Reframing the common question “Where are you from?”

Language matters. What we ask matters.

For too long, we have been socialized to ask and answer the common question “Where are you from?”

For many Black people and Indigenous communities, this question is triggering because of unknown and/or traumatic, severed pasts due to colonialism. We must remember that personal stories, lineages, cultures, and authentic histories have suffered from systemic erasure globally. 

Asking “Where are you from?” continues to otherize folx who identify as BBIA, adopted, multicultural, and more. 

For the AAPI community, this question reinforces that we do not belong, and is too often followed up with “But where are you really from?” — indicating a displeasure with and refusal of whatever answer originally given, as if to comment that a person could not possibly be from anywhere other than what is close to or matches the mental stereotype within one’s colonized mind.

Decolonize the idea that the question “Where are you from?” must be answered with a geographical location. 

We are from what we say we are from, who we say we are from, where we say we are from, and anything we say we are from that is authentic to who we are.

We each have a multiplicity of identities, and we define for our individual selves if and how we want to respond to this question when we inevitably continue to be asked this throughout our lives.

Our intent matters, and our impact matters.

Reflect on the intent in asking and being asked “Where are you from?”

Regardless of whether the intent in asking meets a surface-level desire to know masked under the false pretense of curiosity that only satisfies the person who asks the question or aims to build one’s understanding, having internalized this question as a truth-bearer of identity, the impact of asking can be harmful, toxic, and traumatic, especially with repetition.

We must reframe the common question “Where are you from?” so that we do not further perpetuate stereotypes, nor do we reduce people to only be representatives of their assumed and/or authentic social groups.

Create and continuously recreate new questions with the intent of building deep understanding across communities and cultures. Involve your communities in this process of reimagination. 

“What do you choose to share about your identity/identities?”

“Where do you call home?”

“Who is your community?”

Freedom dream new ways to define and share who you are — for yourself.

Listen intently and fully to the questions, ideas, stories, emotions, and arts shared with reimagined questions to understand your own self, your community/communities, and fellow communities.

Full Instagram Carousel: https://www.instagram.com/p/CRkoH8lsNsI/

We belong together.

How to describe myself as an Asian American woman right now?
I used to walk on the street, go on the subway and turn the music up real loud
I’m a musician, a teacher, and I want to feel the sound in my bones
Instead I’m scared of having my teeth or head knocked off my orange-seated throne

Every day I gotta choose on my commute, dependent on my mood
Do I go through my lesson in my head, keep my eyes down on my shoes
No, I can’t, instead I stay alert all around me
On a good day I’m listening to a podcast, out of 10 on a volume of 3

How do I begin to explain the daily negotiations 
When news, media, and law don’t acknowledge the racial motivations 
360 West 43rd, I used to live next door
Will it be me or my mom you’ll shut out on the concrete floor

What if I spoke up, how you like that?
I’m dynamite, and a firecracker and I won’t be typecast
I won’t stand for society’s erasure of my i-dentity
I’m here for good measure, for no one’s pleasure, for us and our entities

Strong like chrome I can’t be sanded down
And unlike a cassette tape, I won’t be rewound
Even with my small feet I won’t let me be bound
I can step in and out of Chinatown for my words to be heard and found

My dad emigrated from Hong Kong so my last name TSUI is Cantonese
But (in Cantonese) I do not speak Cantonese, (in English) I’m actually Shanghainese
But (in Shanghainese) if I speak Shanghainese, (in English) y’all go weak at your knees,
And as MC Jin says, y’all better learn Chinese

But being Asian is more than just being from China
I’m a member, a representative of the collective from major to minor
AAPI, a political term for Asian American Pacific Islander
Is not just about East Asians or me that you hear rhyming here

For the South Asians, Brown Asians, Black Asians in our society
Undocumented Asians, adopted Asians, more than obeyers of filial piety
Shouts to Tony Delarosa, Dr. Kevin Nadal
We must be more inclusive than the diversity and equity institutional walls

GoFundMe, Go Fund us in our neighborhoods, our needs and wants
Don’t need the blue eyes white supremacy dragon slanted, tilted, a-Flaunt 
Remember, the system is built on the backs of Black people and labor
When we divide ourselves up we ain’t doing anyone no favors 

