girls …) or worse, and then often they go further and ask “where are you really from?”. Not your business. Just stop it. Thank you.

  55. J says...

    Thank you for sharing this.

  56. Kim says...

    I feel this so strongly. I was never comfortable speaking up and confronting, but realize now that’s how they get away with it. In the recent past, a colleague went to China for work, her first time there. She posted a pic of a vet office near the restaurant where they would be eating that night. She joked she should be careful of what is served to her! I was appalled by the racism, but didn’t dare say anything for fear of others saying, “you can’t take a joke.” Sigh.

  57. CLtran says...

    Teachers have renamed me because they thought my name was too difficult for them to pronounce.
    I’ve been told several times that Asian languages all sound the same.
    My own friends have tried to whitesplain me my own culture, that the very food my grandma would always cook for Tet was actually Chinese, no it’s not I insisted, but they would not believe me.
    People always expected me to speak Vietnamese on command like I was some kind of parrot.
    My mom has been spat on “you brought corona here”.
    This is my experience. With people that mostly meant well. People that do not even realize they are being racist.
    And I’m only half Vietnamese. I don’t even look that Asian. What else would have happened if the non Vietnamese part of me didn’t happen to be white (French) ?
    All of you here, you’re not alone in this. We see you (even in France).

    • Rosie says...

      The renaming of people with non-Western names is something that made me extremely uncomfortable as a child before I understood why it felt so wrong. I remember kids being called by their initials or their last name. I even had one teacher refer to another kid as the classroom banana because he was adopted and spoke no Chinese and another teacher who during the peak Spice Girls era called one of the African American girls in our class Chocolate Spice. I have no doubt that these things still happen.

  58. Karen says...

    This is very educational, not to mention interesting. I am reflecting on my childhoood where I grew up in a white area that ethnically was predominately eastern european. It was completely acceptable to ask our playmates about their backgrounds, and we were not at all politically correct. The most common and acceptable questions was: “what are you?” It was not offensive, nor was it meant to be. It was curiosity, education, comparison to each other, not at all intended or meant as racism. However, 60 years later, I can see exactly how much it was. How much we learn!
    Thanks for the article and the insights.

  59. Emma Nelson says...

    Thank you so much for this essay. My little sister was adopted from China, and the experiences of our growing up together have been playing on repeat in my mind: The kids who told me, shortly after her adoption, that she wasn’t my “real sister”; the older white man who stopped my mom at the grocery store and demanded to know if my sister spoke English (she was a baby and didn’t speak anything yet); the young man who, in a crowded bar a few years ago, grabbed the nape of my sister’s neck and yanked her backwards, nearly pulling her to the floor. I was angry each time, and I’m angrier now. Thinking about the horrific shooting this week is like looking into the sun — painful, blinding, unbearable.

  60. Susan says...

    Thank you for this piece. It resonates strongly with me.

    I’m Asian – American, and I see myself in your experience, Elysabeth. I live in a Midwestern city where there aren’t a lot of other Asians. And I get approached by men constantly. Weirdly, most of the time, it’s either men in their 20s or 50+, all the way to their 70s and beyond. I’m in my 40s, married and not interested. I don’t believe it’s because I’m particularly pretty or anything. Instead, they seem to think that if they hit on me, it’s not only possible that I would be receptive, it’s probable (versus a white woman, I guess, where they think there would be more chance of rejection?).

    The thing that differentiates how men approach me versus how they approach my friends who are not Asian: Especially with older white men, it’s often with the attitude that not only should I welcome their attention, but that I should somehow be grateful for it. I’ve been told “I wouldn’t mind being with you.” Yes, really. I’ve had more versions of this than I can count. “Go out with me, I can get you some of the nicer things.” This one was after a short introductory conversation at a party. There was nothing about it that would signal that I am : 1) desirous of any specific nice thing or 2) wouldn’t be able to get it myself. “I love Thai food (I’m not Thai). I bet you cook great!” This man also, without a trace of irony, told me I “speak so well.” “You girls really know how to treat a man.” The list goes on.

    At least with most of the men in their 20s, they just introduce themselves and try to strike up a conversation.

    It’s exhausting and, frankly, scary sometimes. Because the sexual entitlement means that they can get really angry when they are rejected. Although, when I’m in the right situation, it can be funny too.

    • Blandine says...

      Hi Susan,
      I am really sorry, it does sound exhausting and scary. I think you really hit the nail of its head when you referred to sexual entitlement. That’s exactly what it is.

  61. Kelly says...

    Thank you Elysabeth for this story, and also thank you to everyone sharing their stories in the comments. We need more people talking about this.

  62. Ramona says...

    I’m so sorry. Sending you and your darling family lots of love.

  63. S says...

    I too am Asian American and the whole experience of white men throwing out “hello” or whatever words they know in an Asian language at me is so common it’s cliche. I usually tell myself that it’s usually well meaning elderly veterans who like to reminisce about their time in service – I hate that I justify their racist behavior but downplaying these encounters is part of the Asian Am experience if you haven’t heard about that yet. (ugh)

    But it’s not just the men. In grad school, in my women dominated field, in a liberal city (Seattle), even my white female professors would confuse me and my one other Asian classmate, and make subtle racist comments that probably didn’t even register as racist to them.

    The recent surge and coverage of Asian Am hate has caused me to realize how much I’ve buried deep inside of me. Growing up in SoCal around lots of other Asians did not give me immunity from racism. Things must change.

  64. Amy says...

    Years ago, I worked at an international nonprofit where, one time, a department head felt the need to find me in the office, interrupt my work, and introduce me to a student, who also happened to be Vietnamese and was interviewing for an internship. We had a quick friendly exchange, and the student left the office. Not too long after, the department head returned to my desk, shaking his head, saying “Not a word in Vietnamese,” and how he enjoyed “bringing people of the same tribe together.”

    As a young assistant, I had to explain to this older White male (who had a ton of international travel experience) how identity is complex (I am Vietnamese American and the student was a recent immigrant) and how inappropriate it was for the department head to expect us to put on a cultural display for his enjoyment. I was like, “Nah, dude. I don’t bring every New York Jew I meet to your desk and expect you to talk about bagels and Passover or whatever narrow cultural stereotype you have in your brain. Please don’t ever do that again.”

    Microaggressions dehumanize people. It’s so important to call them out, no matter how small they are.

    • Jen says...

      Love your response!

    • AG says...

      I work in an international organization and this happens often. However, I don’t see it as micro aggression. I saw it as someone trying to make a new hire feel welcome by introducing her to something familiar. I do it too, I tend to say – oh you’re from Thailand, I know so-and-so who’s from Thailand too, maybe you’ll connect! It was done to me too, and I welcomed it.

      I know one can’t assume similar ‘tribes’ will get along, but isn’t that the first tip in how to make friends- find something in common? And if you don’t like people introducing you to someone who looks like you- then just say no?

    • Amy says...

      Hi AG! I totally get where you’re coming from, and perhaps I’m mislabeling the interaction. I wouldn’t have had a problem with my colleague if he had simply connected us and left it at that. It rubbed me the wrong way that he felt the need to do an authenticity check (he asked whether I speak Vietnamese, which I do) and that he felt that he had the right to have expectations for how the exchange went. The intent was probably innocent, and I do think that it’s OK to introduce people of similar backgrounds – just respect people’s agency

    • Amy says...

      @Amy: I love your response too!
      @AG, I’m Chinese / Canadian and I would hate it if someone just tossed another Chinese person at me and expected us to start having a conversation or bonding. Not being raised China, my conversation would probably be the same as whatever conversation you would have had with that person…

  65. Daphne says...

    As an Asian-American person, another common question I get from strangers is “What generation are you?” to satisfy their curiosity of how long my family has been in the US. My husband provided a good response, “I’m a millenial, what about you?”

    To echo others’ comments, intent matters. I can tell when people are asking to get to know you, the person, better, versus when people are asking because they want to label you or put you in a certain box. Think of a way a man might say “Hey, what’s up” in a creepy way or in a genuinely friendly way. We can tell their intent even though the words are the same!

    • Y says...

      Thank you Daphne, that is important for people to understand the difference.

    • Mary says...

      Love your husband’s response!

  66. SW says...

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece, Elysabeth. As you and many of the commenters have noted, racist comments and microaggressions against the AAPI community need to be discussed OUT LOUD. Even as recent as a couple weeks ago, a random person decided to yell out “Ni hao” while we (husband (Korean), myself (Japanese), and kids) drove through Syracuse, NY. Our windows were up, we did not initiate verbal contact, heck, we didn’t even initiate eye contact. I like to think that most people are inherently good and I wanted to give this person the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps their intention was to use the phrase as a genuine greeting? However, my gut knew that this was not the case. This was another example of a microaggression that we continually have to bear. As a mother, it fills me with such sorrow to have to teach my children about what to do when faced with a racist comment or microaggression. Its even sadder to have to type “when” instead of “if”.

