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Clippings: Culture shocks in Green Mountain State

Where are you from?
It’s a question that, even in the most innocent sense, highlights a sense of alienation and non-belonging. Sometimes it’s just a question when you’re meeting someone for the first time and you know that they’ve just moved to the area. You’re just trying to be nice, getting to know them and taking the first step to welcoming them into the community.
What then, when this conversation extends further than is appropriate?
My name is Charmaine Lam. I am an intern this summer at the Addison Independent, and I am also a student at Middlebury College. I’ve lived in Middlebury for the past three years, but it is only this summer, living in a house off campus and interacting with the community outside of the campus “bubble,” that I have really felt that I am living in Middlebury, Vermont. And I don’t think I’ve ever felt this far from a sense of home.
Vermont is a nice place to be in the summer. There are events to attend, mountains to hike and swimming holes to explore. I have appreciated being able to explore and get to know the community through the stories that I’m writing for the Independent. Yet there’s something that just makes it difficult, if not impossible, for me to feel at home here.
Being an Asian American in the whitest state in the U.S., according to the 2010 U.S. Census, makes a difference.
The difference is most prevalent when I’m meeting local people or simply taking a stroll around the neighborhood. People with no apparent ill-intent will talk to me, and they will ask where I’m from.
Not just where I’m from, but invariably: “Where are you from … originally?”
Even without the use of the word “originally,” the question assumes that, as a nonwhite person, I cannot be from here. Or maybe that’s just my being too sensitive; maybe they would assume this of any young adult in Middlebury, with the looming presence of the college.
But “Where are you originally from?” — there’s another layer there.
Let’s think about the intentions behind the question.
The word “original” comes from the word “origin.” In the Merriam-Webster dictionary this word is defined as “the point or place where something begins, arises, or is derived.”
Well, all of humankind supposedly originated out of Africa. The Garden of Eden, if you’re religious. But if you want to know where I originated, I would take it to mean that you want to know where I was born. In that case, “Where were you born?” would be a much more fitting question, albeit odd in a conversation with someone you’re meeting for the first time. Instead, the question highlights the assumption that, because of my race, I do not belong to here, where you and your race belong.
When you ask me where I’m from originally, you’re also fishing for a very specific answer. You want me to tell you that I’m from some country on the opposite side of the globe, maybe even some country of which you have a preconception and some sense of “ownership” — like anime and Japan or orange chicken and China, never mind the fact that orange chicken doesn’t actually exist outside of the United States.
“I’m from the Seattle area,” I usually respond. You pause for a bit, nod, smile and then move on. The slight pause may have betrayed that this wasn’t the answer you expected, but you move on, without any seeming fluster at the unforeseen flow of the conversation.
Which leaves me the single flustered person in the room.
It’s the same when a woman clasped her palms together and bowed at me; it’s the same when a man told me that I “have a really good grasp of the English language.”
The thing with microaggressions is that they’re never performed with any apparent ill will. In fact, if you commit one, you probably think that you’re being a nice and open-minded person. You’re being nice because you’re taking an interest in “my culture,” and you’re being open-minded because you’re engaging in “my culture.” You’re being nice and open-minded because you’re doing what you can to welcome me to this “foreign land.”
Would you say these things to a white person? Would you feel this way toward a white person, even if the white person were from somewhere as different from Vermont as San Francisco or El Paso?
Probably not.
I have been speaking English my whole life. I was born in the U.S. Even in Taiwan, where my mom is from, people don’t go around clasping their hands together and bowing at people they’ve just met.
By taking a race of people or a group of disparate cultures and lumping them together, you are dismissing entire histories and identities. By assuming that a person of color is necessarily originally from somewhere else, you are alienating me and telling me that I cannot belong and that I cannot be American.
On an even simpler level, by asking me repeatedly where I’m from originally, bowing at me or praising my English, you’re only highlighting your perceptions of my differences. You’re imposing a sense of alienation and making it impossible for me to even come close to feeling a sense of home here in Middlebury, despite living here and despite having lived here for the past three years.
Think about this the next time you want to praise a person of color’s English or when you ask them where they are originally from: Would you ask the same of a white person?
Yes I’m Asian; I like Taiwanese food and I listen to Chinese music, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be American. 

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