Editor's note: This story was originally published in May of 2021, and was recently recognized with a 2022 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
“Where are you from?”
Many Asian Americans have fielded the question their entire lives, along with the common follow-up, “No, where are you really from?”
The line of questioning contributes to the perception that Asian Americans, no matter how long they've lived in the United States, are "perpetual foreigners" in their own country.
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For AAPI Heritage Month, NBC10 Boston and NECN asked five prominent Asian Americans in the Boston area to reflect on stereotypes they’ve faced and answer the question on their own terms.
“My automatic answer at this point is, ‘My parents are from Taiwan. I live in Boston.’ Because... what people want to know, is, what's my heritage?” chef and restaurateur Joanne Chang said. “But that doesn't really explain where I am from.”
Chang, owner of Flour Bakery and Myers+Chang, grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods in Texas and Oklahoma. Typically the only Asian person “for miles,” Chang adopted her quick response to address the root of the question.
Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung is less inclined to explain her family’s history of emigrating from China in 1949 when the Communist Party took over.
“It can be an annoying question,” Leung said. The veteran journalist, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, recalled being called “Connie Chung” while covering the metro beat 20 years ago.
“I realized when I was around other Asian-American women journalists, they also got called ‘Connie Chung’ and so, it was like we were interchangeable… We were invisible as individuals,” Leung said. “Even though I revere Connie Chung, it was a slight.”
About two-thirds of all Asians, or 64%, report being asked “where are you from” with the person assuming they were not from the U.S., according to a recent survey by AAPI Data and SurveyMonkey.
For Coco Alinsug, an LGBT advocate and Fenway Health representative, it feels natural to tell people he’s from the Philippines because he was born there. That was particularly true, he said, when he first moved to Los Angeles, which had the nation’s largest Flipino population in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center.
“Maybe because I was born and raised in a different culture, that moving to another country, I thought you just had to tighten your belt and not complain,” Alinsug said. “I just assimilated. I just basically blended easily.”
Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, a mayoral candidate, said people have commented on how well she speaks English, despite the fact she was born in Chicago.
Wu, who in 2013 became the second woman of color elected to the Boston City Council, noted her generation has dealt with discrimination and stereotypes differently than her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan in the early 1980s.
“When my family would experience incidents of racism or discrimination, my parents would always tell my siblings and me just to ‘keep your head down, work harder, do not speak out,’” Wu said. “As the years went on and the question kept coming, it was just a constant reminder of how the first assumption, when many people look at Asian Americans in this country, is to assume that they are immigrants or foreign. And that is a very widespread stereotype that has led to the continued invisibility of our community.”
Chang said her heritage does set her apart and those cultural values have shaped the way she runs her bakery and restaurant as well as many other aspects of her life.
“I have been made to feel foreign, in part because I think I am a little foreign… but I don't necessarily view that as a bad thing,” Chang said. “I'm just really proud of my upbringing. I'm proud of the values that my parents gave to me. I'm proud of having an entire family tree in a different country that has an amazing, amazing dedication to family and to love and to humility.”
Tak Toyoshima, creator and illustrator of the “Secret Asian Man” comic strip, described having an intra-racial experience while growing up as a Japanese American in New York’s Chinatown.
“I blended in visually when I was going to school with all my friends, but once they started figuring out I was somehow different, I would get the question,” Toyoshima said. “Then, I’d explain I'm Japanese, which also kind of caused some tension.”
Secret Asian Man became a “visual diary,” through which Toyoshima processed incidents of discrimination throughout his childhood into adult life, to ultimately serve as a form of Asian representation in the industry.
Regardless of their experience with questions of origin, the interviewees said assaults against Asian American women and elderly people have deepened fears in the community. Leung said she has considered carrying mace and advised her mother against going out alone.
“It's an incredible moment to be an Asian American in this country,” Leung said. “I never felt this much fear in my community, for my family, for my friends; I never thought I would feel this way.”
From March to December of last year, there were 2,800 anti-Asian American hate incidents, according to the online self-reporting tool Stop AAPI Hate.
In addition, data from the Pew Research Center shows a 31% increase of Asian Americans reporting racist slurs or comments since the start of the pandemic. The issue has drawn national attention and sparked the Stop Asian Hate movement.
“Everybody is now supporting us, making this noise, in order for people to realize that it happens,” Alinsug said. “It's just sad that it had to happen to several members in our community, who have been punched or kicked or killed, just for people to talk about these things. But we live with this every single day.”
To Toyoshima, part of the Stop Asian Hate movement involves raising awareness about the model minority myth, a stereotype that paints Asian Americans as universally successful.
“Asians tend to have a pretty good higher income level, higher education level, so there's kind of this assumption that, you know, we don't really need the help or assistance or any special kind of backing,” Toyoshima said. “While some of those aren't as sexy a news story, they deserve constant reminders and attention because it's a long fight.”
How to Help
Both Leung and Wu said pandemic-related rhetoric, such as referring to the coronavirus as the “China virus,” was fueling hate incidents, but emphasized that stereotypes existed long before then.
“It isn't new,” Wu said. “So many of us in the Asian-American community have been asked this question again and again and again long before COVID-19. And there is a sense that, no matter how long you have lived here, that you don't quite belong still.”
Despite experiences of discrimination, the interviewees all articulated a love for their country.
“When I left the Philippines, my goal was to really follow my heart,” Alinsug said. “I really want to live my life as a gay man, married the love of my life, and live as happy as it could be without any pressures from families and society. So I packed my bags, moved here, and that was my goal ever since.
“I am living my American dream,” Alinsug said.
“You'll find (with) a lot of Asian-American families, immigrant families, we love America. Our parents love America. We are deeply patriotic,” Leung said.
“And to have to feel that we are under attack by our very fellow Americans, it's upsetting and it's unsettling.”
Kwani Lunis contributed to this report.