There’s nothing wrong with asking someone where they’re from—in fact, it’s a normal conversation starter among a lot of humans around the world. The follow-ups to the initial question, however, can turn problematic quite quickly when there are racial and cultural assumptions, biases and stereotypes underlying the questioning.
Unfortunately, that’s all too often the case. Frequently, when the question is asked of non-white people in the U.S., “Where are you from?” leads to “No, where are you really from?” which then leads to an awkward ancestral analysis and an implicit “othering” that the questioner is often oblivious to.
That obliviousness isn’t charming or harmless, as a video sketch played out by actors Stella Choe and Scott Beehner shows.
The “What Kind of Asian are You?” video from Ken Tanaka, originally released in 2013, starts with a woman on a trail stretching for a jog. A man comes up to her and starts chatting with her, and at first she seems interested. But then he almost immediately asks her where she’s from while also telling her, “Your English is perfect.”
She tells him she’s from San Diego, but by the look on her face she clearly anticipates what’s coming next. And sure enough, what follows is a predictable series of increasingly offensive questions and responses, which the character in the sketch probably just considers “friendly get-to-know-you talk.”
But when the woman turns the tables and asks him the same exact series of questions and responds with exaggerated or inaccurate cultural stereotypes, he acts like she’s the weird one.
People who have been on the receiving end of these kinds of questions and assumptions have shared the video multiple times over the years since it came out, resulting in several waves of virality. And commenters have shared what they love about the video.
“It’s the subtle things in this that make it the more awesome,” wrote one person. “Like how she amalgamates in Irish stereotypes (Guinness, Top o’ the mornin’ to ye) with English stereotypes… the same way people like that guy mix Chinese, Japanese, Korean etc. stereotypes together as if those nations were the same thing.”
“I’d just like to point out that while a lot of you think this is a parody video and this guy is a characterized, over-the-top version of a person, it’s not,” wrote another. “This is my life (minus me jogging and being as funny back). And it’s not even a compilation of lots of mini experiences all summarized in one video to make even more of a point. In fact, if anything, I think it’s missing the part where the man then tells her about how his last 5 girlfriends were all Asian and how he has learned how to make awesome spring rolls, where he starts speaking Korean at her, and then proceeds to ask if she has a boyfriend. Because then, it would be real life.”
“This is an actual conversation I’ve had!!!” shared another. “So funny to see it here, wish I could’ve had a good comeback for it like this!”
Some people pointed out that the woman said her great-grandmother was from Seoul while the man said his grandparents were from England. That would technically make her more of “a regular American” than he is. (Unless, of course, “regular American” just means white. Ahem.)
Choe and Beehner also had some fun with the comments section, reading aloud some of the affirming as well as some of the more obtuse and/or racist responses to the original video. It’s amazing.
You can find more Ken Tanaka videos on YouTube.