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Where are you from?

I wrote this after hearing about the concept of narrative burden in 2006 at an adoption conference.  For me, explaining where I’m from as an adoptee is sometimes annoying because, despite what most folks think, answering the question is not an easy task – A.J. Bryant

“Where are you from?”

It seems like an innocuous question, but for an international adoptee it’s a complicated one.

My typical response, “Madison, Wisconsin via Central New Jersey and I’ve lived in DC for about five years.” Which elicits a frown, or quizzical facial expression of the person asking and their follow up question becomes “where are you really from?”

I assume they ask me the “really” part because my skin is brown, but my English is sans an accent. So I clearly must be leaving out some detail(s) from my origin storyline and this confounds them. Most of the time, I’m in a good mood, happy to converse with total strangers (I do this quite well as my friends will attest) and so I continue along. “Well actually I’m from India and was adopted.” But other times, I don’t want to share my life story with people I’ve never met and don’t feel like it. So I repeat the Wisconsin, New Jersey, DC spiel and leave them perplexed.

A few years ago I attended a conference made up of entirely of international adoptees and I heard for the first time a great term to describe the “where are you from question.” We named it the “narrative burden.” What an apt description.

Everyone else can get away with a simple one or two sentence answer that sufficiently satisfies the questioner, but for the adopted person of color, that’s nearly impossible. It can be a burden for us.

How much information is too much information? That’s a question that each individual adopted person has to decide for themselves. I don’t fault the person asking the question at all. It’s one of the most fundamental in small talk. What annoys me, is when I clearly do not want to continue the line of questioning, they can see this on my face and yet insist on pushing the issue. I’m nearly always willing to talk about being adopted, with anyone who wants to listen, but sometimes I don’t. However, for some reason, people think when I don’t what to delve into my history that I’m being rude. My story is a convoluted one, and if I don’t want to share it with you, that’s my prerogative.

With people who I’m talking to from the Indian subcontinent, it’s even more difficult. After we get to the “where are you really from” question, I don’t usually say I’m adopted from India. I reply that I was born in India. Oh, but it does not stop there. “Where in India are you from?” or my personal favorite, “You don’t look Indian, I thought you were Middle Eastern, or from somewhere in Africa.”

Then we move to the questions of lineage. “Do your parents still live in India?”-technically the answer is yes. But I say “no.” Then they ask me how often I get back to India to see my family. I reply that I haven’t been since 2001, but conveniently leave out the fact that I didn’t visit any family in 2001- because I have no family I know of there.

Sometimes I blunder revealing that I’m adopted from India when I’m talking to Indians – this is a large mistake on my part, which opens a whole new line of queries. “Where are your real parents?” I smile, even though I absolutely hate it when anyone asks me where my “real” parents are. My parents who raised me are living, breathing creatures, and so they are my real parents. What these folks want to know is where the people who created me, my birth mother and birth father are now? For that I have no answer.

This can get really frustrating for me. At this point I feel trapped and on the defensive, and it all started with “where are you from?” Sometimes, it continues, if they ask my name. Usually I say A.J., which they frequent hear as the Indian “Ajay” and out pops the last name question. When I reply “Bryant,” it’s a flurry of questions. “Bryant, that isn’t an Indian name, how did you get that name? I thought you were from India.” Ah, the narrative burden, gotta love it.

Usually I just laugh off the last name vein of questions, and say something about the British formally ruling India, why would my Anglo name come as such a surprise. They smile and sometimes chuckle. The interrogation is over, and I thankfully am done.

“Where are you from?” Be careful when you ask us the question, it might be a half hour until you get the answer.

6 Comments on Where are you from?

  1. Hi AJ,

    Nice post. I agree with you about the narrative burden for the most part. I guess while the question where are you from is part of of small talk, clearly when others ask us non-whites (especially to those of us who are Asian) this question they are presuming and pointing out a few things. One of them being that we are not American and the other being that we are not white — “othering” us. I am not saying these two things are always taking place at the same time, especially if it is a non-white asking us this question – but usually one or the other is occurring.

