It was a warm Saturday afternoon seemingly created for this poolside birthday party in Singapore. Upon arrival, I set down my gift, got my kids in the water and looked for the drinks. Families were laughing and catching up around me. I soon found myself up one cup and down any friends. I was the newbie standing there awkwardly amongst the tables, wondering who to talk to and what to do next. I must admit, part of the awkwardness came from the coolness of the crowd. This wasn’t some overly chichi gathering that I could get through by secretly mocking the pretentiousness. Quite the opposite. This was a group of people who seemed really interesting and potentially awesome to know. The hosts, Tom and Jenny, are Singaporeans with the sheen of global citizens and their friends seemed in much the same group.
All of this meant that I actually paused to think before I spoke in hopes that I might come up with something clever or at least not clumsy to say.
I eavesdropped on a nearby conversation for cues. Mercifully, the lead talker drew me in. I was soon regaled with all sorts of interesting information about Singapore for my upcoming move in June. She’d been there sixteen plus years and liked it better when it was smaller and quieter. She advised me to be aware of the culture’s five 5c’s: condo, car, country club, credit card, and cash. Some people would measure me with these, she warned, but there were plenty of others for whom they didn’t matter. She seemed like one of those people.
The conversation slowed just as the food was served. Children stampeded the grown-ups on the way to the buffet table, inhaled fries and broccoli as quickly as possible to get to the good stuff – cake. Then they were gone.
I found myself standing with my new acquaintance again, wanting to get to know her a bit better but in what way and how? The most basic expat question immediately came to mind – where are you from? But to someone who lived in Singapore for so long, that seemed not only irrelevant but uncool, like wearing cowboy boots into a swank NYC restaurant.
In fact, I’ve sort of come to hate being asked that question in Asia because to answer it, I have to provide so much explanation. I was born in Brooklyn, NY and that was my last port of call before leaving the States. But I really spent most of my childhood in Western Pennsylvania. I am of Indian descent, but don’t look that way. My appearance is more Egyptian… or even Latin if you squint. My looks can be so confusing to some people that they look visibly relieved when the mystery is solved. “My parents are from Punjab, an Indian state close to Pakistan,” I’ll say and watch their eyebrows relax. Why does it matter so much?
And yet, this was the exact same puzzle I was trying to piece together with the woman beside me. She looked sort of Caucasian but also something else. She spoke like she had ties to the US but also had an Asian-ness about her. God, did I ever want to just ask…. Where are you from?
According to a Ted Talk by Yale Professor and writer Paul Bloom, this compulsion is actually biologically normal. It’s in our human DNA to classify people by age, gender, race and even a series of other smaller categories – religion, political affiliation – because it allows our brain to do some quick and efficient calculations about what that person might value. In social contexts, this allows us to calibrate our jokes, conversation topics, and other interactions towards what we assume will interest this person. Often, Bloom says, we’re even right.
The problem is, there are also plenty of examples when we’re wrong. I’ve cringed more than once at someone who heard “Indian” and started talking to me about a Bollywood movie or the Kumbh Mela. I know very little on these subjects.
But to be honest, I think Bloom might have a point. Examples like this stand out because in reality, they’re really very few. Yet, they’re often what I uphold in my mind for not overusing the question where are you from because bad encounters stick.
So I stood there in awkward silence and wondered what to ask instead. Should I inquire about her profession? This can be risky in some expat circles where the percentage of women who don’t work full-time seems higher than the norm. I didn’t want to ask that. I had no idea what books or movies she might like. I could ask where she lived or where her kids go to school but being new and possessing no frame of reference, the answer could potentially mean nothing to me. I could try “tell me about yourself” but that seemed a like a pick-up line, not the angle I wanted to take.
Finally, I just blurted out. “Do you mind me asking you where you’re from?”
I saw a familiar glimmer of annoyance, the irritation of knowing you have to provide a complicated answer for the thousandth time. And yet she did because, in the end, she’s human and this is what we do. We categorize each other at the beginning so we can get over it and hopefully on to the good stuff.
She told me she’s half Korean and half American, married an Indonesian, has a brother in the States but never really lived there. I told her my background and that I’ve never lived in India. I’ve been in China for seven years, spent almost two in London and lived on the East Coast of America the rest of the time.
The two of us took a minute to calculate this information. In that brief moment’s pause, I realized that the question “Where are you from?” is actually a wonderful door opener. It shouldn’t go away. But what should and is being updated with each new multicultural and multiethnic person is the list of categories we can put each other into. I slotted her into the “of North American-descent, Asia-loving, global citizen group” which made us instantly seem to have loads in common.
Turns out that assumption was right. She’s a photographer. I’m a writer. We passed the evening with lots more interesting things to talk about.
(Photo above by Ravi K. Jolly)