Colorado / Hong Kong / Social Commentary / Steve's Life

Where are you (really) from?

Where are you (really) from?

As a Westerner living in Hong Kong one of the questions I get asked on a regular basis is, “So, where are you from?”
This question will be asked at dinner parties, church functions, the workplace, and nearly any other activity where at least one other person is involved.  The cosmopolitan nature of Hong Kong means you have a lot of people “from” somewhere else and the question just seems to roll out when you first meet a new acquaintance right alongside of “So, what do you do?”
The “Where are you from?” question has become a lot harder for me to answer as the years roll by.  When I first moved to Asia more than 20 years ago I would always answer, “I’m from Detroit.”  It made sense then but as I haven’t lived in Detroit since 1990 am I really still, “From Detroit.”
So where am I “from”?  Well here are some contenders and why:
Detroit Michigan USA:  (Birth – 1990) City of my birth and still very dear to my heart.  Its where I was raised and gave me the Mid -West American values I like to think have shaped me somewhat into the person I am today. The family moved to the suburbs when I was 8 and I experienced a wonderful childhood there in the 1970’s and ’80s with great friends and great memories.  To this day I’m still a Detroit Tigers, Red Wings, and (sigh) Lions fan!
Hong Kong:  (1990 -2000, 2009-Present) I arrived in Hong Kong in 1990 for 5 months and stayed nearly 10 years.  I met my wife here and both of my sons were born here.  A formative part of my adult life was established in this city.  I have had the privilege of experiencing Hong Kong both as a territory of Britain and then later as a Special Administrative Region of China.
Boulder Colorado USA:  (2000 – 2008) Our years in Boulder were not always easy but they were special.  It was the formative years for Gabriel and he is still quick to say he is “from Boulder”.  Within Boulder though we have dear friends, a dear church family, and many dear memories.
We briefly lived in  Qingdao China in 2008 and  Gabriel would have a little fun whenever Chinese people would ask where we were from.  He would say, “From Hong Kong” often eliciting stunned reactions from the questioners.  There is a certain expectation based on a person’s ethnicity of where they are “really” from.  I know when I have attended conferences where my name tag will say I’m a participant from Hong Kong but people would subtly try to find out where I was “really” from. 
Which had me wondering; “Are white people allowed to come “from” Hong Kong?” 
I realize now in America the sensitivity some people have when other people try to categorize where they are from.  For example we tend to assume a person of Hispanic origin is “really” from” Mexico or other South American country when they were very likely to have been born and led their whole lives in the States. 

I remember once when I was working in Colorado how I asked a hotel guest, who I recognized with a very distinct Singaporean (Singlish) accent, where he was from.

“Chicago” he replied.
He didn’t elaborate and I was disappointed as I am quite familiar with Singapore and wanted to talk a bit with him about it but he said, “Chicago” in a way that indicated he didn’t want it challenged…so I didn’t.  But deep down I wanted to know where he really was from.
My children are Americans but born in Hong Kong.  Are they from America…Hong Kong… or both?  Recently I was chaperoning a school trip overseas with some of our students.  As we were entering the customs area there are electronic booths for Hong Kong residents allowing them to insert their I.D. card and thumb print and not have to enter the long immigration lines.  One of the Hong Kong Chinese students laughed and said, “Ha, Mr. Hackman now we get to go through here but you must go down there,” indicating toward the long lines at the immigration counters.
The students inserted their cards and walked through.  I smiled and inserted my card placing my thumb on the scanner.  The metal gates opened up and I “departed” Hong Kong.

Watching this, the student’s mouth dropped open and she asked in bewilderment.  “Mr. Hackman, how did you do that?”

“You do know I am from Hong Kong as well…right?”
“But …you are a foreigner.”
“I may be a “foreigner”, I answered, “but I was living in Hong Kong since before you were born.”
So where am I from?  Maybe the best answer is “lots of different places” or maybe Larry Norman said it best when he sang, “This world is not my home…I’m just passin’ through”

2 comments

Leave a Reply

  • Ahh! I love and hate when people ask me that question!

    I’m an American, born and bred in the states, and my parents were refuges from SE Asia. Whenever I am asked “Where are you from?” I’ll say that I’m from my hometown, and it amuses me how they can sometimes get frustrated with my answer (even when it’s the absolute truth). I hate when people assume that I’m from “over there” partly because I live in a predominately white community. And yet, I enjoy it because I get to correct them and expand their horizons.

  • So true… You experience the same situation there as we do here. When you are not a member of the major ethnicity you are assumned to be “foreigner”.

Related