I was looking forward to this dermatologist appointment because I had to wait over a month to even see the doctor. I was going in for a check-up on acne and scarring, nothing too serious but something I wanted to eradicate from my body – pretty routine stuff for most young people. I was seated in the patient room wearing a paper gown, talking to the doctor and assistant about why I came in. As part of filing out the medical forms (I assume), the doctor asked me what I do. I replied, “Software engineer”. He asked, “Where?”. I answered, “At Amazon,” with a slight laugh. A lot of people around Seattle are engineers, and a lot of those engineers work at Amazon, so I was probably one of his many patients.
I assumed that was it, but then I got that question that I really only expected to get from Uber drivers, “Where are you originally from?” I was kind of confused. I honestly only attributed this question to people who either recently immigrated to America, were South Asian themselves, or just not used to seeing non-white Americans enough that they felt compelled to ask me that question. I would naively categorize the latter as not very educated, because how else could you go through so much of your life only seeing one type of people in this vastly diverse country?
But no, it was my dermatologist from a super fancy and expensive clinic near the University of Washington asking me this question. I answered, “From here”. That wasn’t the answer he wanted, so he kept probing, “Where here? Seattle?”. I said, “Yes, I grew up here.” Now I would have expected that conversation to just end there or for him to make a remark about growing up and working in the same city. But instead, of course, he had to say, “Oh wow, Seattle’s just becoming this huge melting pot hasn’t it? A large part due to Amazon. They’re just bringing people in from all over the world.”
And that was it.
I didn’t say anything at the moment and continued with the appointment as if nothing had happened. But what I wish I said is something around this:
I don’t dress differently, I don’t talk differently, I have documentation showing that I am a working citizen, and the only difference I can see between me and yourself is the color of my skin. You asking me where I’m originally from means that you don’t believe that I belong here. I must have come from somewhere else. Put yourself in my shoes for a minute — what if every time you met someone new they asked you in casual conversation where you were really from? They are asking you that because, for some reason, you look like an outsider. But you never get asked that because you’re white. And maybe you didn’t “mean” it that way, but if you think about why you asked me that question, it’s because you wanted to figure out where I came from and how I ended up here. You expect there to be an answer other than, “My family’s American. I’m an American.” And because I’m brown, it’s not an offensive question in most people’s eyes. But to me, it is. Because I’m an American, and I have shown no signs of being from any other place or country except for you assuming that my skin color isn’t “normal”. Also, Seattle, and America in general, isn’t just becoming a melting pot because of these big companies — the foundation of this nation has been to bring all types of people together from all over the world to live together under a free and just democracy. Just because your family came over at a different time than mine doesn’t make us any less American than you.
Now I don’t mean to come off as super aggressive or sensitive, which is mainly why I didn’t say anything to his face. But finding the right words to show that I’m uncomfortable by his question and for us to come to an understanding as to why is hard to do, especially in situations that you don’t expect. If you don’t think this happens that much and I’m overreacting, maybe I am. And to everyone, including myself, it’s important to catch yourself when you think that question about others — maybe you see someone at a mall, on the street, at work, driving your Uber. But instead of wondering, or asking, where they’re originally/really/actually from, remind yourself that even if the color of their skin, or their outfit, or their accent is different than yours, they belong here as much as you do.