  67. Edie says...

    The murders in Atlanta weren’t racially motivated. The killer himself confessed they were rooted in sexual frustration/misgony. I’m confused by the swift move to label this as “Asian hate”. Can someone explain why the press has been so quick to assume this was a racially-motivated crimed?

    • S says...

      To be honest the fact that this needs to be explains dumbfounds me. This right here is part of the problem – that people can’t seem to see racism or maybe they choose not to see it. And this is part of the Asian American experience in America – needing to explain why intentionally targeting Asian owned businesses where the suspect knew that workers would be disproportionately Asian is a racially driven hate crime. The guy objectified Asian women as the source of his “sex addiction” and decided to “eliminate” his temptation by killing them. What the hell did these Asian women do to deserve that. It’s not them, it’s him. It’s not us, it’s racist misogynists like him. Call it what it is.

    • Mariela says...

      Why don’t you try listening to the story you just read? Sit with it for a while to truly listen and ask yourself why your first instinct is to argue? Or whatever you’re doing — defending, diminishing, denying, or deflecting. Why not try validating the person’s experience you just read about. Just because it is not YOURS, does not mean is has any less value than yours.

    • anne says...

      Given everything that is going on right now, and given the people who were killed yesterday, I think it’s incredibly easy to see why the press– and a lot of non-press humans– have been quick to assume this was a racially-motivated crime. I don’t personally understand why anyone would take the immediate word of an alleged mass-murderer at face value.

      As I understand it, a racially motivated crime brings different, potentially harsher charges/jurisdictions and more. The man who allegedly walked into more than one building and murdered the people who worked there, who was then arrested and one would assume given his right to counsel, says it wasn’t racially-motivated. Go figure.

    • Shannon says...

      Many believe the murders were racially motivated because he killed only Asian women and specifically targeted businesses that employ them.

    • Rachel says...

      Edie, COME ON. This is 2021, and you cannot keep pretending like racism exists in a vacuum. Every woman of color can tell you that racist misogyny exists. Elysabeth’s piece has just pointed out the rampant sexualization and fetishization of Asian women. The terrorist in Atlanta purposely sought out Asian spas and massage parlours. Don’t be so insulting and pretend you can’t see it. It is fucking exhausting talking to people like you.

    • MJ says...

      It is impossible to disentangle the enmeshed, oppressive factors of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and poverty at play in the shootings in Georgia. It is, accordingly, depressing to see media outlets and pundits delicately parsing what to call this event. The attack was racist; it was also misogynistic, xenophobic, and likely rooted in hatred of sex workers. It can be all these things at once. To unquestioningly repeat law enforcement’s claim that the shooter was “not racially motivated” — and so to echo the logic of a man accused of brutally murdering eight people — is to do real harm to communities that are vulnerable and grieving. To instead name what it really was is to take seriously the lives of the people who died, to consider their murders in the context of history and politics, and to comprehend the conditions in which they lived and struggled. It is an inadequate though not insignificant way to mitigate more pain.

    • Dawn says...

      I, too wish it hadn’t been a mass killing that brought our attention to the racially motivated, anti-Asian hate that has been steadily ramping up since January of last year. But I agree with you that the preliminary investigation into this particular GA mass shooting has not proven that the killer was racially motivated. I wish that this mass murder would instead bring attention to the existence of these massage parlors, and their regulation, and help focus our attention on protection of, and justice for sex workers.

    • Allison says...

      This is a man who is saying, “I confess, I am a killer, but I’m not a racist.” Which, well – irony, right? But also, he doesn’t get to decide that. Neither do the cops who arrested him. Please listen to the Asian community – they are the best source of input on this. And a man who fetishizes Asian women, blames them for being too tempting, fails to see their humanity – how can this not be rooted in racism?

    • Joie says...

      Asian-American and criminal defense attorney here. Why on earth would we credit the killer’s own assertion regarding his motives as credible? A hate crime brings substantial sentencing enhancements. This would be like someone facing a gang enhancement for murder and saying– well, actually let’s not jump to conclusions because the killer is saying he wasn’t actually in a gang. I think this is a worthwhile mental exercise–imagine a white guy had gone into a black church and slaughtered 8 parishioners and then told the police “it wasn’t racially motivated, those god loving people just really bring up a lot of religious guilt and rage.” Would you credit that? If not, why would you in this instance?

    • Claire says...

      I am not the press, but reading about it I reached that same conclusion. Many people are blind to their own racism. And it seems to me a violent murderer is not the most credible reference point, even for his own motivations. His judgement is rotted, his insight highly questionable. I infer this because he chose to methodically murder innocent people. Presumably there are plenty of businesses in Atlanta that would be more obvious places for him to take out sexual frustration, including those that actually engage in that kind of activity, and many people who live there are from any number of cultural backgrounds. Yet he seems to have bypassed all of those other options, gone out of his way even, to end up at businesses where he made targets of people who were of Asian heritage.

    • Sharon says...

      You don’t know this…the murders are still being reviewed to determine if they were a hate crime. One of the police officers who explained that the murderer was having a “bad day” has been shown to be prejudiced against Asians himself, so don’t dismiss the fact that these murders could be due to more than one cause.

    • Edie says...

      Thank you for the response, though, the Cut isn’t the sort of place I look to for political commentary.

      I’m still baffled by the need to label everything in racial terms, especially when the killer himself confessed motives that were independent of race.

    • Kara says...

      Here’s a great tweet I saw:
      @minh81 “He didn’t have ‘sexual addiction’ – he had racist sexualized fantasies about dominating Asian women. In other words, he had fantasies of white supremacy andd acted on them. Name it.”

      You do all of the Asian Americans calling this what it is a disservice by taking the word of a killer over theirs, when his actions speak so much clearer and louder than his words.

    • AMK says...

      Edie. Stop.

    • Tracey says...

      I tend not make a habit of believing psychopaths. Weird that you’re ok at taking a mass murderer at his word. Trustworthy? I think not.

    • Sarah W says...

      The Cut has had excellent political journalism for quite some time now. If you’re looking at CNN, it’s quite out of touch, outdated, and not representative of other POV’s other than those of white males. As to the misogyny, it was clear to me when he targeted massage parlors run by Asian Americans that he felt entitled to sex with Asian women, and that’s a particular and specific problem as is painfully and eloquently illustrated in Elysabeth’s story – did you read it?

    • Nicola says...

      Edie, you say you are “baffled by the need to label everything in racial terms”. It is being labelled a hate crime because it is one. What else would have to happen to prove to you that he targeted Asian women for the way they made him feel? It can be both misogynistic and racially-motivated. You are choosing to listen to a murderer’s own account and closing your eyes to the obvious facts of the crime, which point to Asian women being targeted. Among many other questions, I hope you ask yourself why you are so quick to dismiss it as a racially-motivated crime.

    • MJ says...

      Edie, Google is free and widely available if you don’t like The Cut. Perhaps try educating yourself since CoJ or the other comments aren’t where you “prefer” to look. What privilege.

    • Olivia says...

      I think you would not be baffled by that if you were not white.

    • Van says...

      How many racist people out there acknowledge & admit that they’re racist?

      Do we REALLY have to listen to a murderer say that he had racist motivations in order to classify this as a hate crime?

    • Julie says...

      Of COURSE they were. What are you even doing?

    • Sam says...

      Interestingly, to commit a hate crime, one does not need to feel hate (meaning ill will or passionate dislike) towards the victim or a group to which they belong. Rather, it’s just that the motivation for the crime must include bias.

      Our biases, of course, are among those things that we usually don’t recognize about ourselves; they often boil down to mental shortcuts that fly under our radars. That’s why we have a different label for them than just “beliefs” and it’s why they can be so difficult to correct. Thus, one’s *self-report* on whether they are biased is just not a reliable basis for concluding whether or not someone *really was* biased. Unlike beliefs, a person’s biases are not mental states that they have special access to.

      So the press is correct to speak of these crimes as “racially motivated” or even as probable “hate crimes” insofar as they appear to involve a bias against Asian people, and this is true regardless of the killer’s beliefs or feelings about Asian people. The question to ask is “In this offense, were Asian people at higher risk than non-Asian people?” The answer seems to be yes, and that is actually a legitimate reason to describe these crimes as hate crimes and racially motivated.

      Perhaps Edie (and others) are upset about the psychologizing implied (or apparently implied) by the labels “hate crime” and “racially motivated.” To some extent, I can understand the resistance to wanting to make strong claims about someone elses’ state of mind. But first, as I mentioned, a person’s *feelings* are irrelevant to whether they’ve committed a hate crime. Second, I do not see the importance of denying either hate or racial motivation in this case. The killer felt enough ill-will towards people that he murdered them. That seems like enough ill will to justify attributing hate anyway. And again, about racial motivation, the question is not whether the killer thinks he has it out for Asian people, but rather whether he posed a greater risk to Asian people than others, which he clearly did.

      Helpful articles–
      On the definition of hate crime: https://www.justice.gov/hatecrimes/learn-about-hate-crimes.
      On bias: https://betterhumans.pub/cognitive-bias-cheat-sheet-55a472476b18

    • Lana says...

