“Where Are You From?” Doesn’t Have To Be A Big Deal

“Where are you from?” is a different conversation in Central Asia than in North America, and there’s a lot we can learn from that.

“Where are you from?


“No, where are you really from?”

Most Asian Canadians recognize this situation. I can just see your eyes roll to the back of your head and hear your deep sigh. But what if I told you, perhaps we don’t have to be so annoyed by these questions?

In the Fall of 2018, my husband and I took a leave of absence from work to check off these bucket list items: volunteer abroad and visit those ‘mysterious’ -stan countries of Central Asia. We ended up volunteering in Kyrgyzstan and travelling through much of the ‘Stans’ while we were there: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. What we found was a world we didn’t know existed, a world that managed to be at once beautiful and complex, and surprisingly … vibrantly multicultural. Until visiting these countries, I never imagined that the former Soviet Republics would be the place that continuously asks the question of identity, culture and race. Even more, I never imagined it would be the place that would allow me to understand more about my own Chinese-Canadian identity.

Throughout my travels, identity was at the forefront, because identity is so important in these countries, given their complex history and multicultural population.   

Many people in North America don’t realize Central Asia is multicultural. They were mysterious to me, huge land masses between East Asia and Europe, a central location along the ancient, famed Silk Road, that I had not really heard anything about in Canada. Many people I spoke to before departing on our journey immediately attached stereotypes to these countries, and ultimately, about the people living there. Upon hearing the suffix -stan (which actually just means “land” in Persian) some automatically thought of Afghanistan, and images of a war-torn region came to mind. When I mentioned “Uzbekistan” others confused it for the more well-known Pakistan. When I said Kazakhstan, some pictured Borat, the 2006 movie which stands as probably the most false depiction of Kazakhstan Hollywood could ever produce. In reality, the moment you step foot in any of these countries, you will instantly realize how culturally rich and ethnically diverse they are. In Kazakhstan’s major cities, everywhere you look are billboards (and even restaurant servers) that will remind you their country is home to over 100 ethnicities.

Kazakhstan’s capital Astana (now renamed Nur-Sultan) was hands-down the most modern and architecturally surreal city we had ever visited. More surprisingly, it was one of the most multicultural, where almost anyone of any race or color can fit in as a local.

Unsurprisingly, there are few North American travellers in this region despite the presence of many North American brands and corporations; most tourists come from the other former Soviet countries, or Europe. Yet, surprisingly, in a lot of ways, one could say these countries share a similar history to the First Nations of Canada (also conquered by a great power in the 19th century) except the pivotal difference is all the -stan countries of Central Asia suddenly declared independence from Russia upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The other pivotal difference is that the concept of nationality was forced upon them (so to speak). Put simply, the borders were drawn, for what was once a largely nomadic land filled with a combination of nomadic and settled peoples. You had large numbers of Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan and Tajiks living in Uzbekistan. And you had hundreds of thousands of Koreans forcibly sent to Central Asia from Siberia. What resulted is a mosaic of culture, locals who look East Asian, Caucasian, Turkish, Persian, and a unique mix of all of the above, who eat naan bread, samosas, lamb skewers, horse sausage, steamed dumplings, borscht soup, rice and kimchi.

Central Asian food was an eclectic blend of 2000 years of history along the silk road, where recipes, ideas, and cultures blended.  Samosas called camsa, cooked in a tandoor oven are one of the food gems you can find on the street in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

What is your nationality? They would ask us throughout our travels. Chinese? Japanese? Korean? Ni hao. Konichiwa. Annyeonghaseyo! This is how it went when my husband and I ventured out. At first I thought it was the same as other places we travelled – they look at us and assume we flew in from another part of Asia. We’d reply, “We are Canadian” and let them be puzzled, pretending we didn’t understand their real question, our attempt at trying to share that Canada is a multicultural place. Until one man said, yes we know your passport is Canadian but what is your nationality? (word for ethnicity in Central Asia). We quickly understood that nationality/ethnicity is an extremely important concept in Central Asia.

Often, overseas Asians feel almost a sense of insecurity about this question. “Where are you really from?” is a question that hits a sore spot for many. We don’t even know what it’s like to grow up in Asia after all and the question can make us feel like outsiders in our own country. If you are anything like me, we may often feel compelled to keep hidden our Asian ethnicity to point out to locals we are just as Canadian as that blonde tourist with blue eyes. Their ancestors too were immigrants to Canada. When I travel, I often share that Aboriginal Canadians look very similar to East Asians. They once lived in teepees just like the Northern Mongolians. Yet in this attempt to prove a point, when we travel, we almost lose a sense of self. In Canada, I am proud to be Chinese-Canadian. When abroad, I often opt to omit the “Chinese” part of my two-part identity. Because I wonder, do people understand that I can be both? Do people understand a hyphenated identity and culture?

In Central Asia, they understand.

Many of them, too, have a hyphenated identity. They are Kazakh-Koreans. They are Uzbek-Kyrgyz. They are Russian-Kazakhs. They are Tajik-Uzbeks. In our entire two months, no one ever questioned why I look Asian but have perfect English (this may be a first on any of my world travels!).

Staying in a family guesthouse in the Uzbek town of Arslanbob in Southern Kyrgyzstan, where borders were drawn splitting Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Here, the majority of the population speak Uzbek at home, and Kyrgyz outside. They keep their culture alive through language and food.

So next time someone asks where you are from, perhaps instead of feeling annoyed, you can choose to honestly share how you define yourself.  Because if they are asking, they genuinely want to know. Isn’t that the perfect chance for you to tell your story, to dispel assumptions and stereotypes, and teach others about multiculturalism? These questions ultimately create dialogue for intercultural understanding. If there are fewer people in the world who make assumptions and attach stereotypes onto others then, perhaps over time, the world will become a more united place.

Staying with a young Shepherd couple in rural Southern Kyrgyzstan was the best way to learn first-hand about  multiculturalism (our female host was Tajik-Kyrgyz) and local culture of the region.

All photos provided by Eng C.

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