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  • Writer's pictureSarah Tian

My Immigrant Stories: "Where are you from?"

Why I'm I Writing About My Immigrant Stories?

Thanks to the COVID pandemic, I've had the luxury of spending a considerable amount of time reflecting on some fundamental questions in the past couple of years.

"Who am I?"

"What do I want??"

"Why do I want...???"

"Why I'm I so....Why I'm I scared of...Why do I get anxious when....????"

When peeling the onions and digging through layers of answers, I quickly realize that my experience as an Asian immigrant growing up in a predominantly White country, lies at the center of all the answers.

My deepest anxieties and fears, the secret to why I work hard and my perfectionism (why my dissertation was on this topic!!!), all have roots from my experiences growing up in a foreign country as a minority.

Fun fact: A child growing up with my experience is more formally known as a "Third Culture Kid".

Third culture kids (TCK) or third culture individuals (TCI) are people who were raised in a culture other than their parents' or the culture of their country of nationality, and also live in a different environment during a significant part of their child development years.

The following story will be the first of a series of short stories on my experiences growing up as an immigrant, or TCK. This is my way to cope with my struggles (instead of paying for therapy) and my attempt to do something productive with it!

I hope my stories will make other TCKs, immigrants, or anyone who doesn't feel like they belong, feel understood, less alone and "at home".


"Where Are You From?"

“Where are you from?” is a question I get asked almost always after “What’s your name?”.

Living in Hungary, my answer was short and simple: “I’m from China”.

For the extra curious, I then go on describing the specific city and province of "Zhengzhou, Henan".

Then I quickly add on a disclaimer before they attempt to make further comments on my "hometown".

I explain, "I was just born there. I have zero memories of actually living there. I moved to Hungary when I was 5. My sense of Zhengzhou is just from my short visits during summer/winter holidays...".

In the international schools I attended, asking someone you just met, "Where are you from?" was almost second nature. Part of the fun of the international school experience was getting to know kids from all over the world and being entertained about each others' unique cultures. So hearing this question was seen as being curious and friendly, a start to any international friendship.

Interestingly, after coming to the U.S., I quickly learned that this question is not a typical conversation starter. In fact, asking someone "Where are you from?" can even be considered inappropriate or offensive, especially when the question is prompted by the respondent's race, ethnicity, or accent.

For example, if a White person asks an Asian person who was born and raised in the U.S. "Where are you from?", this can be interpreted as implying that the Asian person is not a "real" American or that they don't belong in the United States. This brought back a memory of a time I was asked this question by an old Hungarian lady as we were waiting for the bus in Hungary. I don't know if I felt hurt at the time (since I didn't know better - we were treated like a foreigner on a daily basis), but it certainly did not feel good!

But again, context matters.

In the U.S., when hanging out with my international buddies who are also NOT from the U.S., it is okay again to ask this question.

After a quiet inner sigh, I usually respond as concisely as possible: “I’m originally from China, but grew up in Hungary."

"Oh, so are you a Hungarian citizen?"

"No, I’m a Chinese national but have the “blue card” (as Chinese immigrants in Hungary like to call it). It's like the "green card of Hungary.”

"Wait, so how come you are not a Hungarian citizen?"

“Well, I did apply for it but got denied. Look, even my brother who was BORN in Hungary did not get the citizenship!”.

When I'm hanging out with my Chinese buddies, we usually ask eachother "你是哪里人?“ (which implies asking which region of China you are from) when we meet the first time. Since I speak Mandarin and certainly look like Chinese person, they naturally assume I'm from China. So, the question of "Where (i.e. which country) are you from" is naturally skipped in this context.

Usually, if there's no need for a formal introduction or ice-breaker, I don't bring up the fact that I grew up from Hungary. Later, as my Chinese friends find out where I'm really from, they are shocked and say, "Wow, your Mandarin is great! I could not tell at all that you didn't grow up in China!"


After reading this article, this simple question, "Where are you from?" no longer seems so simple anymore, eh?

Well, now you know my answer.


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