      He was willing to murder 8 innocent people without any tepidness. BUT he really did not want people to think that he was a white supremacist so he “lied” about his motive. He’s ok with capital murder but not with a charge of racism. Y’all are mighty sharp.

    • Kira says...

      FIRST – thank you Elysabeth for sharing your story. Yours are antecdotes far too common amongst us Asian-American women, and it requires a certain vulnerability to share and rehash the trauma as you relate these stories. I related to so much of what you said.

      Edie — SWEETIE. The Asian American community is not here to hold your hand through your education of why the murders in Atlanta were racially motivated. If several members already pointed out specific reasons as to why in response to your original post, and you clearly ignored them all and restated your original musings, no one needs to explain to you anything further – your mind seems to be set. Your refusal to believe anything oustide of your white supremacy lense is clear as day.

      If you choose to actually desire an answer to your question, I would read through ALL the comments on this thread, and then ask why you still deny a racial motivation. Then, and ONLY THEN, would I encourage you to read the following: https://ncg.org/news/why-we-turn-intersectionality-confront-anti-asian-violence. Specifically, “let this be a moment to challenge the idea that anyone might ever be entitled to inflict violence on the pretext that they are driven by “sexual addiction.” This violence should be understood as the deadly expression of racialized and sexualized stereotypes of Asian women, specifically migrants who work at massage parlors and spas whose low income and status as immigrants expose them to risk. Our country’s wars and military operations throughout Asia and the Pacific Rim have, over many years, reinforced sex trades and racialized sexual violence toward Asian women.”

      Godspeed, Edie. And be aware that your denial of what you call the “Asian hate” label in this situation hurts so many people.

  68. Beth Chu says...

    I’m so glad Elysabeth shared her experiences with us. I’m sure these memories are a tiny fraction of what she has dealt with.
    I’ve seen dozens of my friends get the same treatment on the streets of NY, my husband asked by doormen which apartment he has food for, and people slow down their speech assuming Asian Americans can’t understand them. I have three kids who are half Chinese and half Jewish Polish. My oldest is more Asian looking, and people immediately have no idea what our relationship is and assume adoption. He worships the way his little brother looks with his lighter skin, bigger eyes, and lighter hair. Internalized racism starts young and it is hard to erase!
    My Mom’s speech at our wedding included racist zingers like “we’ve always loved Chinese food,” “Beth’s father always dreamed of visiting the forbidden city,” “math and science are so important and we are glad that line will be continued,” “we are so excited to be diversifying our family’s gene pool.” My husband is freaking brilliant, kind and empathtic, but his humanity is so often erased when people meet him and talk at or over him.

    There are so many horrible injustices in this world. I am so glad to be talking about them, learning, fighting, and uplifting people everyday. Love to you, Elysabeth, and to so many others out there!

    One thing I would love to explore with this group of amazing women (and men, I’m sure!) is affirmative action. I whole agree with it, but I wonder about its complicated nature. So many top schools have affirmative action but at the same time cap their Asian enrollment. How can we move forward in the most just way? This is obviously a different topic, but I always wonder about it.

    • Mado says...

      You should definitely check out the podcast and group Integrated Schools. I am learning so much from them.

  69. Viet says...

    I’m Asian American and honestly- I don’t want my white friends in particular to check in on me. I want them to check in with their racist family, neighbors, community. I want them to check in with how they are complicit in white supremacy.

    • Tory says...

      This 100%

    • R says...

      YES. Yes. yes. yes. Thank you.

    • em says...

      YES.

    • Lily says...

      100% this. A white acquaintance texted to say she was thinking of me. I wanted to reply, I don’t need you to just think of me. I need you to burn this shit down.

    • Eileen says...

      I agree.

    • Diana says...

      This is a great frigging point, Viet. The whole “checking in” with people thing always seemed like it’s just supposed to make the white friend feel better.

    • Trish says...

      🎯

    • Jamie says...

      Thank you. Finally. White SUPREMACY.

      Also, I’m American (of Asian descent), why do I need to be labeled Asian American? My blonde blue eyed spouse is not German American, or European American.

  70. sadie says...

    cup of jo – could you make sure the comments from yesterday and this morning also load? i can’t see them anymore for some reason and there isn’t a second page or more comments option. a very important discussion. thank you

  71. Alice says...

    Thanks so much for sharing. I’m Asian, grew up in a very white suburb, and when I was 16, worked at a clothing store. There was an old man sitting outside the fitting room waiting for his wife. He asked me where he could meet girls like me over and over. My naive self said, “uh, HIGH SCHOOL.” My older coworker pulled me away and told me what he really meant. What’s disturbing is that I hadn’t even crossed the 100 lb. mark and looked like a 10-12 year old.

  72. M says...

    Thank you for bringing this to light. Ever since the start of the pandemic my husband (who is Korean) has encountered an increasing bias. Unfortunately, we live in a community in which half of the population wholeheartedly supported Trump. My husband is less bothered by his recent negative experiences than I am. He explained that he’s dealt with it his whole life, it’s just amplified as of late. He was recently intentionally shoved by an older white man at Lowes. This is just one example. I worry for his safety, and the safety of the entire Asian community. Something needs to be done.

  73. Donna says...

    I would like to add a comment here regarding how to deal with a situation like this, as a witness, if you are not sure you should step in, or if your help is needed. This may have been addressed above, I haven’t had time yet to read all the comments (and send my love and support to all of you): Early in the last administration (US, won’t say his name), when immigration issues were exploding, a local organization offered training on how onlookers could deal, and hopefully help, with these situations. The advice is: concentrate on the person being abused. Don’t engage the abuser (who knows what they are capable of). Turn to the person and say – “Are you okay? Can I do anything?” If you are on a bus or similar situation, sit next to them and say, “Do you want me to sit with you? I can stay if you like.” Ask if they need help, maybe they are okay and can handle it, but let them know you are there and will help if they need it. Sometimes it’s as simple as knowing that someone is there. Also, ignoring the abuser can sometimes help tone down a situation. I hope this doesn’t sound too simplistic, and I am interested in hearing other’s thoughts, but when I have been in a scary situation I have found that if someone just comes and stands next to me, let’s me know that I am not alone, it helps. It isn’t going to fix the larger problem, but it might help someone survive a tricky situation while it is happening.

    • Rosa says...

      Thank you!

    • Liz says...

      Thank you for this. I really like the idea of just focusing on being there for the person in need and helping to de-escalate the situation since unfortunately in this crazy world, you never know if someone is going to step up their behavior in a violent way.

    • Christina says...

      Thank you. I too have wondered what to do in some sort of situation. That is such good advice, because of course the threatened person must be allowed to decide for themselves. But knowing they have support is a good thing, and might encourage others to step in too. Often the first step is the hardest.

    • M says...

      I appreciate this comment. Thank you.

    • Amy says...

      Thank you so much, Donna. This is really good advice.

    • Joy says...

      Thank you for this.

    • Darlene says...

      I’m relieved to see this advice, Donna. A few days ago, a Korean American woman in the neighborhood was in the grocery line next to mine. We made eye contact, and I was about to say hi, when the man behind her made “jokey” but obviously mean comments to her. I saw that she had only a few items and asked if she wanted to go ahead of me in my line. (There was nobody behind me.) She said, “That would be great” and quickly moved over. Since then, I have been kicking myself for not taking the guy on — saying, “Hey, what is wrong with you?!” I felt like I had taken the easy way out. Or that I had taken power away from her. In the moment, there doesn’t seem time to weigh all the possibilities. Maybe this is a discussion I will have with her at some point. Thank you for sharing.

    • Karen says...

      Thank-you, this is very good advice.

    • Katie says...

      Thank you for this gem

    • SJ says...

      Donna, I love this suggestion. I definitely find that acknowledgement and support is helpful when put in dangerous or uncomfortable situations. A few years ago I was on the New York subway and I made a sigh, and a woman said “If you breathe on me one more time I will (blank) you.” I can’t remember what term she used but you get the idea. After that incident, a woman came up to me and acknowledged something was off with her and that made the situation seem less scary/crazy.

  74. riye says...

    I’m Asian-American and the story resonates very strongly with my own experience. I’m lucky to live in a city where minorities are the majority but everyone I know here has some kind of story about other people’s ignorance and lack of courtesy. I still remember the guy at Disneyland (!) who told my family to “get back to the reservation”. My dad (normally quiet and polite) blew up at the guy and yelled “We’re Japanese, you idiot!”

  75. Kaylen Ratto Giannini says...

    So proud of you for sharing, Liz! I see you and I love you.

  76. Helen Wang says...

    As a fellow Asian-American woman, I relate to this so much it hurts. Thank you for writing what I wish I could. It brought tears to my eyes.

  77. Loveley says...

    absolutely sickening. thanks for sharing. i have way too many feelings and thoughts on this to comment. indian american here, so i get it. as one other commenter said, “What’s harder to report is not the incident itself but the stress of its anticipation.” it’s so deep and complicated and more than just the incidents itself.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      This is profound. Thank you for sharing, Loveley.

