During my sophomore year at The College of Wooster, I went to Lowe’s to get some bolts to fix my futon. I went by myself. I quickly found what I was looking for and went to stand in line at the cash register.
Suddenly, the man in front of me turned around and looked me up and down before asking, “Where are you from?” I told him Granville, Ohio, since this is where I have spent the majority of my life, 17 whole years.
“No, no,” he said, waving my answer away with his hand, “Where are you originally from?”
Of course, this was not a new question. I have heard it before and I know many others have too. I answered honestly, explaining that I am adopted from China.
His eyes seemed to brighten and he exclaimed, “Oh, you’re one of them throwaway babies, aren’t you?”
I was completely, deeply shocked. I just stared back at him while his son continued to load two-by-fours onto the register. Nobody said a word and it was the most painful thing. I have never felt so alone — especially in my own country.
It is hard to identify with a place, group of people or even a nation after such hurtful and disorienting interactions. This moment, although probably less than three minutes in total, has stuck with me for years.
“Where are you from?” is essentially an indirect way of asking, “Who are you?”
The question itself is fair enough — it’s human nature to categorize and understand everything around us, even other people. However, the subsequent dialogue and even interrogation of another’s identity can be disrespectful, upsetting and even harmful.
We need to remember that immigrants are not the only ones who need to confront and navigate this concept of identity.
Whole nations, especially the United States, which has historically been defined as a settler society, need to confront their national identity as well.
As the world is becoming increasingly globalized, we need to take another look at how we define national identity and why. As humans shuffle from place to place, they inevitably diversify the new areas to which they move. Identity, culture, knowledge and heritage are all things that can be shared between immigrant populations and native populations.
Immigration represents an important circulation and exchange of human experience and is a phenomenon to be celebrated, not repressed.
The narrative of the immigrant identity is one that remains dynamic and diverse in today’s world.
Ultimately, I hope that someday soon, when an Asian American girl says she is from Granville, Ohio that such an answer is enough: That we, as a nation, can believe her reality.
Kito Ashbey, a Contributing Cartoonist for the Voice, can be reached for comment at KAshbey17@wooster.edu