    For me it depends on who the person is talking to me the way I feel about this question. Normally I can get a vibe whether or not the person has sincere (really wish to get to know me on a deeper level) or straight out creepy intentions – or the vibe that they are just using this question to satisfy their own curiosity. I guess most of the time I just go on this vibe.

    I think a lot of it comes down to ignorance and just straight up impoliteness – at least in America. Okay, so maybe you can’t hate a person for ignorance or for trying to make small talk . . . but I really think there is a difference between someone making small talk because they are maybe shy to get to know you, stuck in an elevator with you, or someone who is just arbitrarily coming up to you and asking you this question (rudeness). Sometimes when we make small talk we want to start a conversation with another person who we are generally interested in getting to know. However, it becomes a problem when the person making “small talk” is just bombarding you with questions to satiate their own curiosity – and then it is not really a conversation but more like a one way street. This is really rude and honestly I don’t think when people are asking whites (or blacks for this matter) these questions out of “small talk” they are doing either of the two aforementioned things . . . “othering” or in some way assuming they are not American.

    Sorry, I don’t mean to be nit-picking at your post, I’m really just letting my brain barf all over it ^_^

    Also, for me I feel a difference when I am asked this question in Korea or America. It doesn’t feel like the same “narrative burden.” I can see why Koreans would be curious and ask whether or not I am Korean. I look Korean but I don’t have a Korean accent or hardly speak any Korean. It doesn’t really bother me a whole lot, while there still needs to be more adoption awareness here, when Koreans are wondering if I am Japanese or Chinese . . . what else would I be? Ok, an adoptee . . . but I can explain to them simply and immediately they understand. Also, sometimes it’s followed up by the question about whether or not we have found our parents – but they are not using anything to say something like “real” parents, etc. Maybe because Koreans will generally say we all have Korean blood (whether they believe it or not) that it is already acknowledged that our Korean parents are legitimately our parents, to. Really I don’t know.

    OK. Those are my thoughts.

    Hope you are well,

  2. HI Rae
    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I’m glad you took some time to write out your experiences and opinion.

    I agree with you that a person bombarding someone with questions is not actually making “small talk,” it’s more of an interrogation. I hear you on the vibe thing as well, but as a guy I guess I don’t ever feel “creeped,” out by the question, though I can understand why a woman would. I am ok with people being curious, as curiosity can make life experience richer. Also I can’t think of a single time when when someone came up to me without any relational context asking me this question. It’s always after I’ve already engaged someone talking.

    Lastly I find it interesting that you feel differently when talking to people in Korea about your roots, as opposed to in the States. For me, Indians are more obnoxious about this question than Americans are. It seems as though they can never take an answer at face value and constantly dig deeper. Perhaps it’s “easier” for you in Korea, because Koreans have a much better understanding of adoption and it’s part of the overall adoption awareness that Koreans have, which India does not. Both cultures place a premium on family ties and I think for me, not being able to definitely point to any blood relative in India, makes me a “no one” in their eyes. . You can say you’re an adoptee to a Korean and they generally get it. I say that to Indians and they have WAY more questions. I’ve come to peace about this more as I get older, but it was a harsh reality when I lived there last year

  3. Good post, just don’t like the font you’re using, it’s hard to read FYI.

    • Thanks, Jill! And thanks for the feedback about the font. We’re going to be making changes to the website soon, and will make note of this — Kevin

      • Mary A. Coyle // February 16, 2012 at 7:35 am // Reply

        Kevin and AJ:

        I’m glad that I found your website. As an adoptive mom of now 2 teenagers, I enjoy getting your feedback. I don’t know if you remember me, but I worked with ASIA where we adopted our children from (Korea), and now they are Children’s Home Society. I have worked for many years at their Culture Camp. AJ, that is where I heard you speak several times. Kevin, I have wondered where you have been. I hope all is well with both of you, and look forward to hearing from you again. Keep up your good work here–we all need it.
        Mary Coyle, Ashburn, VA

        • It’s great to hear from you, Mary. Yes, I’m alive and well, but I’m a bit of pain in the butt for CHSFS 😉 (They’ve had it coming to them for a long time…) Take care, and I hope your family and you are doing well, too — Kevin

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