This morning, over coffee, I was reading Metafilter and was reading this thread
about a short race/feminism/identity web comic essay called What Would Yellow Ranger Do?
. It's this great piece talking about being a minority and having to put up with the surprisingly complicated nature of being asked "where are you from?"
Because, yes, it seems innocuous, and many times it probably is, but many times, when we are asked, "where are you from?" and we say, "Somerville" or "Canada", we get follows up like: "no, I mean originally? / no, I mean where are your parents from? / no, I mean which Racial Tribe should I be putting you in, you piece of Other?" Even if that follow-up doesn't arrive, we're so used to having the question be asked in that way, that we can't help but cringe a little every time it comes up. The comic captures this admixture of anxiety, outrage and sadness so perfectly that while reading it I kept wanting to reach through my laptop and high five this stranger so hard and so many times.
And the MeFi thread (as well as this previous one
) also has some interesting discussion points where people indicate that "where are you from?" can also be asked from a well-meaning place. You're curious, you're trying to make small talk, and you genuinely want to know more about a person -- and I get and respect that, but it is kind of one of those statements, like complimenting a girl's ass or asking a goth kid to smile, that the speaker may think is innocuous but the receiver has been conditioned to take it as a trigger for trouble.
For some reason, the thread reminded me of a recent example on the flipside. Every day that I was in Stockholm, I had a different, random person come up to me and ask for directions somewhere. Usually I had to disappoint them by saying that this was my first visit, and I was still figuring out my own bearings, but I was happy to share my map with them and help them out. Yet, at the same time, I found myself oddly pleased to be asked. Because to be asked directions at least implies that the person believes (or is willing to believe) that you are from the area, and you know how to get around. You look like you belong.
I like knowing where people were born and grew up. I think that is an important part of understanding someone, but it's like asking "what do you do?" as an opening ice breaker to a stranger. It kind of screams, "I only relate to people by the definition of their occupation. I need to know what you do before I can figure out how to talk to you further."
If you start the conversation by trying to define a stranger, then don't be surprised if you get some resistance from people who spend their lives having to deal with the arbitrary definitions of others. Get to know someone by talking about the shared circumstances that somehow put you into the conversation. Ask them for directions. Make a comment about something that you can both observe. And if work or origin somehow comes up as part of the conversation, then ask about it like you'd ask about a favorite band or a piece of clothing that they're proud of. Let the person draw your attention to what they want to present of their self; and always start from a position that you're both human beings and therefore part of the same greater tribe.