Maxine Hong Kingston reminds me of my fellow warrior women
And I want you to listen to the LGBTQ+ and Trans fams, the non-binary people and visions
We must have more than just my mom’s good luck superstitions
Trust y’all, we need to do more learning and listening on our mission

We’re NO model minority, we’re the global majority 
Our voices together are stronger than any authority
So my call to action is for us is to truly unite
We cannot do this alone, we need each other in this fight

Justice is not just is it’s for just us
We cannot take the master’s tools to rectify or make just
We can call to those in power to help our communities
But we must step off each other’s subway stops for true cross-coalition unity 

Let’s stand together and if you need some perspective
Remember that this is lifelong work as one intersectional collective
We are striving for the liberation of our marginalized peoples 
Each one of us is a hero, rest in power 13-year-old Adam Toledo

Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, BBIA
BIPOC solidarity, We’re here united and we will rise today
Black Lives Matter as we stand on Munsee Lenape Indigenous Lands
Deep within us, we’re together, our hearts, souls, and hands

It’s 4.4, the anniversary of Dr. King’s final breath countdown
AAPI history, lives, and arts in schools, Ethnic studies is the starting ground
We must eradicate anti-Blackness, It’s not simply just stop Asian hate
Ask “how can I use my voice to activate and stop ALL hate”?

And beyond that I’m asking that we spread so much love
As powerful as the firebird’s flames and the peace of a soaring dove
And to tell every kid we know in our lives and see,
“You matter, and know your voice can set you free”

For my grandfathers and my grandmother, who I’ve never met
I am your wildest dream each day from sunrise to sunset
Today is 清明节 (Qing Ming Jie), a day that means literally clear and bright
In many Asian cultures, it’s a day of rituals for our ancestors’ spirit and might

And for them, our ancestors, our presence, our future, for all to hear
it’s not just we belong here
It’s we belong – together. 

For our ancestors, each other, this moment, our children, say this with me:

I shine bright with my golden light.
I shine bright with my golden light.

Dear grandfathers, grandmothers, I will protect your daughter and son
My mom and my dad, I will protect all our loved ones
As my students say, our joy is revolutionary,
Because we are golden, we are worthy.

Today, I want to end with Isang Bagsak. Isang Bagsak is a solidarity clap that originated in the cross-cultural fight unifying Filipinx and Latinx communities through Larry Itliong and Cezar Chavez. Isang Bagsak literally translates to “one down” and is a unity clap – to signal unity in movements together and that this moment is one down, of many more to go. I learned this from Tony Delarosa, and I am not the culture bearer of “Isang Bagsak”, I am a culture sharer. I, along with all of you, will start clapping together – slowly. As we gain momentum and the clap gets faster and louder, pulsating here in New York City, I will say “Isang Bagsak”, and right after you hear that, we will clap ONE TIME together – as a collective. Let’s do it. 

Isang Bagsak
加油 (Jia You)
My name is Alice Tsui.
Thank you.

Times Square Takeover to Stop Asian Hate 4.4.21 | Photo Credit: Sang Cheng

We are GOLDEN

When you looked at my face
And shied away from my gaze
People were terrified in 2020
Of my mask and two eyes
Used to regard me 
by my Asian persuasion
I remind us that 
we’re all part of one nation
We’re spreading animosity, 
said the Black Eyed Peas
Can I have some peace, 
survive with my black eyes please
Let’s come together as a world, 
let’s inspire
Yet still I rise 
shouts to Maya Angelou, and Yuri Kochiyama
It’s time for some introspection
Take a look at yourself for that personal reflection
Remember the sun doesn’t 
shine in only one direction
And instead of hate,
we can shine in one direction [and make some corrections]

Memorialize Lives
Heroes Sherose They rose, They rise, we rise
Still we rise, to remember and celebrate these lives

(The victims’ names are currently not shared due to reports of family members wishing to keep the names private.)

We remember them alongside so many fellow Asian American lives lost, and we will honor them today in our community and our joy.

My name is Alice Tsui (spelled T-s-u-i, and pronounced TSOY) and I am an actively anti-racist and decolonizing public school music educator in Brooklyn, New York. I am a lifelong New Yorker, grew up in Brooklyn [went to public school in NYC] and I am an ABC – American born Chinese daughter of two immigrants, two immigrants who are my elderly parents. I serve predominantly Black, Brown, Latinx elementary school students in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. 