    • Jenna says...

      This resonates. The AAPI experience cannot and should not be equated as the same, but as someone whose trans partner goes through the anticipation of microaggressions daily, that’s such a succinct way of putting it.

  78. Helen says...

    I agree with the comments above by Sarah. I also don’t think it is appropriate to say there is a “correct” way to answer the question “but where are you FROM”, because it seems to imply there is an “incorrect” way to respond. There’s nothing necessarily wrong about asking someone where they are from. Rather, I think the more important thing is how this makes the author feel and the context of the exchange. The point the author is making is that it is asked in a rude and often aggressive/sexual manner from a complete stranger, often accompanied by jeering or other uncomfortable behavior. This is clearly not out of genuine interest and goodwill, and brushing it over as simply a cultural/social exchange seems to trivialize the issue.

    • K says...

      this is a good point.

  79. Mary says...

    Too many times as an Asian female I’ve been asked where I’m from. When I tell them Vancouver, Canada that shuts most people, usually white males, up. However, some continue to pursue the question and ask, “No, where were you BORN?”

    I tell them the truth, “Costa Rica.”

    I no longer allow their ignorance to be bliss.

    • Calla says...

      this reminds me so much of that continuing parks and rec bit where Aziz Ansari’s character keeps having to tell people he is from South Carolina.

  80. Ann says...

    From a young age, Asian girls are taught to be obedient, to respect your elders, avoid confrontations, be on your best behavior and never call negative attention to yourself. So when we are met with discrimination and micro-aggressions, our impulse is to ignore it, walk away, be the bigger person, anything but call attention to ourselves – as indicated by Elysabeth’s initial reaction. Just because we aren’t vocal about our experience, it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, which is why I think this is a shock to so many non-Asian people.

  81. Julie says...

    As a white woman I have never ever experienced anything like this and I am just so angry and horrified for you and for everyone who is affected by any sort of racism and xenophobia. I’m just sorry. And I will do my part in continuuing to educate myself, to listen, and to call out this despicable behavior.

    This is so repugnant. I want to find that guy and catapult him into the sun.

  82. Lana says...

    Heartbreaking. I’m so sad to see how awful human beings are able to treat one another. Im always hopeful that the love and good outweighs the hate and bad, but I think I have a lot to learn.

  83. samantha says...

    Thank you for this post. As a mixed race (hapa) woman, I relate to it all. I’ve lived in San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Diego, and I can confirm that anti-Asian sentiments exist everywhere. I’ve been called racial slurs, had white people greet me in Asian languages I don’t understand (because guess what, I’m born and raised in California), gotten objectified by creepy men, been told I do or don’t look Asian as if that is a normal thing to discuss, and had more people than I can count ask me–no, PRESS me: “But where are you FROM?” These last few days have felt super sad to me. Sending support our to anyone who needs it today. xoxo

  84. Jeanne says...

    Everyone here has been so wonderful, supportive and eager to learn. And yes, what offends some doesn’t offend others and oh so many nuances.

    But just a reminder that “Silence is Complicity”. If someone cracks a racist joke or comment, call them out on it! Express a level of disapproval that you are comfortable with. Be brave for others. The joke/comment can come from another POC and doesn’t have to be in the presence of a POC. None of us wants the perpetuation of hate. The actions of Trump/Fox News are going to be with us for many years if we don’t act decisively.

    • J says...

      I can appreciate this sentiment, but I want to caution that this is NOT just Trump/Fox News. Perhaps racism is bolder, yes. But anti-Asian hate and racism in the United States goes back for centuries.

    • Amy says...

      “Be brave for others.” YES YES YES.

    • ‘Be brave for others’ … yes, yes, YES.

    • Jeanne says...

      J: Trust me, I understand. I’m Asian too.

  85. Fiona says...

    This is beautiful and oh so sad. Thank you for the generosity of sharing your story in such a vulnerable way. I wish you and your family peace and rest today, and for as long as you need to process and grieve. Sending you a lot of love from DC

  86. Karen says...

    Thank-you for sharing your experience. This was timely as my adult daughter and I witnessed something that disturbed us while shopping at an Asian Food store. An elderly caucasian man was behind us in a line up behind us. He had already made my daughter and I uncomfortable as he was wearing his mask under his nose and he kept encroaching on us, not keeping the 2-meter distance rule. As we were finishing with our transaction, he said a phrase in Vietnamese to the young cashier. She smiled uncomfortably, and then he said, “if I haven’t won your hand, then at least I’ve won your heart. ” She again smiled in what I and my daughter interpreted as uncomfortably. We didn’t say anything, but as we drove home we questioned whether we should have. I do call out people when they make hurtful, racist comments. My husband is Indigenous and his family has been at the receiving end of racist remarks or the government policy of residential schools and I have no patience for such behaviour. In all honestly we didn’t know the man’s history, perhaps misinterpreting the cashiers discomfort. I don’t want to make this about me, but how would you like to see white culture step up if witnessing a situation like you have encountered numerous times. Thanks and sorry that you have to endure such unaccepable behaviour on a regular basis.

    • E says...

      That’s creepy and inappropriate even if you forget the Vietnamese greeting. If you’re unsure about the racist part, you can still feel free to call out creeps :)

  87. Molly says...

    Elysabeth, Thank you so much for sharing your experience. The more people speak up, the more of us in the cultural and ethnic minority become aware and are able to act more acceptingly and lovingly. Because I live in Memphis, where the overwhelming majority of residents are either Black or white, I have been reading a LOT about the experiences of Black Americans. So very much that I have been blind to. I am grateful to know of your experience too. You are very much seen and I am sorry for the dehumanization that you experience at the hands and voice of people who probably come from a similar background that I do.

  88. Maya says...

    There are too many micro-aggressions to count and this article reminded me of so many that I smile away daily with my “Asian” no-drama smile. Roxane Gay had a powerful article on anti-Asian racism today: “All of us need to condemn this violence and we need to do so in specific terms. A hate crime was committed. It was vicious, gendered, and racially motivated. It was about class, the fetishization of Asian women, and men feeling entitled to sex. To eradicate this kind of moral rot, we need to name every part of it.” https://audacity.substack.com/p/a-white-mans-bad-day

  89. florence says...

    Thank you for sharing Elysabeth. Some of your experiences echo my own as a Korean American, and the fact that I often disassociated during those types of interactions makes me realize that this too is a kind of trauma, to have to endure these microaggressions over and over and over again. Your sentiment of “Because I guarantee you that many of them are seeing themselves and thinking of themselves for the first time in a very long time.” rings so true… we have never really been allowed to sit with our pain and after this past year with the overt Covid racism and the mass shooting in Atlanta, I think many Asian Americans are reliving our past racist experiences. We had thought we buried, dismissed, and ignored these wounds, with our head down just moving forward. And yet tears spring up as we fear for ourselves and our parents as our silence didn’t protect us.
    100% this: “Hate crimes are not limited to physical violence. They include verbal harassment. They include the fetishization of Asian women. They include the demasculinization of Asian men. They also include the well-meaning but harmful perspective of: I don’t even see you as Asian.” I think at the moment, many of us feel “I don’t even see you.” Period.

  90. Ruth says...

    Thank you for sharing. As an ally, my heart and support goes out to you and other Asians during this horrible time. Sending love, light, peace and strength. We see you, we hear you, we are here for you and will not tolerate this.

  91. Monica says...

    Thank you so much, Elysabeth. My ethnic identity is Chinese and because “I don’t look it,” not only have I been getting this question at least once a week my whole life, but even when I relent and tell them, I get pressed further: “Are you not mixed?” “I don’t believe you.” (What?!)

    • Alice says...

      My ethnic identity is Eastern European Jewish but I have been told my whole life that I look Asian (and “not Jewish” which is a whole other story). I do not pretend for a moment to know the Asian-American experience, but I’ve encountered so much gross, misogynistic anti-Asian racism, especially from people—mostly white men—who flat-out refuse to believe my actual ethnicity.

      I second your “What?!” and stand with you and all AAPI women.

  92. Jude says...

    Thank you for sharing this. It helps validate so much of what Asian Americans go through. And is, sadly, nothing new.

  93. Kara says...

    Elysabeth, I so appreciate your willingness to share your painful experiences. I wish you didn’t need to relive any of this in the purpose of education. Thank you for your words.

  94. Abbie says...

    Jo and team…this may be way out of left field, but would you ever consider interviewing Joe Rogan or a similar “personality?”
    I can’t help but feeling like we women in particular, are exhausting every effort trying to stand tall and be heard when the root of the problem – ignorant white men, sit back and go along with their lives mostly demeaning at our struggles at “sensitive grievances.” It’d be so refreshing and hopeful to hear these problems addressed face to face with a white male. Particularly one with a massive audience and respect of other white males.
    The work can’t all fall on us.

    • Megan McC says...

