By Michelle Huynh
In fifth grade, one of my classmates asked me where I was from. I told him I was from Santa Clara. He wasn’t satisfied with my answer. I told him I was from California. He wasn’t happy with that, either. I told him I was from America.
He clarified: “No. Where are you from? You’re not like me.”
I wasn’t totally aware I was different from him and the other students. I never paid much attention to ethnicity or nationality, but at that point it mattered. I came home confused and asked my mom where our family was from. Her answer didn’t satisfy me.
How could my grandparents be from China, my parents from Vietnam and me from America? What does that all mean? What does that make me?
After that, my answer to the question was, “I’m from America, but I am Chinese and Vietnamese.” I never included that I am American. I was hoping people already knew — but it wasn’t something I could say because it never really belonged to me. I didn’t really belong anywhere, actually.
In seventh grade, I took a summer trip to the beach boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California, and it happened again. An elementary school student asked me where I was from. I said I was from America.
He replied, “No. What are you?”
I answered that I was Chinese, having learned that my blood originates from China and that makes up my ethnicity. This young boy smirked and said, “Oh, like Jackie Chan? You are from China like Jackie Chan. Ching chong? Ching chong chow mein?” all while stretching his eyes back to form “chinky” eyes.
I have never been more humiliated. I responded back firmly, “I am Chinese. But I was born in America and I am from America. I am Chinese American.”
That was the first time I said it with determination to prove this boy wrong. He laughed and stepped onto the ride. That was that.
As an adult, I am rarely asked, “Where are you from?” I assume it’s because my English doesn’t indicate I’m from a foreign country. When I am asked, I always say with indignation, “I’m from America. Just like you and just like countless others.” They usually leave it at that.
Being from California, I’m afforded the luxury of diverse communities — even more so now. But every time I am asked, before I can answer, my mind races back to those early summers. Never again will I question who I am and where I am from.
This is part of a series called #ImFrom, where members of the AJ+ community share personal stories about the question, “Where are you from?”