…but really, how to talk to foreign-born Americans in general.
Like a very large chunk of Eastern European immigrants in the United States, and in New York City in particular, I moved here with my family in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union fell apart and the Iron Curtain was lifted, finally allowing us to escape. I was just a kid and my “formative years” are split with a solid emphasis on the American side.
However, while I identify as a New Yorker first and foremost, having grown up and lived here for 20+ years, my developmentally-challenged vocal cords betray an unmistakable trace of a foreign accent, and my fair complexion and facial features read as some sort of European and sometimes as Middle Eastern, depending on what make-up I’m wearing and what color I’ve decided to dye my hair that month.
This puts me, and countless others Hyphenated-Americans with whom I’ve traded “growing up immigrant” war stories over the years into a kind of cultural orphanage – we’re children of neither the Old World nor the New, not really belonging to the immigrant community, and generally ostracized by it and our families for being “too Americanized” and having all the wrong values and belief systems. And yet we’re always being forcibly distanced from and reminded of our “foreignness” by those having so many of the same early life experiences as us simply because we weren’t born here like they were.
Internally, we are Westerners – we think and speak in English, and share a common cultural history with the natives, having grown up listening to, watching, reading, loving, and being influenced by the same American media. Most of our friends are American or fellow early-childhood immigrants who identify as American. We date, fall in love, and marry almost exclusively outside our birth culture. All those nice feelings of belonging in the United States, however, end swiftly upon meeting someone new in a bar or at a party. It all starts innocently enough:
— Where are you from?
— No, but where are you REALLY from?
There have been a number of hilarious and disheartening videos online lately by the Asian-American community depicting this very question and the frustration and sometimes blatant racism that follows. Here are two recent ones:
These videos do a solid job of making fun of the stereotypical “ignorant Americans” and ridiculing them by turning the questions around to show their ludicrousness.
But I don’t want to shame anyone. So many of the people I meet are educated, liberal, and well-meaning. A lot of them know more about the current political climate in my country of birth than I do. They have the best intentions – and yet, their inevitable line of questioning into my ethnic origins dooms our new relationship to be brief, pointless, and frustrating.
I want to really explain why this is the worst thing you can do upon meeting someone, especially if you’re trying to strike up a friendship or a romantic relationship, but even if you’re just making small talk or passing the time. So here are the top most frequently asked questions and phrases people have said to me and others like me in the first few minutes of conversation, and why you should never ever say them again.
“No, where are you REALLY from?”
If you’ve already asked someone where they’re from, and they said “here” or “New York” or some other American locality, then that’s where they identify as being from. This is their culture. This is who they are and who they would like you to get to know them as. For the purposes of the conversation this person is having with you right now, that is all they would like to talk about. If you pursue this beyond what they are willing to currently share, you are, possibly without meaning to, being prying, rude, and basically calling them a liar: “You SAY you are from here, but I call bullshit, so fess up!”
You are demanding they share something intimate in a situation where, for whatever reason, they don’t feel like getting into it. What’s worse is you are dismissing their actual American identity and insisting on reducing their individuality to an immigrant label and a stereotype which has nothing to do with who they are. Wouldn’t you like to actually get to know this person instead? Then listen to what they’re saying, not what their voice sounds like when they say it.
“But I can hear an accent!”
Yes, you probably do. This doesn’t give you the right to pry further if the person’s already told you where they’re from. Pursuing this is like running into a person in a wheelchair, immediately pointing out their disability and insisting they tell you what disease or injury caused them to be in this impaired state. Or, perhaps more similarly, it’s like pointing out someone’s stutter and demanding to know where it came from.
Whenever someone points out my vocal handicap of an accent, this is what goes through my mind: “Oh wow, really? You’ve got me there, Scooby Doo! And I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you pesky kids!”
Instead, if I’m feeling particularly open and optimistic about the person’s open-mindedness despite red flags quickly rising in the back of my mind, I might say something like “Oh, I’m originally from Ukraine but I’ve lived here for 20 years”. This is meant to emphasize that yes, while I was born elsewhere, who I am and what I’d like to talk to you about is my experience here.
Unfortunately, most people stop listening after “Ukraine” and that’s when the conversation really takes a nosedive.
“Oh wow. What was it like coming to live over here?”
While I take a breather to calm the rush of anxiety and frustration that fills me even at the memory of being asked this by some random drunken stranger who I’ve just met ten seconds ago, let me just, as an aside, point out that I hate it when people compare horrible experiences which have nothing in common except being horrible. For example, “Being stalked by paparazzi feels like being raped.” Both are horrible but also nothing alike.
So it’s with this in mind that I wish I had the perfect metaphor to really convey what being asked to relive and share something so personal and intense feels like. Is it kind of like being asked to describe a rape or your parents’ divorce or a sibling’s death? No, it isn’t. But they are all equally invasive, horrible, and inappropriate inquiries, especially when you’re talking to someone you’ve just met.