      I can see where that sentiment comes from, but the fact of the matter is, these guys know that the agenda they’re pushing is wrong and harmful. But what it is, is profitable. Their views, antics and propaganda deserve absolutely no more attention. I can’t see any good coming from interviewing and giving more space to these views…it only invites their disciples to invade this space of thoughtful discussion.

      What we should be doing is asking the kind, thoughtful, normal men in our orbit, what are you doing? Of course #notallmen, but what are you actively doing to call out your friends, your family and your co-workers when they are demeaning, making jokes and creating uncomfortable spaces. It’s this group of men that needs to stand up to the followers of these “cult of personality” groups because, unfortunately, it’s been made clear that it’s still dangerous to do so as a woman.

  95. Kara says...

    Thank you for sharing your experiences, Elysabeth. I truly hope more and more voices are heard.

    My mom is Thai, my dad is white, and I would say that most people would not know that I’m half Asian unless they know me personally. Growing up in very white suburbs, I remember so many times my mom would answer the door when someone was selling something and their response was something like, “Oh…is the lady of the house home?” or the times when my mom would be mistaken for my nanny or a sitter. I can’t even guess how many times my mom has been asked where she’s from. She’s lived in the US since 1967! She never answers that she’s “originally” from Thailand, but rather just gives the name of the town where she lives. When I was growing up, I was so proud to have a Thai mom that I never really understood why she wouldn’t answer that she was originally from Thailand. Growing up, I didn’t get that many assumptions were made about where people were originally from.

    And the assumptions that my mom has had to put up with endure to this day, and she’s now 74! And I literally still get asked questions too – like, “oh, your dad must have been in Vietnam, and they must have met in Thailand?” Well, actually, no — they met here in the US when they were in college. Do other people get asked so many questions about how their parents met?

    I’m a mom to a 7 year old boy whose love for his grandma is something to behold. This morning he asked me about a sign he saw that said, “Stop Asian Hate”. “Mama,” he said, “What does that mean?” I tried my best to explain it both in terms that he would understand and in a way that wouldn’t make him scared for his grandma’s safety.

    It’s been heartbreaking for me to see how much this past year has affected my mom. Like so many others her age, she’s lived in fear and she’s never been so isolated. But the part that I find so upsetting is that she has literally been too afraid to walk alone for over a year now.

    When I think about my mom’s life experiences that center around her identity as an Asian woman in the US – the ones I know of and the ones I don’t know of, but that I can imagine have taken place – my heart is very heavy.

    • Ramya says...

      This makes my heart. My 7-year old son (who is “ethnically” Indian-Portuguese-Cape Verdean but has a U.S. passport and is growing up in the U.S.) was born in Thailand. We left when he wasn’t quite 4, but he still proudly tells people that he’s from Thailand. That our children may grow up in a country and world where it won’t matter what they look like…

  96. Brook says...

    “Where are you really from…?”
    “Ni hao”
    “I love Chinese food”
    “Chinese (slanty eye up), Japanese (slanty eyes down), dirty knees, look at these (knees tucked inside shirt like big boobs)” – how many times when I was a kid?
    “Ew, what’s that?” – reference to my food
    “Dance with me China doll”
    “Do you give massages?”
    “I have yellow fever”
    “You’re like a twinkie/banana, yellow on the outside, white on the inside” – said by numerous friends to differentiate me from other Asians
    “You must be good at math”
    ” You know how to treat a man well”
    “Chinese kids get their names by their parents throwing spoons at the wall – Wing Ching Chong!”
    “Your English is good”
    “Congratulations on getting your green card!” – said to me (US citizen) by the customs person at the airport when my white husband entered the country on his new green card
    “Your daughter is going to be hot because Asian mixed girls always are” – said by numerous men I know
    And the list goes on and on and on…

    Thanks for highlighting these experiences.

    • Olivia says...

      Holy shit, you know how to treat a man well, good god. I’m sorry for all this.

  97. Zhe says...

    Thank you so much for sharing. This is so important for people to hear. Asians, non-Asians, the pain is real. I immigrated at 18 and naturalized at 28. I weeped at the ceremony because I didn’t think this country could ever truly love me or treat me as an equal dignified person. I was ashamed to be Asian and even felt relieved when my mixed-race child passed as white, which only brought up more shame. We all need to embark on this healing journey together. It’s never too late.

  98. liz says...

    Thank you, Elysabeth, for writing and sharing this. I can’t say if I’m more infuriated or sad that this is still occurring.

  99. Caroline says...

    My family came to America in the 1970’s from South Korea. For decades people asked me “North Korea or South Korea?” “You speak English very well”. I could go on. So like the typical “model minority”, I did my best to assimilate. Well, where has that gotten us?! Time to speak up, one incident and encounter at a time. Let’s get trained: https://www.ihollaback.org/harassmenttraining/

    • jane says...

      I signed up via a comment link here and just managed to get into a class because everyone is sharing this link. But they are going to be adding additional classes, just sign up for notification. These are excellent first steps and I’m glad I took the class.

  100. Taylor Duenas says...

    Thank you for sharing your experiences Elysabeth and I’m so sorry we continue to fail in America to protect and respect the diversity that makes us strong.

    My daughter is half-white and half AAPI but is very white-presenting (blonde hair, blue eyes) and solely because people know that her dad is AAPI we get comments about how “exotic looking” she is all the time. The fetishizing and othering starts at birth. Whenever someone tells me my daughter is “exotic looking” I ask them what is “exotic” about her, and the defensiveness usually starts immediately “I mean that she’s unique and beautiful” “just that she has such an interesting background.” Shes seven months old, you can’t even tell her gender without clothes on, but people (especially from my white family) are so quick to point out that she’s “different.” It’s exhausting. But it’s more exhausting for my husband who has had his own lifetime of “what ARE you” so I take it upon myself to course correct my white friends and family, who most of the time think they are being kind. If any other mamas have found a better way to quickly shut down these kinds of “compliments” I would love to hear your approaches.

    • Katie says...

      I asked this same question 5 years ago in a blog post I wrote about all the racist comments directed at my children and got zero helpful responses. I rarely hear those types of comments anymore and I’m not sure if people are more comfortable saying that stupid shit about babies or if now that my children are school aged the comments are more directly made to them. I will say, when I responded in a more confrontational way instead of just ignoring the comment people seemed grateful to learn in spite of their embarrassment. I know I feel that way. I still say stupid racist shit without realizing it and am appreciative to learn when I’ve been wrong. It is much easier to be a gracious receiver of criticism when the delivery is gentle, however. Even as I write this I realize that my approach has a lot of privilege wrapped up in it. So, I still have no good answers but would love to also hear from others.

    • Dana says...

      Taylor – I cannot speak to having an AAPI child, but my two children are biracial – white and Black. I am working on being more direct too, but for relationships that are very important to me and where I want to “gently correct” (I’m thinking of elderly white family members) I try to address in advance. I bring up past things that people have said about/around my children and let them know how/why it was harmful. This lets people know that “well-meaning” comments can be very harmful and – I hope – encourages family to keep their comments to themselves so I don’t have to correct them after they’ve said something (which I will do, but would rather avoid).

    • Ugh – the whole thing about people commenting about how exotic looking she is and fetishizing her is unbelievable. What is wrong with people?! I truly will never understand the sexualization of children. It’s sickening.

    • Jen says...

      I am so OVER educating all the “well-intentioned” ignorant morons-I no longer take this emotional work on. Why is it my job to ever so thoughtfully, carefully teach others about their own ignorance? It’s exhausting.
      I’ve replied -“You know, you should mind your own business until you figure out why your comment is so not acceptable” in the kindest tones I can muster and walked away.

  101. TS says...

    Thank you for sharing. As an Asian American, I too have turned away or smile past, disassociating myself from these incidents. At the age of 40, I still get nervous when my convertible pulls up next to a school bus because inevitably, there will be a kid who pulls up the corner of their eyes or call out chink. As an engineer in a male dominated work environment, one of my coworker last week thought it was ok to mention that he has an Asian female fetish.

    • AMK says...

      OMG that is horrible! TS, I stand with you in solidarity. I’m sorry you have experienced that. As a Latina, I am committed to speaking up. Enough has been enough!

  102. CS says...

    Thanks for sharing your perspective with us. It helps us all understand and grow in a better direction.

  103. Lisa says...

    There is too much entitlement and disgusting behavior and I am glad that the writer is calling it out here. I too have had unpleasant experiences and I have a hard time sharing them, although I cannot say how much happens to me as an Asian woman versus being a woman generally, but that is beside the point.

    The discourse since the Atlanta shootings here and elsewhere has been overwhelming compared to the usual coverage of Asian Americans, and speaks to the narrative of non-white (specifically women) as victims and a racist white male aggressor. I do not deny this happens, but why do we only talk about Asian Americans when the perpetrator is a white man? Why are Asians only considered to be minorities when victimized? Where is the support during affirmative action discussions that purport to support “minorities” while hurting Asian Americans?

    Asian Americans are largely ignored in discussions of minorities because minorities are victims in woke america and guilt is the ultimate commodity.

    It is not as simple as Bad White Men and white entitlement.

