“Where are you from?”: A simple question with a complex answer

Being a foreigner living in Japan means that you will find yourself answering a lot of questions. One of the most common questions is “where are you from”. It’s a super simple question that is often asked by other foreigners who are curious as to what corner of the planet the person they are conversing with is from and by Japanese people who want to break the ice. (After all it is one of the first 10 phrases foreign language students learn to say.)

Providing an answer to this question isn’t much of a challenging task. Spit out the name of a place, the other person usually says something like “oh really” and you’re on your way to whatever topic it is that follows. There really aren’t any wrong answers. . . . . . . or are there?

The unfortunate truth of my past experience is that there are in fact wrong answers. The odds that you will say something that someone else won’t necessarily agree with or understand are about 50/50. In fact there is even a small percentage of people that you will flat out piss off because you consider yourself “from” a place that they do not think is acceptable. This can put a person in a very difficult position. Do you answer with the place that you consider yourself from or the place that is socially acceptable to the person asking the question?

Over the years this very question has troubled me. Ok so I’m not having sleepless nights or anything but to say that I haven’t entered a social situation and cringed at the thought of being asked “where are you from” wouldn’t be entirely true either. The reason is quite simple. . . I answer with “Ginowan” and people (particularly foreigners) have a problem with that. How much of a problem you ask? Enough of a problem where people will drill me with questions like “no I mean where is home” or “where is your family” to which I continue to respond Ginowan. My choice of Ginowan as the place that I am from is not because I am some type of smart ass who has anything to prove (anyone who knows me well enough will tell you that) but because for what is coming up on a decade I have made Okinawa, Ginowan being where I have lived for a good chunk of that time, my home. My car is in Ginowan, my home is in Ginowan, my family is in Ginowan. . . . my entire life is in Ginowan. 

Of course the socially acceptable answer to this question is Boston although I anticipate that it doesn’t really matter where you answer as long as it is somewhere within the United States. Then why not just answer with Boston? Isn’t it easier just to fold under the peer pressure rather than making waves? Nope. It’s not me and it’s not home. I mean how can a person even call themselves a proper Bostonian if you can’t navigate your way to a lobster roll or give directions to the best blue plate special in town? The less comedic and more depressing response is that many of the things I remember as being “back home” are now gone. People have moved, local favorites demolished and the nice neighborhoods have edged their way closer and closer to becoming the slums. The reality is after 10 years where you were from becomes more of a memory than anything.

As much as places have changed I too am not the same person that I was, nor am I the type of person that can be represented by saying that I am from Boston. The reality, despite what anyone else will tell you, is that when you start to come in on that 10 year mark almost everything about you changes. The food you eat, crave and make will change. The clothes you wear, how you get around and how you sleep will all change. In other more easy to understand terms if you’re living in Japan as long as I have you start to become more “Japanese” in the way that you live and operate on a daily basis. This is where ‘reverse culture shock’ comes from. People find themselves going back to a place where they grew up, like Boston for example, and realizing that everyone is really loud and there is too much food being served on the plate. . . and what the hell is a cronut?

At the end of the day it’s really the person answering the question who determines what the most appropriate answer is. If you don’t want to know, don’t ask. . . . that’s my philosophy. So what if the answer is Mars, Ginowan, Atlantis or Georgia? Just smile, nod, maybe throw in a “oh that’s nice”. Why not try asking questions that don’t criticize the answer like “how long have you lived here” or “what brought you here”. If you’re not happy with the answer simple move on.


4 thoughts on ““Where are you from?”: A simple question with a complex answer

  1. It’s really so wrong that people won’t accept your answer, isn’t it – surely you should be the one who is allowed to decide what place it is that you call home! But it’s just like a lot of my friends here in Australia who were born here but their parents are from Asia so when people ask my locally-born friends “where are you from?” then Australia is not the answer that these people accept, either. Crazy.

  2. I wonder why you make this simple question so complicated. I think nobody would disagree with your home as Ginowan instead of Boston if you say so. You think people will hate you if you say you are from Boston? They simply want to know where you are originally from. You might say that there are a lot of topics they can talk about besides your origin, but you don’t want to make the conversation or people feel awkward and alienate them because of this simple question. You have your own philosophy, that’s totally cool, but this is an universal question most people ask to get to know each other even here in Okinawa or America. People just want to know you more and enjoy the conversation, right? Well, I’m so grateful to you for loving Okinawa as well as Ginowan so much though. Good luck!

    • Yuuki –

      I think you may have misunderstood what I am trying to communicate in this post.

      I absolutely agree that it is a universal question that people ask to start conversation. What I do not understand is why the answer I give matters so much to other foreigners on Okinawa. I would never alienate someone for asking me that simple question. In fact I like to meet new people and try to make friends. However, I have had foreigners ridicule and alienate me when I answer with “Ginowan”. They will either try to get me to say something different or just stop talking to me all together. I have had this happen to me many times.

      I do not think that people will hate me if I say I am from Boston. In fact I am proud to have grown up in Boston. I often answer “where are you from” with “I’m originally from Boston but now I call Ginowan home” and still people are not satisfied. Isn’t that strange?

  3. Great post! I stumbled upon this earlier when I was doing my research. I was ticked off earlier when a guy came up to me when I was shopping. His second question after ‘how are you’ was, ‘where are you from?’. Mind you he wasn’t a shop keeper, just a random guy who had a hidden agenda!
    I was born and raised in Indonesia, my mother is Chinese and my dad is Indonesian. I have been living in Ireland, Waterford for the past 12 years and up to this day I still get asked this question on a regular basis.
    When I answer them with ‘Waterford’ almost without a fail, their next one is, ‘No, where are you ACTUALLY from?’ because they can hear my Irish accent yet they see that my skin is tanned and I have Asian features. Eventually, after numerous of other related ethnicity related questions, I give in and say ‘Indonesia’, they might say something like, ‘Oh I knew you weren’t ORIGINALLY from here…’ As if it was some kind of ‘Guess Who’ game. The conversation usually end in one or two ways, they either don’t know where Indonesia is or they know someone who has been doing some traveling there or other countries near Indonesia. Either way, it is awkward.
    I understand that most people do not mean to insult me in any way by asking me this question, they are just simply curious, but this question has many implications and multiplicity of meaning whom it is asked. For me personally, I immediately feel a barrier with exclusivity written all over it after I hear these questions. My identity and other ‘foreign looking’ Irish citizens (in similar situations like mine) who have been living here for a long time are not tied to faraway places.
    This is a very tricky topic and like yourself, it’s been in the back of my mind for the past couple of years. I am glad that I am not the only one feeling this way as I am careful about expressing my thoughts with other people on this topic.
    Thank you for sharing!

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