In February last year, I was walking upstairs when a 5th grader stopped me and said “Ms. Alice, someone said you had Coronavirus.” I found out that it was another 5th grade student of mine who I had taught for many years. This week, a 4th grader called me “China” in my face. In those moments, I could feel my extreme rage – not at the student, but at the systems of our world that have led my students to say this. I was mad at the toxicity of systemic racism that we breathe in, and specifically – white supremacy for dividing the two Black girls who said this and me, an Asian American teacher [and woman] in this world. 

A month ago, when I started to see the rise of anti-Asian violence yet again, but this time specifically against elderly people, I discussed anti-Asian racism with my fourth grade class. One of my 4th graders, a Black boy, told me “It [Asian hate] won’t be on the news until there are more people who die.” What does this say about what my Black and Brown students have already internalized about our society? I saw this same student this week who said “it’s on the news now”, but I reminded my students that it is important to question how the story is told, who is telling it, and what isn’t being said. Another 4th grader asked me if my parents were vaccinated and I said yes, they are, but I am scared for them to be outside and so I ask them to stay home as much as possible – because they’re Asian. 

These are a few of the many, necessary conversations on race and racism that must occur in ALL schools – elementary, middle, and high schools. My call to action to you, everyone here, is to find the emails of the principals and teachers that either you, yourself, have gone to, are connected with, or are in the neighborhoods you live in, and not just the Asian neighborhoods.

These are the demands that are listed out in a letter I have already written and are available in a letter with resources at bit.ly/aapilettertoschools 

  1. Acknowledge and teach Asian American history, lives, and arts – including and beyond Lunar New Year
  2. Create mental health spaces for AAPI educators and children to feel, process, and heal without the burden of educating others on [their trauma] and what racism is
  3. Empower classmates and colleagues of AAPI community members to learn and speak against anti-Asian racism

Our children are counting on you. 

Last year, one of my Asian American students said “To me, what Black Lives Matter means is that Black Lives are brightly illuminated. I want her to know that her Asian American life is also brightly illuminated. To the 13-year-old Asian American boy attacked by a group of teens throwing basketballs at his head in Flushing – your life is also brightly illuminated.

To my Asian American community, I see you, I hear you, and we are HERE. To my fellow Asian American educators – take up SPACE. To my fellow AAPI women,  I feel your pain and my heart cannot stop feeling grief, and my racially occupied mind POUNDS with rage. I am here with you. I am worthy of safety, respect, and love. You are WORTHY of safety, respect, and love. To the allies, accomplices, and co-conspirators, I see you as we stand together in solidarity – and I hope you are doing everything you can, including the action item I named before, to support us beyond this moment. 

To all AAPI children, including the children of the victims, I am here for you, and you can feel whatever it is you are feeling. Please cheer for the AAPI children who are bravely here today. As a teacher, and a fellow Asian American person, I want to tell you that you matter. Your feelings matter. Your identity matters. Everything about who you are matters. You shine so bright with your GOLDEN LIGHT.



Everyone, say this with me, for our children – “I shine bright with my golden light”. Teach the AAPI children in your lives to say this – for themselves. 

I didn’t know what an affirmation was until I started teaching them to my public elementary school students, because no one ever told me or taught me that I mattered. I share these affirmations with you all for yourself, ourselves as a community who is healing, and a community that can celebrate our AAPI joy because our community that is GOLDEN:

I am worthy.

My voice matters.

I matter.

You matter.

We matter.

We are GOLDEN.

We are WORTHY.

I want to end with this final note. My parents emigrated to the United States in the 1980s. They are in their 70s and 80s now, and after working so hard their entire lives to support my brother and I, I cannot stay silent, and I must speak out to protect my family, and all our families, so that they do not need to live in fear. I must use my voice, because I know my voice has power. Our voices have power. 加油 【Jia you – Add oil, let’s go!】 

Thank you. 

(This is a transcript of my speech made at the Stand Against Hate Rally in Chinatown, NYC on March 21, 2021)

I “am”

It is a privilege that I only first experienced overt, daily racism from walking down the street because of my Asian skin due to COVID-19.