    • Elisabeth says...

      Lisa, I think you’re mistaking the far-past-due discussion of white supremacy and its effects for “blaming white men.” Yes, there are Bad White Men, and there are good white men. Regardless, white supremacy — as the system in which we are ALL steeped — negatively (and sometimes fatally) affects everyone who is not a white man. (I think it affects them negatively, as well, but that’s beside the point here.) However, it doesn’t seem like you’re entering into this discussion in good faith, as evidenced by your comment that “minorities are victims in woke America and guilt is the ultimate commodity.” It seems as though your primary objective is to absolve yourself, and other white people, from guilt instead of genuinely listening to the perspectives of those who know more about this than we (white people) do.

    • Jenny says...

      Elizabeth, I’m pretty sure Lisa states she’s an Asian woman. So maybe re-read.

  104. This made me cry with anger. Thank you for writing this. It puts a new perspective on seeing what is happening in the news.

  105. Sarah says...

    “…I guarantee you that many of them are seeing themselves and thinking of themselves for the first time in a very long time.”

    This.

    Thank you for sharing your story, the story so many of us have experienced yet rarely discuss and open up about. As an Asian-American, I hope and pray our world would learn from these stories and be and do better. I look at your little girls and want a better world for them. I want a better world for all of us.

  106. Nancy says...

    We have to do better.

  107. Evie says...

    Something I’ve noticed that is frustrating to me is that, often times, when Asian Americans speak up about racism they’ve experienced it is written off, ignored, or trivialized, but when someone shares a similar anecdote who happens to be Black, people fall all over themselves saying “how awful” “unbelievable” and take the account more seriously.

    All racism is horrible, and all experiences of racism are real and valid. Just because some may get more press attention doesn’t mean others aren’t happening and aren’t in need of recognition and that those people aren’t in need of just as much support.

    • A says...

      I agree – I know among my Asian American friends in their thirties, the consensus is “yes, there is racism against Asians but compared to other minorities it’s not as bad” and so we are less inclined to say anything. Because frankly, we all went to good colleges and have good jobs and it seems like everything is cool for us, which I think is also the Mainstream perception. There’s no racism against us, look how Asians have succeeded in America!

      It’s such a complicated and intricate topic that really can’t be delineated into just white or black.

    • M says...

      Filipino American here, and I see what Evie and A are saying. Of course racism isn’t a black and white issue. But I can’t help but feel wary of language like “people [falling] all over themselves” over Black anecdotes – let’s not make light of the Black American experience. Black people have fought long and hard and have been ignored far more than they’ve been heard. It’s important for us to recognize the racist tropes and structures that often encourage Asians to think of themselves as different from other BIPOC, and not fall into a trap of resenting fellow BIPOC for getting “more attention” than others. Who is really at fault for that?

  108. Maryn says...

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, Elysabeth <3

  109. Thank you for sharing this. It’s so important to listen right now. I saw some conversations online yesterday about whether this was race-related or purely misogynistic. One person said, “You can’t separate the two.” Elysabeth’s piece profoundly reflects that truth.

  110. I’ve been struggling to articulate the grief, rage, and fear — and worst of all, the cynicism I feel as I brace myself and watch the media gaslight and victim-blame women of color once again. As a fellow Korean American, I have also experienced the same exact experiences (down to studying abroad and facing overt racism in Lyon!). I am terrified, less for myself, but for my elderly parents, who still desperately hold onto the model minority myth, but are condescended to by white adults on a daily basis.

    Thinking of the Cathy Park Hong quote today: “The lie that Asians have it good is so insidious that even now as I write, I’m shadowed by the doubt that I didn’t have it bad compared to others. But racial trauma is not a competitive sport. The problem is not that my childhood was exceptionally traumatic but that it was in fact rather typical. Most white Americans can only understand racial trauma as a spectacle […] What’s harder to report is not the incident itself but the stress of its anticipation. The white reign of terror can be invisible and cumulative, chipping away at one’s worth until there’s nothing left but self-loathing.”

    Thank you for sharing, Elysabeth. Sending you and all our Asian sisters extra love and strength. I hope we can channel this rage and find solidarity with other BIPOC communities to dismantle white supremacy.

    • Calla says...

      Wow thanks for sharing that quote! I am a white woman but the bit about anticipation is so so familiar. How tense it can make you when you are on high alert all the time, or when in certain public spheres. I can only imagine how much that is compounded when race is a factor as well as gender.

    • Loveley says...

      exactly what Christie said. it “others” you immediately. and when you’ve been “othered” your whole life, that question is just another reminder.

  111. Amy E. says...

    As a middle aged white women I have asked many times,” what ethnicity are you?”, having no idea that this was hurtful to another human. I apologize for my ignorance.
    The question for me was really just because I am truly interested in learning about another person.
    I hope I can continue to learn and understand how my “innocent” questions and assumptions are indeed racist. And yes I don’t consider myself racist. I have so long to go.
    Thank you for sharing your story Elysabeth.

    • Christina says...

      Yes, me too. I have learned to completely avoid that question and any similar ones until someone brings it up themselves, but most probably I ask or say other things that hurt without meaning to. I do try though, and I am thankful for every chance to learn, and pass on my knowledge to my children ( white northern Europeans, all of us).

    • Sarah says...

      Hi Amy,

      Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I can’t speak for Elysabeth or every Asian-American but I speak for myself. I think the intention behind the question is what matters. I can tell when someone is genuinely asking out of curiosity because they want to know more about me, versus asking because they’re trying to make a point or because of ignorance/racism. Your question in and of itself is not hurtful or racist, and I can tell by your comment that that was not your heart/intent. I believe it’s the “No…but where are you REALLY from” that’s hurtful and tactless.

      Thank you for taking the time to reflect and think about past interactions. This is the heart work we all need to do, regardless of our race/ethnicity.

    • Christie says...

      I think the reason why this question is jarring is not because it’s innately a rude question, but because it points out that while we were simply being and existing that we are being viewed as “other” at any given moment. This question as innocent as it may seem is also saying “you are different, and that is the first thing that comes to mind when I see you. I want to label with my presumptions and set you apart.”

    • Joyce says...

      Hi Amy,
      I think asking “What ethnicity are you?” is a fair question. I feel like there’s a difference between that and “Where are you from?” What do others think? I would answer the former, “I’m Taiwanese” and the latter, “I’m from California”.

    • Calla says...

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Sarah that is very helpful to me! I never ask about someone’s ethnic background upon meeting them but I’m often curious and sometimes worry about NOT asking as I get to know them more. I don’t want someone to think that I am not interested in the cultural or ethnic aspect of their identity or that I “don’t even see them as Asian”

    • Ana says...

      Hi Amy, thanks for sharing and reflecting. I am AAPI. I think the relationship to the person that you are asking also matters. If a friend, or potential friend, asks me questions about my ethnicity or race, I am open to the conversation. But if it is asked by a stranger in a situation like Elysabeth describes (someone once asked me in a elevator) where the person just wants to satisfy their own curiosity and has no interest in you as a person, that is very different.

    • E says...

      I’ve never been offended by a woman asking about my ethnicity (I almost always the get the “where are you from” question from creepy men who make other personal questions or comments that makes me suspect some sort of “yellow fever”). That’s not to say you shouldn’t be cautious (don’t make it the third question you ask someone ever), but if a *friend* was curious about my ethnic heritage, I personally wouldn’t mind telling her about it.

    • Amy E. says...

      I appreciate all the feedback on my initial comment. It has provoked a lot of food for thought.
      I would not ask a stranger that question but maybe a co-worker or someone I’ve met through a friend. Regardless, I’ve been made aware to censor myself and to think prior to speaking. A lesson that needs reinforced, unfortunately for me, frequently!

    • Z. says...

      I live in Los Angeles and, as an immigrant woman with a heavy accent, am asked a form of this question myself with a variety of intentions. So, when I am curious about someone I’ve met recently, my question is “are you from LA?” I don’t like making assumptions or playing guessing games (don’t enjoy it when people do it towards me either) and I think, if the person feels like it , they can give a short or detailed answer.

    • K says...

      i echo the comments, honestly i don’t mind the question when there aren’t physically threatening or sexual undertones.

    • Mado says...

      As a mixed Latina i got this question so much growing up (from kids and adults). I like what other commenters have shared, but i would add, be aware of who you are asking this question in front of (bc kids probably won’t understand the nuance), and as a white person, maybe get comfortable with not getting to know everything (which it seems like you personally are trying). Your curiosity doesn’t always have to be answered by POC.

    • Johanna says...

      You have received a lot of lovely replies. I’m white myself and I had the chance to think about this with a diverse group a few years ago. What has helped me is: a) thinking about what I want to know b) why I want to know that and c) then being specific when I ask.

      ‘Where are you from’ is so broad and vague and full of plausible deniability (presumably why it’s often used). There are lots of better variations that don’t put the burden on the respondent to figure out what you’re implying, which can really mentally exhausting. So I think it’s nice that you don’t ask that when you want to know someone’s ethncity.

