"Where are you from?"

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by Cheng

"Where are you from?" 

I get asked this question all the time at work --  because people simply feel confused, or sometimes worried that they won't get their money's worth.
So where am I from and what do I do? Let me unfurl myself bit by bit, and you can guess and pitch in anytime you want.

This is how I look: 
I am a female who appears to be in her early 20s.

I'm 5 foot 4, 117 pounds or so, considered "skinny", "slim", or "petite" by many, yet "chubby", "muscular", or even "fat" by some.

My hair looks soft, thin, subtly wavy, and of dark brown color -- as are my eyes.

I'm not particularly hairy; in fact, I'm definitely not even close to the American idea of "hairy" -- but those who care a great deal about grooming and want to look like a 9 or a 10, would probably suggest that I get rid of the peach fuzz on my forearms.

There's nothing distinctive or worth describing about my nose or nostrils. My cheekbones are a bit high and a bit wide, but my chin isn't very pointed. No protruding Adam's apple, but I've always felt that mine protrudes more than the average female's. My ears aren't worth mentioning, either. If anything, according to some cultures' superstitions, I should be a lucky person, who'll have great longevity, because my earlobes are supple, round-shaped, and can make a good pinch-ful.

My lower lip is capable of looking beautifully full if I ever appear on the cover of a magazine, but then, to some people's displeasure, the corners of my mouth are down-turning, causing quite a few people to have asked if I was okay, or if anybody owed me heavy debts when I walked into a classroom in my college years.

I don't wear a lot of makeup, and I don't use foundation on a daily basis, but when I do use it, the shade that best matches my complexion is either "light" (the lightest color), or "light beige", depending on how tanned I am.

I've got a few visible tattoos, but when I go to work, I occasionally cover up one of my more prominent ones.

Any thoughts?

Following the Chicago PD's advice on how to describe a suspect, I've tried to describe my appearance to the best of my ability. Now, if you were to mentally draw a sketch of me, how would I look? Is it difficult to picture how I look because some key information is missing? Or, maybe not?

Well, there is one piece of information I never mentioned and intentionally left out. Whether you're familiar with the routine or not, it's very likely that you have already figured out the missing piece of the puzzle. Or, perhaps you've already made an assumption without realizing it.

Answer-checking time: The only thing absent was my "race" or my "national origin".

This is my race:
I am Asian, and to be more specific, Chinese, and to be more specific, Han Chinese.

This is my job:
I'm an ESL (English as a Second Language) / EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher in Moscow, Russia. I have students across all ages, from toddlers to middle-aged lawyers.

These are the languages I speak:
I qualify as bilingual and can speak both English and Mandarin Chinese fluently. I can speak both languages in "standard" accents. I can understand a little bit of French and am extremely elementary in Italian. And after coming to Russia for work, I've been casually learning Russian.

This is what most of my adult students say to me when they meet me in the classroom for the first time: "Where are you from?"

Although I always answer the question truthfully and gracefully, it does get to me sometimes -- not so much out of genuine insecurities as out of a trace of distrust, dislike, or even disrespect detected from the simple act of questioning and doubting a person because of that person's presumed background -- as if where a teacher was born and raised says it all about a his/her professionality and teaching capability.

I complained about the problem to a friend, and his response sounded so simple yet undeniably persuasive:
"Say, if somebody wants to learn the Chinese language and sees me [a redheaded German who teaches German professionally] standing in the classroom, of course, they will want to ask where I am from -- because it's not so usual and hence it's weird."

It all sounded so sensible, and it made me feel instantly better -- until he told me a recent experience he had had at work in China...

During the summer, he took up a temporary job teaching German at a language school in China. They were very happy that they found a "true" German German speaker, and they wanted to make things even "better" -- they offered him an English teaching position. He explained that his proficiency in English wasn't good enough. "But you look like an English speaker!", his Chinese employer said to him. Being a man of impenetrable individual integrity, my friend rejected the English-teaching gig.

Sadly, though a C2-level English speaker, I look nothing like an "English speaker", and hence have never been offered such opportunities. The only times when I was approached by students to become their personal teacher were always, with no exception, after they've sat through a 2-hour lesson of mine. Only then did I get the solid confirmation that they saw me as just a teacher, instead of an Asian woman or a Chinese lady who is not supposed to be a good English speaker in the first place.

I can explain how I, while living in Russia, only use Mandarin during my monthly Skype sessions with my parents, and how my elementary-level Russian actually plays a much more dominant role in my daily life than does my Mandarin; but alas, nothing comes close to the power of race and face.

This is my simple background: 
I was born and raised in China. This is the fact, and factually so I tell my students. "But now you're American?", they often ask. No, I've never immigrated, and I've not made an attempt to get a "green card" either.

Sometimes though, if I sense any disappointment or immediate judgment from my students, I can't help adding a couple more unnecessary but supposedly "convincing" details about my life, such as "I did my master's in London" or "I've spent a lot of time in the States because my better half is from there". Sometimes I get sucked into the fallacy, throwing my almost-overqualified professional credentials and solid skills out the window, together with all of those battle essays I read in grad school on the "ownership of English".

I am unable to predict when the discomfort caused by the mismatch between one's visage and one's social bearing can ease and cease. It's been 30 years since discussions over the ownership of English and the concepts of "World Englishes" came into the academic scope of sociolinguistics, but things have hardly shifted in the reality of people's daily lives.

The Story of Sasha
One day after class, I was stopped by the "babushka" (grandma) of my 8-year-old student Sasha, who didn't really ace in class.

In Russian, Sasha's babushka asked me if her grandson had been doing well in my class. "Очень хорошо (Very well)", I said, ignoring all the sentences the boy couldn't produce like his classmates -- I wanted to appear friendly and encouraging to the grandmother.

She then had to tell me something very important:"Саша - канадский!"

My Russian isn't very good, and at that time even worse. I didn't immediately get what she was trying to say with such excitement in her eyes.

I expressed my confusion.

"Саша, из Канады!" (Sasha is from Canada!) She said.

Oh. It turned out that my student Sasha, who I'd always thought was as Russian as a matryoshka nesting doll, was born in Canada and hence was a Canadian citizen by birth.

Sensing that she was expecting some grand reaction to her grand statement, I awkwardly replied, "Отлично!" (Wonderful!).

Well, this blonde Canadian "native-speaker" boy surely should speak better English than his Asian teacher!

This article originally appeared at https://chineseeastwest.blogspot.com. You can follow Cheng at her blog.