Immigration is tough and painful, even in its most drama-free, sterile form. You leave your home and everything and everyone you know. You are thrust into a foreign land with a foreign language and foreign customs. Your family struggles, personally and professionally. You start out poor, on government and charity assistance. It’s a long, hard climb up. And even decades later, when you feel like you have finally assimilated, made a life here, and you are home, you suddenly find yourself being relentlessly questioned about your origins by some dude in a bar whose actions seem intent on reminding you that you are not like the rest of the people here, that you are foreign and you will never just belong.
What confuses me most of all is why someone would even ask – what kind of an answer are they looking for? Is this really the conversation you want to have in a fun social setting? Should I scream to you over the bar noise and the loud dance music about how I cried inconsolably the night before my family was supposed to leave? How we struggled and fought during our first year here? How we were forced to live — 4 angry, squabbling adults and 1 kid in a tiny cramped apartment — with family members I didn’t even know existed but were suddenly bossing me around?
Just don’t. It was painful and difficult and I don’t want to talk about it when I’m out having fun. And for god’s sake, it was a very long time ago. Which brings me to the other question I often get asked as the immediate follow-up to the revelation that yes, I was born in a galaxy far, far away but it was a long, long time ago.
“How do you like it here (in America)?”
While the previous question causes apprehension, this one just makes me laugh. It makes me laugh because I am often asked this in a slow, drawing out the words way that people talk to foreigners and small children. It makes me laugh because the people doing the asking have usually been in the city I call home a fraction of the time I have. How do YOU like it here, recent mid-West transplant whose only knowledge of New York is lower Manhattan and the first 5 Brooklyn stops of the L train? But I digress.
There are only two ways to answer this, aren’t there? I like it here or I don’t. I’m either accepting everything about this country as great and a million thanks to you as a random representative of this modern utopia for giving me shelter, or I’m an ungrateful refugee biting the hand that feeds it.
Here’s the real answer to this question, and it’s the same for every immigrant you will ever meet, so please never feel the need to ask it again: We like it the same way you do. We like certain things and we don’t like others. We get frustrated by local and national matters. We enjoy certain cultural, political and social customs. We wish others were better. We live here and it’s complicated.
Still, there are many people who want to have complicated conversations, and these conversations often take a different, though equally unwelcome turn. This is a recent development for me particularly as a Ukrainian-American, mostly because prior to the political upheaval of the past few years, most people either didn’t quite know where Ukraine was (“…in South Africa, right?”), or had no idea it was its own country with its own culture and language and history (“…so you’re Russian?” “Um, NO.”), or worse, only knew of my embattled motherland by its most popular recent national export – mail order brides.
Currently, however, Ukraine’s been on the news as the latest battlefield in Russia’s and Putin’s quest for power and land grabs, and all sorts of chatty strangers want to talk about it with a real-live Ukrainian. And in the absence of one, they fancy an American who happened to be born in Ukraine many years ago to be it:
“So how do you feel about what’s going on in (your birth country) right now? Does it make you upset? How does your family feel about it?”
It’s important to note that the above line of questions is significantly different from “What do you THINK about what’s going on in (your birth country) right now?” The latter is an invitation to an intellectual debate and a conversation. The former is the same type of rude, prying, and inappropriate inquisition as the questions about what immigration was like.
So how does it feel..? It feels sad. It feels like your childhood home is being burglarized and burned down and you are too far away and powerless to stop it. It feels confusing and isolating, because you are no longer of that country, so your allegiances are torn. Again, great topics for a party chat up.
But here’s the most important point I’d like to make about this: both the “feel” and the “think” questions, and the entire conversation in general, are forcing us down the same unfortunate limited path of interaction. Your experience of getting to know a person has become reduced to one very limited aspect of their life, and you have antagonized and distressed them by prying too quickly into something highly personal. You’re giving up on truly discovering another human being by treating them as Foreigner! first and foremost from the very onset.
It may seem to you like you’re just being curious about the person’s ethnic origins and getting their opinion about their birth country’s local politics. But to them, you’re reenacting a pattern of being only ever questioned about their ethnicity and cultural past. You’re asking them to stop having fun and access some dark, private places of their minds and memories. You’re making them feel like they should abandon all hope of sharing any actual, pertinent information or stories about who they are right now or finding some mutual interests. You’re ignoring all other aspects of their life and identity. You’re signaling that you don’t really want to connect. You’re going to have a narrow, superficial discussion. And you’re going to move on from the conversation with “that Ukrainian chick” and what’s worse, you’re going to make that person feel like that’s all they are or ever will be.
So what’s the better way to talk to someone you suspect wasn’t born in America?
Get to know them as you would anyone else you were talking to for the first time.
Ask where they’re from if you absolutely must, but if they answer “here” or indicate that they’ve lived here for a long time, leave it at that.
Don’t remind them that they’re outsiders.
Save the cultural history talk for an intimate setting down the line, when you are close and really know each other.
Talk about their current lives and interests without focusing so much on how different they are from you. And hopefully, you’ll start seeing that we really aren’t.