Efo means “where” in Hebrew.
Ambika is from Connecticut. Eric is from Canada. Jessica is from Washington D.C. I’m from California.
On the first day at one of our schools, the principal introduces the four of us to one of the administrators. We introduce ourselves. He then asks where we’re from, and we reply “Boston”, since we’re all currently attending MIT. He asks again — “no, where are you FROM?” Assuming he means where we lived before college, I say, “California. San Francisco.” He shakes his head, frustrated, and points to me. “China?”. He points to Ambika: “India?” He points to Jessica: “China?” We all look at him tentatively. I say, “I guess?”. He smiles, as if having solved a puzzle, and confidently declares, “Yes. China. India. China. America”, pointing at me, Ambika, Jess, and Eric in turn. Never mind that the only one of us who isn’t from the United States never gets further interrogated about his country of origin, but that the three of us who were born in and grew up in the United States are denied recognition for our identification with our country.
Episodes like this — which happened almost every time we met someone new in Israel, be it a taxi driver, shopkeeper, or tour guide, began to annoy me. But my question for myself was, why? I discussed this with Jessica, who is a much more kindhearted and forgiving person than I am. She told me that people just wanted to start a conversation, and “where are you from?” is a pretty easy way to do so. But if the high school administrator (and everyone else who this happened with) had wanted to start a conversation, why wasn’t “I’m from California” a good enough conversation-starter for him? I doubted it was because he were thinking “No, I can’t make a conversation around you being from California. I know nothing about California. I must delve deeper into your past, to find your ethnic roots, to find something I can talk to you about.” After all, he was perfectly happy wrongly classifying Eric as American, and leaving it at that.
I think that’s exactly what pushed my buttons — that in their eyes, I’m not allowed to be American because I don’t look American (read: white). I’ve never had people tell me this before, because I’ve been lucky enough to grow up in the multiracial, ethnically accepting Silicon Valley and then go to a multiracial, ethnically accepting college. Even when I go back to China, the answer of “美国” (America) is enough to answer questions of “从那儿来的?” (Where are you from?). I do have a pretty atrocious accent when I speak Mandarin, after all — they could never accept me as one of their own. (The only exception is when a few middle schoolers I was teaching told me I must be 黑人 — black — because I wasn’t fat enough to be American, and spoke Mandarin too funny to be Chinese, and I was really dark-skinned. I found this hilarious.) I was especially surprised that I’d find this narrow-minded view of “what an American looks like” in Israel, of all places — Israel, which calls itself the Immigrant Nation; Israel, which prides itself on having citizens with ethnic roots all over the world. Shouldn’t Israel understand that America, similarly, is not comprised of just one kind of people — that all kinds of people, who look all kinds of different, can identify as American?
It’s not that I’m ashamed of being Chinese, or don’t want to associate myself with my ethnic heritage. I am proud of my culture and history. I travel back to China to teach, to visit relatives, to learn more about my parents’ country. I celebrate Chinese festivals; I try to speak the language; I love good Chinese food. But I am not from China. I was born in and grew up in America and I identify as American; that gives me as much of a right as the next person to say that I’m from America. That’s the beauty of this country, isn’t it?
“But they’re just curious!” Jessica tells me. “They don’t see many Asians here, after all.” Yes, the school administrator and all of the other questioners were curious. But not about my background, or they would have accepted my answer of “San Francisco, California” and not inquired further. Ethnicity is not background. What they were actually curious about was, “Why does your face look the way it does? Why do your eyes point they way they do? Why is your skin that color?” And I’m as happy to humor this line of questioning as I am of “Why do you have a birthmark on your lip?” or “Why are you pigeon-toed?” Which is to say, I’m not. I was born this way, and as different as my body might be, I refuse for it to be a curiosity or a point of interrogation for these random strangers.
I was reading on the beach outside our hotel, when an old man a few feet from me decided to strike up a conversation. “Efo? Where you from?” he asked gruffly. “United States,” I responded. “No, where are you FROM?” he asked, as just about everybody did. I answered, “California.” He then said, “You’re Chinese, right? I like Chinese girls.” I vehemently said “NO,” for the sake of not being classified under his fetishized ethnic group. “What languages do you speak?” he persisted. At this point, I started packing up my stuff, getting ready to leave. “English and Spanish,” I retorted spitefully. “Oh! South America!” he said with the same “I have figured you out” smile that the school administrator had worn. “No. I’m from the United States” I repeated as I stood up and walked away. I had had enough of the questioning, of being denied the right to identify as American because of the way I looked, of being an exotic curiosity with slanted eyes, of being “figured out”. That’s one thing I won’t miss about living in Israel.
Originally published at shalomsohard.wordpress.com on February 5, 2015.