I (currently) do not walk outside with as much fear as I did in March, April, and early May. I am not completely stressed by the idea of running errands alone, nor do not feel like I need to have my two medium-sized dogs with me when I am out. The fear still exists, but I suppose not quite at the same level. Now I can, with privilege, negotiate what is more terrifying again: COVID-19 or anti-Asianness.

Don’t get me wrong – anti-Asian sentiment is still unfortunately alive and well in the “United” States. I am reminded by it whenever I see the “kung-flu” headline that seems to keep resurfacing in tweets, public statements, “news” reports, and presidential rallies. The videos of the Asian woman who was burned with acid outside her home in Brooklyn, NYC and the elderly Asian man being attacked in San Francisco will forever be stamped in my mind. And so many more. I will never unsee the horrors of this reality.

Then the end of May came with white womxn weaponizing Blackness, Black lives continuing to be killed on American screens with the world’s eyes watching, and very literally, NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE. 

As AAPI month came to an end, solidarity with Black folx was of necessary and immediate urgency. I almost laughed at all my own “issues” I’ve had the past few months because really, my personal confrontations with racism felt like uncooked pieces of rice in a larger bowl of atrocity noodle soup.

I am an Asian American music educator teaching Black and Brown children in New York City. I’ve founded the music program at my school. I’ve seen my children grow up. But most importantly, I will never truly understand what it means to be a Black and/or Brown person. Never. I also know that for some readers, racist judgements (#urban #titleone #poor #lowincome #badneighborhood #unsafe #achievementgap are a few) were made upon reading the first sentence because you are already trying to envision who I am, and who my kids are. I’m no savior. I refuse to be, and I will never be.

My elementary school students and I talked about the anti-Asian hate openly. My students didn’t understand why it was happening, but yet, some blamed the bats that people supposedly ate. As the only Asian-identifying educator in their schooling thus far, I constantly feel the responsibility to share who I am and my AAPI identity with my kids. “I do not eat bats”, I shared, “and not everything you see or read may be true”. 

After the killing of George Floyd amongst many others, my first 8:00AM Orchestra class online included the following questions and statements from students:

This was not a time for me to teach them ANYTHING about “Orchestra”. These statements didn’t just last for that hour. They came up again and again in the days and weeks afterwards, all the way through the end of the school year. I was and continue to be the learner because We Obtain Knowledge Everyday.

Immunity

Close your eyes. Take a moment to envision an American person.

Now open your eyes.

It isn’t me.


It was in elementary school when I came home one day and told my mom that I was American. She chastised me, as if I had burnt her as badly as overcooked, inedible rice.

“No, you’re not American. You’re Chinese.”

Elementary school me was confused, but didn’t talk back (#filialpiety). I knew not to bring it up again, because I had learned that saying this was just wrong in my mom’s eyes. To her, saying I was American was equal to saying that I was white and that I had abandoned my Chinese roots – almost in shame. I took that to heart, and have never said “I am American” to her again.


I don’t remember exactly when I learned the term “Asian American”, but I remember feeling some type of identification with it. To a high school me, this term was for people who “weren’t Asian enough”, and simultaneously “weren’t American enough” – but rather just existed in this middle haze. A term that did not diminish me because of something that I wasn’t. A term that unified people who also felt that they “weren’t enough”. In what we lacked, we strangely found unity. I stopped saying that I was Asian, or Chinese, or American, and now always say that I am Asian American, specifically Chinese American. The two words must come stuck together like two tapioca pearls up a bubble tea straw, of an order I made in English.

“We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before. We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis. We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.” – Andrew Yang (Washington Post)

Reading this severely angered my Asian American self. My identity that I had so strongly valued in its togetherness was separated, with one prioritized over another. I felt my Asian Americanness separate and unequal, with Americanness prioritized – no – STOMPING OVER AND SPITTING AT at my Asian roots. Is my existence as an “American” insufficient? Do I have to prove how “American” I could be? I already know the answers to both of those questions; I can never be sufficient or prove my “Americanness” no matter how much red, white, and blue clothing I don.

