My wife was out of town. I could have cooked something for myself, but I hate to eat alone. In a restaurant, I would have still been alone. I decided to go to a church in the neighborhood, where they offered a meal for five dollars, prior to an evening service, in the middle of the week.
At my table, I sat next to Bud and his wife Eunice. The meal was alright; spaghetti, salad, pie and coffee. The conversation was interesting. Bud and Eunice were a retired couple. I learned that Bud had been 30 years in the Air Force, that he had been a bomber pilot, and that after he left military service, he had gone to seminary, and had become a pastor. Both Bud and Eunice hailed from North Dakota. Eunice said she enjoyed being a military wife, and a pastor's wife. The only thing that she found hard to do, was in her military life; having to pack everything every time her husband had a new assignment.
This casual, and relatively brief, conversation was very significant to me, because I had learned quite a bit about him, and yet they knew very little about me. They only knew my name, and that I lived a few blocks from this church. Usually, a conversation with a relative stranger meant that he or she would ask me a series of questions, and I wouldn't get a chance to ask anything. You see, I look foreign, and I am foreign-born, so the first question would be "Where are you from?"
Susan, my wife, is of Japanese ancestry, born in Honolulu, and she also listens to this question frequently. She is less sensitive than me about it, and she is very patient with follow-up questions such as "How come you don't speak Japanese?" ("Never learned it.") or "How come you have an Italian name?" ("Took my husband's name.") She has also been asked, "Where are you really from?" (The answer is still Honolulu).
In my case, I have never been confortable with that initial question. If the answer is not satisfactory, then there are follow-up questions. Then, things turn into an inquiry, rather than a conversation, and this particular encounter will not lead to a possible friendship. While the question "Where are you from?" is indeed a good "ice-breaker" for two individuals from the mainstream culture, it may not work well if one of the individuals is someone who belongs to an ethnic minority, or simply someone like me, who looks different to others. I think I'm touchy about this because I feel being denied being an American. I don't like having the sense of not belonging; the mere idea of being excluded is not appealing to me.
I have learned I am not the only one who has difficulties with this situation. I always read the Miss Manners' column in the newspaper. She has been asked more than once about the polite way to handle this persistent and recurring question. Some of her suggestions are "I'd rather not say," and "Why do you need to know this information?" Other possible answers require a long explanation why you cannot give the precise answer that is expected. That is the case of individuals of mixed heritage, of those brought to this country at an early age, of those whose parents are Americans who have lived in several countries, and so on.
Some people get very agressive, but in a very subtle way; like they don't even realize it. Personally, I don't start a conversation with the question "Where are you from?" I have discovered that eventually, once I have become better acquainted with others, that question will be answered by all parties.
When Susan got back, I told her about my experiences while she was out of town. She said she wanted to have dinner at that church soon. We went there the following week, and we kept going back. We love the company of Bud and Eunice. I guess both of us longed for some real conversation; but also it was very appealing to us to see this couple so much in love after 60 years of marriage. Susan and I, both middle-aged, become very good friends with this older couple. There was no generation gap between us and our new friends.