Where Are You From?
"Orientals are rugs, not people," says my student, summing up Asian American history. As she knows, it is the common experience of all Asian Americans -- recent immigrant or fourth-generation American born, university professor or garment worker -- to be asked by other Americans, "Where do you come from?" My student knows that the question, while often benign, is never completely innocent. "Oakland" or "Oshkosh" is never the acceptable answer, and its rejection reveals at once that the question is not about hometowns. The repeated question always implies, "You couldn't be from here." It equates the Asian with alien.
The assumption that Asians are alien to America is, of course, anachronistic. Notwithstanding prehistoric migrations, or ancient sea travels, Asians have been a historical presence in the Americas since Filipino sailors abandoned Spanish galleons to settle in Louisiana and Texas in the mid eighteenth century. 1
The anachronism of the assumption that Asians are indelibly alien is occasionally revealed in a way that provokes more embarrassment than anger. In November 1996, the board of the Association for Asian American Studies held its business meeting in San Diego. After a long day of discussing the mundane affairs of state in the academic profession, academics from half a dozen universities across the country adjourned to a nearby Thai restaurant where the conversation was relaxed and lively. As the food arrived, another patron of the restaurant, a silver-haired, Caucasian gentleman in tweeds,