      Personally, if I’m making small talk with a stranger, I might ask: “where did you grow up?” or “are you from London [insert your current town] originally?” If I’m chatting with a traveller, the question is: “where do you call home?” And, absolutely — if I’m having a personal conversation with a friend, it might be: “what is your ethnic background?”

      But what/why you want to know is important, IMO. That man didn’t need to know her ethnic background to have a brief chat with her. He should have asked himself WHY he felt the need to know that. If he had a white cashier what would he have asked? If the questions you would ask a white stranger are markedly different then what you would ask a person of color, that’s an area for reflection. (To be clear: I’m not advocating for color-blindness, but suggesting this as a thought experiment to reflect on how we operate on our interactions with strangers.) It’s totally human to be curious about people’s backgrounds – but it’s also human to be curious about lots of things! When we ask these questions only of people in certain groups, it may feel like a small interaction to us. But collectively we’re placing a large burden on them.

      I believe this also relates to questions that queer, trans and/or disabled people are often asked by strangers.

      Lastly, it’s SO important to accept people’s answers! If someone says ‘Chicago’, the appropriate response isn’t: “Oh, then where are your parents from?” It’s: “Oh, I love Chicago. How did you like growing up there?”

    • Yael says...

      The question shows ignorance about the history of American racist immigration policies and racial discrimination against Asians here. Please educate yourself about this history and understand that many live under the presumption that they should not be here, do not belong, and can be singled out for violence and harassment due to their appearance at any time.

    • Raquel says...

      I’ve been reading these comments and noticed that usually there’s no curiosity about the “ethnic background” of white people. If you are only curious about where POC are from, that, alone, tells you a lot. Just don’t ask. Ask where they live, if they are originally from the town you too are, that’s it. Sit with your curiosity because it’s not our obligation to satisfy it.

  112. maria says...

    The correct answer to anyone asking awkwardly where are you from is to ask where THEY are from. I am Caucasian and while born in Europe grew up in the US to US parents. But I have an exotic look due to a mix of Eastern European and mediterranean bloodlines and have had this question My Entire Life.

    I always answer them because by now I understand their curiosity is a natural, healthy interest but I ALWAYS make sure to also ask them what their heritage is because it effortlessly underscores that all US residents are immigrants. And they get it. And it is not a passive aggressive thing it is a cultural/social exchange and I recommend it highly in the name of peace and goodwill.

    • maria says...

      PS: sadly the sexual harrassment happens to all women – but I realize the racist blend is particularly toxic.

      We must teach men to let us handle it but for them to have our backs if we need them. I once had a boyfriend nearly crush a man who was dumb enough to comment while we were walking to a restaurant one evening. I was young and beautiful (and totally normally dressed: pants/not even a dress/minimal makeup) so that happened nearly daily and I always just ignored it because what else are you going to do? His reaction to this, which I had to explain to him was an ordinary occurrence, was eye-opening for me.

    • Sarah says...

      Hi Maria:

      All US residents are not immigrants. Some were brought here as enslaved people (like my husband’s ancestors), and others, like my family and other tribal members, are indigenious to this land. Please listen to the author when she explains how this “others” her, and don’t make this about how the question does not personally offend you as a white person.

    • CS says...

      That’s helpful, thank you.

    • Zima says...

      I feel the same. I am a Croatian living in the UK and have a particularly difficult name for Anglo-Saxon speakers. I appreciate the question “Where are you from?” much more than when people brush over it with a generic and blatantly false “Oh, how…beautiful!”, or when they do not ask so as not to offend me. I am never offended. Very proud of my heritage and bring on the questions.

    • Irina says...

      I’ve been doing exactly that in recent years. My experience is a bit different in that I don’t stand out based on looks (can pass for a white American, maybe with Southern European/Mediterranean heritage) but I am actually an immigrant from Russia, with a common Russian first name and a less common last name, and have a pronounced accent when I speak. So people assume I’m “one of them” and then I open my mouth, or have to give my name, and that’s when the “where are you from?” – “no, but where are you originally from?” questions come in. I usually explain that I was born in Russia and then turn the question around and ask, “How about you? Where are you from?” Because people love to talk about themselves, we usually end up talking about their heritage rather than mine. I get to learn about them, and it takes the attention off of me and feels more like an equal exchange than me having to explain/justify my being here.

      I understand, though, that it is different for Asian Americans, many of whom are truly “from here” and feel more American than Asian. Being “othered” based solely on looks must feel awful.

    • maria says...

      @ Sarah I do apologize if the comment came across as selfish or ignorant of the OP’s experience. I 100% meant to say “except for Native Americans and those brought here via slavery” but in my rush to post it was left out. Thank you for including that point so it is clearer. I clumsily tried to specify “US residents” instead of saying “Americans”, to indicate the that native Americans were exempt. I know the indigenous do not refer to this continent as “America” but don’t actually know what they call it.

      Lastly I used to find people asking super irritating until I matured and realized that they were just being curious and I wanted to share how I processed it in a healthy way that hopefully helped. It was never about me but how my experience might add to the conversation of how we all process this type of situation in all it’s variations. I’ve learned so much from how others, especially how Black Americans deal, that I wanted to share the ways I’ve been able to help heal the awkward weirdness that surrounds us all.

      Welp, I feel like this comment is just a mess because it is difficult to communicate about the nuances and assumptions are so often relative. Anyway thank you for pointing out the gaps in my comment.

    • Hi Zima,

      My perspective as an Asian American woman is that Asian americans generally don’t mind curious questions either, and are proud of our respective heritages like you are, but “Where are you from?” (especially if we have American accents and are therefore clearly not immigrants, implying that the other-ness is based on our non-white appearance) implies that we are not Americans, with the same cultural values and rights as them. Often the response we receive if we respectfully inquire back too (as Maria thoughtfully suggested) with “What is your heritage?” is “Oh, I’m from here” or “just American” revealing that their question was very much predicated on the assumption that non-white people are not inherently American like they are, or some state of inferior exoticism. It may have been well-intentioned, but for us it contributes to a dehumanizing culture that escalates into fetishization of Asian women by western men, it subtly tells any children present that Asian people are not fellow Americans, and it does nothing to open discourse that might dispell stereotypes that the curious inquirer may have.

      Even if you are not personally offended by that language, please reflect on the fact that it does have impacts on others, and that correcting inquirers to discuss your “heritage” or “ethnicity” instead of “where you are from” has far-reaching impacts beyond your own experiences and feelings because the language they use with you is what they will continue to use WITH others and ABOUT others. That is the very valid experience/perspective that Elysabeth shared with us here.

    • Yael says...

      Yes, but not all immigrants are alike. Learn about the history of anti-Asian immigration law in the US, and you will understand the great lengths to which some groups of immigrants have tried to keep out others. If you’re in one of the groups that are discriminated against and harassed that question takes on a very different sociocultural and historical meaning.

  113. Rosa says...

    Thank You Elysabeth.

    • Christina says...

      Yes, thank you!

  114. Lysa says...

    Yup, there is so much I could share from my own experiences being a AsAm. I was talking to a coworker this morning and told her that I can no longer talk about this right now because I am reeling inside and I am angry, disappointed, hurt, sad, pissed off, and I am so done with this that I can no longer talk about it without possibly hurting someone, or myself (not physically). I worry about my parents, I worry for myself, I worry for my daughter. I worry for our Asian community. And I wonder, where is that high level of concern and support, I have been called to support and show my allyship by so many and yet I’m still waiting for it to be reciprocated in the same manner.

  115. Jamie says...

    Thank you Elysabeth for sharing your story. I know how you feel, as I know many other Asian women do – the invisibility of who we are, the constant sexualization of us. I am so tired of feeling this way, and I am so upset that there isn’t a larger structural or even cultural movement to address the inequity and the violence.

  116. Diane says...

    This. You nailed it. Thank you.

  117. Erica Chiu says...

    Thank you for sharing what many Asian American women experience as part of daily life. I have experienced many of the same types of interactions and am SICK of it.

  118. cherry says...

    this is something i have struggled with and i would love to hear some other perspectives to help me clarify my own. sometimes it feels to me as if micro-aggressions are well-meaning on the part of the other person, and that being prickly about them alienates people who are trying to do better. there has to be a better way to educate people. like, isn’t there a part of the story where it’s kind of nice that the old man tried to speak in a culturally/ethnically accurate way? i honestly feel quite torn about this and i hope nobody will rip this comment to shreds, though i know that frustration response is warranted as well. i will say that i am a first generation indian immigrant who has lived in suburbian america for all of my formative years and have experienced plenty of this type of comment myself, so I’m far from presenting myself as some white apologist

    • Amanda says...

      Hi Cherry – for this example, my feeling is that the man doesn’t see a human being, he sees someone who prompts his own pleasure at (1) guessing what kind of East Asian he’s seeing (2) knowing a greeting in another language. The interaction is about him, not about a genuine interest in another person. The man is using the interaction the satisfy his ability to guess another person’ ethnicity.

