Three Questions To Ask Instead of “Where Are You From… Originally…”

As someone who looks Non-European, people are naturally curious about “where I’m from” and they don’t mean Michigan. So they might ask about “where I’m from… originally?” It’s awkward. The way this manifests itself in my life is a little closer to something like this:

Hey, I’m Jane
Nice to meet you, I’m Gaurav.
G, A, U, R, A, V. Gaurav.
Hi Gaurav, that’s a cool name. What kind of name is that?

One way or another, people want to know my cultural roots. They guess “What I am” in their head, feel validated when they’re right, and frustrated when I won’t give them the kind of answer they’re looking for (I’m American). It’s a weird tension that arises when meeting new people, and I’ve found myself wondering why. Why is it so important to know that my parents grew up in India? Of all the things you could be dying to know about me, why is the country my parents grew up so important?

I try to live by the mantra of, “Assume good intent” whenever possible. A perfectly reasonable person is legitimately curious about my cultural roots. They honestly want to understand me better. And the fact that I’m Indian does significantly impact who I am. You can’t really understand every facet of me without understanding that I’m Indian-American. You can learn a lot about a person from where they came from. The problem is “Indian American” merely scratches the surface of where I came from. So if you really want to know where that person you just met came from, here are some better alternatives to “Where are you from… originally…”

1. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Ann Arbor. A college town that’s quirky, friendly and homey. My hometown shapes the way I think about cities, homes and my place in a society. With half of the town employed by the University of Michigan, higher education had a certain place in my life. The fact that Borders was founded and headquartered in Ann Arbor affects the way I think about the publishing industry. Growing up in a city whose namesake references dense foliage determined a part of who I am. Ask your friend what it was like being 13 years old in Manhattan or Bangalore or San Diego or 60 miles outside of Cincinnati in the middle of nowhere. Where are the places they hung out? Knowing whether someone grew up a forest child or a city kid will tell you a lot about them. And it gives context. Growing up Indian in Ann Arbor is different than growing up Indian in Abu Dhabi or Alabama or New Jersey. In understanding a person, where they grew up means a lot more than where their ancestors did.

2. What did you look forward to most every year?

Almost every kid I’ve known has their lives defined by the annual cycle. School waxes and wanes each year and each major holiday or festival comes around once a year. Understanding the part of the cycle that little Gaurav looked forward to the most tells you something about his childhood and his background. September was the start of school year, and the month contained my birthday. It was still pleasant outside but the trees started changing their colors giving the whole area a fiery beauty. October and November quickly followed with its Halloweens and Diwalis and Navratris and Dusseras. Every weekend for 8–9 weeks we’d go to parties, dress up, dance at temples and meet hundreds of people. And in December, as the climate lost that warmth of fall, my life followed suit. Christmas wasn’t big in my family after a certain age and December felt more like the beginning of the long winter that wouldn’t let up until April. The end of winter was marked by Holi, letting up know that color was soon to re-emerge in our lives. I’m sure my feelings towards the seasons would be different had I grown up in San Francisco where October is among the hottest months. I’m sure I’d feel differently if Christmas or Easter or Chinese New Years were the most festive parts of my year. What were the holidays, festivals and seasons that meant the most to you?

3. What is something your family does that’s weird or different?

I’ve started to love that moment when you realize, “Wait, not every family does that?” I remember when a past girlfriend was shocked to see me wash my dishes before putting them in the dish washer. I know how incredibly normal my mom’s bright red convertible seems after she’s sworn by it for some twenty years now, but how it would always surprised my friends. I remember how it was totally unsurprising that for my sixteenth birthday there were 15-foot Bollywood movie posters hanging from my second floor banisters, a life-size cut out of Shah Rukh Khan and a literal red carpet laid out in our basement. Our family had a reputation; every family is known for something. And I was part of that. I’ve had friends with families who think its weird to lock front doors or to not have the radio or television playing during a meal. I’ve had friends who refer to their parents by first name. Or who cooked for their family regularly since they were 12. These ideas are so incredibly foreign to me, but so literally close to home for them, and in each one of those little quirks, there’s a lasting imprint left on the person you’re trying to get to know. There’s a little groove in their personality that makes them unique and makes them interesting.

One of the great things about these questions is that the person you’re talking to doesn’t have to be Non-European for the exercise to be interesting and informative. I’ve had a great time hearing stories from my white friends. Friends who grew up in a family who was blasé towards nudity. Or the friend who grew up tailing their dad to jazz clubs as a young child. I love stories from people who have grew up in households that took Christmas decorations really fucking seriously, and stories from people who grew up in families that were nomadic at heart. Those stories, more than any label, help me understand what makes a person who they are. Even just talking about my own stories help me understand who I am.

A short note about culture

I spent a large part of my childhood struggling with my cultural identity. I wasn’t Indian, not totally at least. My parents were Indian and that meant a bunch of things about the food, the clothes and the people they were most comfortable with. Those things didn’t apply to me the same way, and it felt wrong to group myself culturally with my parents, because we were different. In understanding my culture, my mom inadvertently gave me a framework to comprehend this complex issue when she asked me, “How will you raise your children?” She expected me to raise them Indian. To celebrate Diwali, Ganesh Chaturti and Gudi Padwa with them. To take them to the temple for pujas. To watch Bollywood movies and listen to desi music with them.

I was convinced my culture wasn’t Indian; that’s just what I was born with. No, my culture was American, subculture: Geek. At the time I was reading Wired’s Geekdad blog about raising little geeklings. I admired pictures of 5 year old cosplayers and families that fostered a fascination of science and experimentation in their homes. When my mom gave me this new framework, I started internalizing this new cultural identity. It made sense to me and solidified my beliefs around my American culture. As I’ve grown, this cultural identity has evolved and has gained complexity, but the framework still works for me. I want to celebrate Diwali with my future kids. I also want to celebrate Star Wars Day.

Culture is about being part of an in-group. It’s about the little things that make your community unique. Whether that community is your hometown, your neighborhood, your temple or the family unit, your culture is defined by what makes you a part of those groups, and how you interact with them. Each of the questions above roughly map to a different community size. For me, my hometown was Ann Arbor, my family friends were the Indian Americans of Southeast Michigan and my family unit was my brother, father and mother. So if you want to know where I’m from, ask me about my relationship with each of those groups. And the next time you’re curious about where someone came from, actually ask them where they came from.