In reading my stories, I ran across a post on AAM from someone who had a variety of chronic illnesses, some of which affected her walking. She recently bought a wheelchair that helped on her worst days. The problem was that she worked in residential life and had distant coworkers (not the ones she works with intimately) asking her about it when she first broke it out. One was shockingly rude about it, and she wanted to know the best way to respond. She didn’t mind educating on her good days, but she didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with it on her bad days. Alison made it an ask the readers question, and the comments grew lively and contentious.
It’s not unusual to this topic in that people who are in the majority, in this case, abled people, not understanding that what they consider is benign, well, isn’t. You can’t know what you don’t know. You don’t have the context because it’s not part of your life, and nobody can put themselves in someone else’s shoes 100% of the time. And, if I want to think the best of people, some people truly can’t understand how insidious all kinds of isms are.
Back to the post. It’s difficult because people within the category have different ideas about how to deal with the issue because no group is a monolith. In addition, with the disability issue, there is the additional problem that if someone is on crutches or in a wheelchair as, say, the results of an accident, they want people to inquire about them as a show of care. But, several people with disabilities in the comments said it was delivery, not the actual question itself. “What happened????” was routinely disdained–weirdly, one person who as far as I could tell was not disabled, was firmly invested that this was the way to go–whereas there was more a split on “Are you ok?” Some people said it was fine as long as you accepted the answers. Others said even that was too invasive. They preferred, “How are you doing?” In other words, what you’d ask anyone. Someone else pointed out you can tell when someone is used to using crutches, a cane, or a wheelchair versus a n00b.
Some commenters said that most people didn’t mean to be malicious. Which is true. But intent isn’t magic, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a gentle pushback on what is considered the norm. When I was in college, I used to get asked quite often where I was from. I would answer my hometown in Minnesota, and they would invariably ask, “No, but where are you really from?” It was annoying as fuck, so I made it a mental game to see how long it would take for that second question to follow the first. And it always did. No one was ever satisfied with my first answer.
One thing Alison of AAM does well is provide scripts to people who need them. Same with Captain Awkward. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I developed scripts to deal with all the nosy parkers who demanded to know my heritage.
Side note: The reason being asked this question is annoying is because it’s othering. It’s saying that I couldn’t possibly be a real American/Minnesotan because I’m Asian. You would not ask a white person without accent this question, and they might be a second generation immigrant as well. I had one woman lecture me about how sad it was that I didn’t know Taiwanese, and all I could think was why? I mean, it was personally for a variety of reasons, but from a macro point of view, I’m an American who lives in Minnesota. Taiwanese is not something that would change my life on a daily basis in how I interact with the world at large.
Anyway, this was my script.
Them: Where are you from?
Me: _______, MN.
Them: No, where are you really from?
Me: My ancestors are from Taiwan.
That usually was enough to end the loop, but it’s not what I would say now. i would probably just ask them why they want to know. Some commenters in the post above said this was what they would do. More than one person answered that it either wouldn’t work or that it was rude. I can see the former because for a certain type of person, they would just earnestly tell you that they cared/were interested/meant no harm, and it would be more frustrating than the initial interaction. As for the second being rude–nope. The person asking is rude. Being blunt in return is not rude.
Side note II: I hate that in our society, it’s seen as ruder to respond to/deal with rudeness than to be the person being rude in the first place. That is a rant for another day.
In addition, I don’t give a shit if someone is trying to be rude or othering when they ask me about my heritage. It’s none of their goddamn business, and if I want to share it, I will. I’m not ashamed of it, of course. But it’s not something I want to talk to about any John or Mary on the street. My favorite was the time I was working the front desk of my dorm and the pizza person asked where I was from. I gave my standard answer, and she added, “I have an adopted Korean daughter.” Good for you? And this matters to me exactly why?
Here’s the thing. Even if there is the most innocent of reasons for asking, such as interest in other cultures, it’s fucking exhausting to talk about it over and over again. Yes, it may be the first time you’ve asked it, but I’ve faced it a million times. Same as when I first came out as bi. Believe me. You are not the first in asking whether I was just indecisive, whether I was trying to have it both ways, why didn’t I just be gay/straight. I got tired of talking about it, and these days, I mostly don’t. I’ve written about how I don’t really like any of the newer terms, pansexual, omnisexual, etc. I’m not completely sold on bisexual, either, but it’s the best of the lot. These days, I prefer to just say I’m sexual. Or not label it at all.
Let’s talk about my name. It’s another moment of awkwardness because my name is weird for Americans. If you look at it practically, it’s not a big deal. Five letters. Two syllables. Following the rules of American English, it’s a soft “I”and pronounced as you would, say, dinner. And yet, because it’s an unusual name, people lose all sense of logic when confronted with it. I can understand MEE-na, but not myna (like the bird) or people who refuse to even try. At any rate, I make it easy on them by saying, “It’s Minna like Minnesota.” Later, I might reveal that I was actually named for the state. Minna is my American name. Mee-NA is my Taiwanese name. Honestly, though, I’ll answer to anything that comes close to either of the above.
It can be hard to navigate these waters. I would like to think in this day and age, people know not to ask, “Where are you from?” to someone who isn’t white. I haven’t had that question in quite some time, but I’m also not around strangers on a regular basis. In addition, I have less fucks to give about being ‘rude’. If I don’t want to answer something, I won’t. In fact, I like the idea of simply ignoring any question you don’t want to answer or saying something nonsensical in return.
Them: Where are you from?
Me: I *do* like snow. It’s my favorite!
Them: *confused stare*
I always did like a bit of whimsy in my passive aggressiveness. I can’t wait to put it to good use.