 “We are still, in the public eye, a perpetual foreigner.” – Tzi Ma (Time) 

“One moment we are Americans, the next we are all foreigners, who “brought” the virus here… our belonging is conditional.” – John Cho (LA Times)

Every day when I walk my dogs, you see my eyes and think FOREIGNER. Then you see my mask and you think COVID-19 – not because everyone else is or isn’t wearing a mask, but because I’m wearing a mask. What’s worse – my un-American eyes or my disease-ridden mask? I only feel somewhat safe when I have two medium sized dogs whose leashes are attached to my physical body, and even then, am I really? I no longer know how to react to being a Brooklyn, New York Asian woman if acid gets poured on someone else who is one also. I’m not safe alone. I don’t know if or when I will be again. If Jeremy Lin is pleading for people to “just accept us as humans”, is my existence beneath humankind?


“To be Asian in America during the time of coronavirus is to feel very alone. You might think that everyone’s alone during the pandemic. But it’s a different form of isolation carved out by that insidious model-minority myth, with its implication that as long as you worked hard and didn’t ask for handouts, racial inequities could be overcome.” – Cathy Park Hong (NY Times)

“Like fame, the “model minority” myth can provide the illusion of ‘raceless-ness.’ Putting select Asians on a pedestal silences those who question systemic injustice. Our supposed success is used as proof that the system works — and if it doesn’t work for you, it must be your fault.

Never mind that 12% of us are living below the poverty line. The model minority myth helps maintain a status quo that works against people of all colors.

But perhaps the most insidious effect of this myth is that it silences us. It seduces Asian Americans and recruits us to act on its behalf. It converts our parents, who in turn, encourage us to accept it. It makes you feel protected, that you’re passing as one of the good ones.” – John Cho (LA Times) 

I’m only American on the few days my dad made me ham sandwiches for lunch in elementary school because I asked for it instead of my Shanghainese or Cantonese rice dish. I’m only American when it’s convenient for the media to celebrate the successes of people whose faces resemble mine. I’m only American when the model minority myth works in my favor and has duped my parents into believing in the possibility of achieving an “American dream” where hard work could overcome racial inequities. Am I, and are others, truly included in #AllAmericans, one that extends beyond activism by and for Asian people, one that stands in solidarity with the disproportionate deaths of LatinX and black people due to societal inequities? While we all support healthcare workers (or at least I certainly hope we all do), when will we truly support each other without perpetuating further discrimination – Asians included? Am I really that radical by saying EVERYONE, STOP HATING EACH OTHER?


In my middle school, the loudspeaker blasted “Proud to Be An American” as sung by Toby Keith daily after we recited the pledge.

“And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” – “I’m Proud to Be An American”, Toby Keith

Will I ever be free?
Will my parents ever be free?
Will my fellow Asian Americans ever be free?
Will Black, LatinX, Indigenous, and all marginalized groups ever be free?
Will America ever be free?

When you closed your eyes and imagined an American, did your own reflection come into the view of your eyes? Did you envision yourself? Are YOU free? Do you want to be free in America?

But questioning all of this, isn’t enough.


“I don’t want your love and light if it doesn’t come with solidarity and action.” – Rachel Cargle

My mother survived the “Cultural Revolution” in China. By the way, “Cultural Revolution” is read as cease all education, subscribe or die from the Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, starve every day of your childhood, shut up or else during the house raids at my grandparents’ house, and the death of my grandfather – based on the little that my mother has told me.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be or feel fully free, but the one freedom I will never cease to use is my freedom of speech. My mom didn’t have it, and is terrified to use it now. I don’t blame her, but I can’t sit silent. Because of my parents immigrating here, I have this right, whether my “fellow Americans” acknowledge me and the fact that I can exercise it or not. I carry a lot of privilege to be able to use it, even if I feel it diminishing these days. But I have to take my chances.

Vaccines are never 100% effective, and I don’t know if any will be created that are in my lifetime. There’s one I’m testing out now, every single day and in all aspects of my personal and professional life.

I’m sharing this vaccine with you.

EU9dSGVXsAE0WFE(Source: Hate is a Virus)

It is okay to be fearful. I am.

But don’t stop in the tracks of hate. Immunize.

Immunize until you can picture yourself when I ask you to close your eyes. Immunize until you can picture EVERY SINGLE GROUP.

And then immunize again. We need all of the immunity we can get.

P.S. Additional immunizations include #washthehate and #RacismIsAVirus. Feel free to triple up.