“Where are you from?”

19 September 2020
7 min read

"No, really, where are you from?" (In Australia this has become "what is your background?") The number of times I've been asked this question is definitely more than the number of times i've been asked my name. As someone who has grown up as a third culture kid, it's a question I've had to accept and learn how to deal with. Many a time, I've wanted to ask the person who's asking the question why are you asking? only to get a blank stare.

As humans, I can understand and acknowledge the need that we live in a world of stereotypes and survival of the fittest. If we can assign people to a group and say this is us and this is them, it helps us conceptualize what threats are around us and behave accordingly. The second episode of the Rabbit Hole podcast gets into this a little bit around how we have to decide how big is our us and what is the line between our us and them.

With the recent BLM movement, the question of race has definitely been on my mind. In our book club for last month, we read Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race, and it's definitely got me thinking about my past experiences and what it means to be a POC in the world today. I've written about culturalism before, but my recent discussions have definitely taken on a more serious angle.

One of the base questions that it really came down to was: How is my experience as a POC different from that of a white person (in America or Australia) as a young adult? It really got me thinking about the larger but also smaller daily things that might be experienced.

Disclaimer: My perspective doesn't apply to everyone and still comes from a privileged place as I've had many privileges in my life. I use the term "white people" to address all people that may be of European descent and present as "white". White privilege is an interesting concept in itself.

  • Body care - One of the first things I do when I move to a new place is find out where the "eyebrow lady" is. While a seemingly amusing concept, it is actually a test of the culturalism of the place I've moved to. Depending on the distance and cost of an eyebrow threading service, you can tell how South Asian a community might be. Economically, demand drives supply (Keynesian model), so if there is a South Asian community (or community with POCs that are hairy such as myself) then there will be salons around to cater to that. When I first moved to Sydney, I found quite a few eyebrow threading salons, but how much was the cost of the average service? $40 AUD (for comparison, I've spent most of my life paying about $10 AUD for eyebrow threading). While white people may be able to afford this service (1. economically but also 2. because they may not need to get their eyebrows threaded as often), paying $40 for getting my eyebrows threaded every month is not a sustainable practice (and I have done it once and it was even worse because their skill level was quite low).
  • Makeup Part 1 - Although there are many more skin lines that are designing for non-white skin, when I first started learning about makeup a few years ago, it was clear that I'd have to work pretty hard to look equally as fabulous as my white counterparts. As a meticulous planner, I would Pinterest, IG bookmark, and outright ask people on the street what shade of lipstick they were wearing when I liked something on them. But the catch? Everytime I tried it on, it didn't look good on me. Why? Because I was mostly asking white people. The contrast between my skin and the shades of lipstick were enough to make me look like a bit of a clown. While I have found things that work for me (Fenty, Bite, Huda Beauty), I even with to the Bite Lip Lab in San Francisco to create a nude lipstick for myself that had all the right undertones that I wanted. While expensive, it's been the most used lipstick out of my makeup.
  • Makeup Part 2 - When I started learning about makeup (which was just a couple years ago mind you), I found out that I sit between two shades of a particular brand of CC cream that I like. When the makeup counter lady asked me to to go lighter or darker, I immediately jumped to ligher. Why? Colorism. I grew up in a South Asian culture that has always condemned people of a darker skin color or tone (even if it's within the same ethnicity, race, culture, etc). Although also a historic measure of economic status for a certain point in time (you were darker if you worked out in the fields), it is clearly a type of unfair discrimination in today's society.
  • Hair - While "the bigger the hair the closer to God", the largest hair actually makes people think that the right kind of God wasn't present in your life. I have wavy super thick hair that gets frizzy quite frequently (and I've lived in humid climates most of my life). Straightening your hair to make it matte, less frizzy, and less unkempt is more socially acceptable. Studies have proven this. While this may be fine and dandy, imagine having to straighten your hair all the time to feel socially accepted. - that's a lot of effort. Imagine the amount of time that takes - that's a lot of time you could spend doing other things. Imagine the amount of damage it does to your hair - that's more money spend on hair products to help your hair take and/or recover from that damage.
  • Body shape - I have a big bust and wide hips. IF I only bought bras from Victoria's Secret, I would pay an average of $10 more because of my bust size. I often wear jeggings instead of real jeans (also I find jeans constrictive) because they can fit around my hips better. I recently came home fuming from an Orange Theory class because a very athletic young white female took her Lorna Jane shirt off to expose her beautiful LuLu Lemon sports bra. Normally, to each to their own but I was in a particularly sensitive mood that day. Why did that bother me? 1. It was socially acceptable for her to do that because she was a particular body shape and 2. I own a total of 1 LuLuLemon sports bra because they don't fit on me because they're made for petite women. Although I've grown up knowing this on some level but it really hit me that my body shape will never be the shape of a white girl, and I honestly spent the rest of the day mourning what that meant.
  • Purity - When we break the stereotypes of our race or culture, the real conversations begin. "Aren't you not allowed to have a tattoo?" "Didn't your parents meet and get married on the same day?" "Why don't you have an Indian accent?"
  • Table manners - I honestly didn't learn how to use cutlery until I went to college. I did grow up eating in a household with my hands because the majority of time Indian food was made (that is best enjoyed with your natural fork!). Fast forward a couple years later when I've had to go to fancy dinner with clients and still feel like I have the dexterity of a 2 year old in cutting my own meat and vegetables. While it's something that no one notices, I'm extremely self-conscious about it.
  • Shoe etiquette - We grew up not wearing shoes in our house. Many asian families don't. There's not really a rhyme or reason (I guess to not track in dirt). However, imagine your landlord making fun of you as a "barefoot Indian" when you asked him to take off his shoes when he entered your apartment. Yes, it happened and he was a professor.
  • Travel - random searches. Enough said. Personal example can be found here.

As I was writing this, I realized that a lot of these examples are focused on external appearance. And probably rightfully so, because that's what it feels like. While you may thing you're American or Australian on the outside, you're perceived as something completely different. As someone who has never been "Indian enough" or "American enough" (and now feeling a bit of "Australian enough), it's a constant struggle to understand what you're willing to assimilate to and for (and oddly I've written about this almost exactly 2 years ago). From dating to the way I present myself at work to the way I communicate with others, it all ties in. There are SO many more examples of differences between how race plays a role in our childhoods, perceptions, intergenerational trauma, and more. It's not simply something we can keep ignoring. If the goal is to build a better world, then we all have to be a part of it.


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I acknowledge and pay respect to the Traditional Custodians on whose land I live, play, and work. I pay my deepest respects to all Indigenous Elders past, present and emerging.

© Jun 2024 Vinita Israni
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