    • Alicia says...

      For me, I think it’s due to my experience in America that if that old man was standing in front of a white person, they wouldn’t try to guess what “european ancestry” that person has. “Oh, you’re 50% French? Bonjour!” From that context, having a shallow “everyday” conversation where the “polite” question is “where are you really from?” isn’t polite anymore. You’re deciding from my appearance to change your “small talk” script, and that bias is implying that I don’t belong here, that my presence is foreign even if I’ve been in this country for longer than I’ve been anywhere else. Granted, as a second generation American, I may feel more strongly about this than you do, because maybe at some point in your life, you didn’t identify as American, and so it’s okay to ask that. But someone who’s always identified as American, it’s kind of insulting.
      I do sometimes make exceptions where if someone who’s clearly an immigrant asks me “where are you from?” because they’re usually trying to find common ground. Another time where I think it’s fine to ask is if I bring up information about my background first in the conversation. Context matters. But often, the people who ask me that question just bring it out of nowhere, and think a way to connect to me is point how I’m different than them, and make it sound “exotic”. To me, that’s not okay.
      Something that I view as still debatable but we should talk about among minorities, is the “intent vs impact”. In my opinion, yes maybe the man had good intent, but that doesn’t excuse the negative impact it had on me in my experience. Bringing up these stories and explaining why it has a negative impact will hopefully educate the people who have “good intent” and avoid creating these negative experiences in the future.

    • Calla says...

      I think that’s such a good distinction Amanda. While I don’t think I’ve ever done something so brazen as that man, I’m going to keep this in mind as a quick check before I bring up ethnic/cultural issues. “Is what I’m about to say in service of the other person and making them feel seen or is it about displaying and gratifying my own knowledge or ego?”

    • Patricia says...

      I am wondering the same thing.. and I’m not white.

    • E says...

      A better example of someone trying to speak in a culturally appropriate way would be for a colleague to really try to get the pronunciation of of name correct, even if it’s one he hasn’t heard before.

      Unfortunately the author didn’t have the freedom to educate him in this case because he was the customer (like how a waitress can’t educate a guy who’s complimenting her figure about what creepy behavior is).

    • Charlotte says...

      Amanda, I really appreciate the distinction you articulated so clearly. I think a similar example (albeit gendered, not racial) is a refrain I’m sure many on this site are familiar with: men telling women to smile. While on the surface it seems benign (smiles are friendly!) it ultimately dehumanizes and reduces women to be the object for men’s desire, pleasure, etc. When I read about Elysabeth describing her experience, it resonates with me in a very similar way.

      It’s also interesting to consider my partner’s reaction when I once mentioned these kinds of interactions in passing. He was shocked– what a bizarre thing for a stranger to say! And this happens… regularly?! He cared that it bothered me but also found it so completely absurd. I think that’s another facet that distinguishes micro-aggressions from regular placid discourse: they’re specifically directed towards a set group of people– so much so that those outside of that group find the idea of it being an aggression as silly. Being male, my partner hasn’t been told to smile by a stranger in his life. Similarly, as a white person, I can literally only remember being asked my ethnic background by an acquaintance once, and I have fond memories of it as a sweet interaction. If it was a question I was asked regularly, my impression would be completely different.

      I really appreciate Elysabeth’s (and so many others’) bravery in bringing their experiences into public discourse. It is my sincerest hope that by shining a light on and reaffirming such experiences we can make meaningful strides towards empathy and understanding.

    • Kate says...

      Hi Cherry, I have heard these types of situations referred to as “smiling racism”. I do believe that in some cases it really is coming from a place of genuine curiosity, but it is also an act of ‘othering’ the person. My ex-partner immigrated from the Middle East and is part of the Indian diaspora and it irked me SO much when people would ask him, “So where are YOU from?” But he told me he didn’t mind it, he liked telling curious people where his accent came from and all about where he grew up. But I also think it depends on the context as I have another South Asian friend, born and raised in Canada, who HATES being asked where he’s from. For him the only answer is Canada and if you probe further, the next answer is None of Your Business. Or if he dresses up as anything for Halloween he gets, “Oh, you’re Brown Batman!” No, he’s actually just Batman. It’s a way of singling someone out, intentional or not, and especially as someone like my friend is often the only person of colour in most settings he does not need to be reminded that he looks different. As he has said many times, he is already well aware.

    • cherry says...

      thanks everyone, I really appreciate these thoughtful replies, and I totally get the (incredibly articulate and clear) distinction that Amanda lays out. next question – now I’m thinking specifically about the “othering” concept that Kate mentioned above. I wonder what the right move is, then – I absolutely get feeling “othered” when I’m asked where I’m “really” from. but would it be preferable for someone to act “color blind” towards me? and then it brings the intent vs impact piece into focus in an interesting way. even if you mean well, you can cause harm, but you can cause harm to people of color either way depending on their personal leanings (which is true for everyone), so what should we as confident and educated advocates for ourselves ask for? that people should attempt to not ask or do anything to people of color that they wouldn’t to a white person? but then aren’t we choking out some natural curiosity that could be a really good thing to share? loving all the feedback so far and really looking forward to everyone’s responses. I know I think about this stuff a lot and haven’t come up with any perfect answers

  119. Alicia says...

    Thank you Elysabeth for sharing. It’s painful to relive these moments, but necessary to share with others. I remember as a child being told that Google knew more than me how to say “Happy New Year”, everyone laughing when the secretary over the intercom mispronounced a classmate’s Chinese name that sounds awful when pronounced the English way. And as a child, I’ve been told to ignore and just work harder, and eventually you’ll earn the “respect” and “belonging” that somehow other people that don’t look like me just get to be born with in this country.
    Right at the beginning of the pandemic, I got on a bus to hear “Chinese”, and turned prepared to defuse a racist situation. The two drunk guys who uttered the word assumed my attention gave them permission to make sexist remarks about me, talking about how my figure was “curvy for an Asian woman”. Even now, there’s a part of me that blames myself that my fear of being on the receiving end of a hate crime led me to being vulnerable to a possible sexual assault, even though I know logically none of my treatment was my fault. It also really opened my eyes that any axis a person is a “minority” is another axis they can be attacked, and we need to look out for our friends and fellow humans who are minorities on the multiple axes, gender, race, sexuality, etc.
    A lot of us minorities have had similar experiences, and so when the attacks rise, we often don’t have the energy to fight back to the fullest potential, we also are trying to stay safe and take care of the scars that keep getting ripped open again during these moments. Please check in with us, and stand up for us. We can’t do this alone.

  120. Elena says...

    Thank you for sharing your story, Elysabeth! I’m also an Asian American of Korean descent and I have been in your shoes before. I, too, felt like being seen or acknowledged would bring attention to my “otherness”, my fetishized “exoticism”, and assimilation/silence felt like a protective cloak. But my invisibility has not been protective – it’s simply left me without a voice. I’m angry and resentful and am trying to use this anger to empower myself and others. I will teach my niece to be strong, proud and to have a voice. And help others who need their words and experiences amplified and elevated.

  121. Kim says...

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    My heart aches for how much we still have to do to get rid of hate.

  122. Jen says...

    Thank you for amplifying. I see you.

  123. Joanna M. says...

    Thank you for your words, Elysabeth. I can relate to your experience with micro-aggressions so clearly. Just one recent example: last summer, I went to the beach with my mom and her close friend, and an old white man decided to strike up conversation. He told us he liked to eat kimchi and about his experience with Asian women. How awful. I appreciate you and the CoJ team speaking out about this.

  124. C says...

    Powerful, thank you for writing this Elysabeth.

  125. Rusty says...

    I was in hospital and the nurse was Phillipino-Australian. The woman in the next bed asked her where she was from.
    She answered, “Oh, I caught the train from Armadale. (a suburb)”
    Perfect!

    • LJ says...

      Love it!

    • Sophie says...

      People from the Philippines are Filipino/a/x.

      If you’re going to highlight someone for rising above casual racism, please also acknowledge them by spelling their nationality correctly.

  126. Jill says...

    What an ugly truth.
    As a member of the human race, I find this appalling behavior toward my fellow members unconscionable. It is truly one of humankind’s lowest forms of despicable character traits.
    It leaves me with a sick stomach.
    I am a forgiving person, all in all, but this sort of behavior will take me a long time to forgive, and I will never forget how you, and other non-white human beings, have been treated.
    And, also…………I’m MAD. Time to help make changes!
    Thank you for your perspective and information, Elysabeth.

  127. Olivia says...

    Thank you for sharing. These issues need to be heard, be shared …. I do feel scared for myself, my elderly parents, my friends, my family … is it safe as an Asian American. A place I call home doesn’t feel safe right now.

  128. Katie says...

    Thank you for being willing to open up and share your experiences, Elysabeth.

    • Lael Dalal says...

      Thank you for sharing these awful memories and current feelings. I am so upset and angry for you, and by the ignorant way the media is telling the story of the hate crime. I am so glad you shared so people know this is not new, and yes this is *indeed* racism. Thank you.