By Jo-Ann Yoo and Curtis S. Chin
There are more than 125,000 Asian Americans living in Seattle, and according to the U.S. Census, a record 22 million Asian Americans trace their roots to more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Yet, when we are inevitably asked the question, “Where are you really from?” “Seattle” or “Portland” or “Houston” or “Alexandria, Virginia” never seems to satisfy.
While a seemingly innocent question, asking where an Asian American person is from can be seen as assuming the answer cannot just be America. It can be interpreted as assuming we are less American than our non-Asian friends and colleagues.
This “othering” has led to today’s crisis of anti-Asian hate crimes.
From March 2020 through September 2021, Stop AAPI Hate recorded 10,370 hate incidents against members of AAPI communities. Seattle is by no means an exception to this wave of hate that has hit the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. The Seattle Police Department reported 87 bias/hate crimes from January 2020 through March 2021.
Combating anti-Asian hate requires combating patterns of othering and exoticizing Asian American communities.
That’s why the Asian American Federation launched the “I’m Really From” campaign. We partnered with AAPI artists, leaders, and storytellers to share their stories of belonging in the American cities they come from. The campaign aims to debunk assumptions that are often wrapped up in the “Where are you really from?” question by showcasing the stories and lives Asian Americans have in the places they call home.
The artist-storyteller partnerships resulted in the creation of unique travel posters depicting American cities through the personal lenses of our AAPI storytellers. One of the posters portrays Seattle through the eyes of our favorite hometown Olympic gold-medalist speed skater, Apolo Ohno.
For Apolo, home is his father’s hair salon that he’s operated in Belltown for over 40 years; home is getting Korean food in Federal Way; home is being surrounded by the natural beauty of the Cascade mountains, the Olympics, and Puget Sound.
With this campaign, we aim to help other Asian Americans embrace pride in where they are from, whatever that means to each member of our community.
We hope it reminds them of the connections they have to the places they’re from and the cultures that shape them.
For our non-Asian friends and neighbors, we hope this campaign changes the narratives and attitudes that cloud the way you see us. Next time you think about asking an Asian American where they are from, we want you to ask yourself three things before you speak.
First, would you ask that same question of a white person?
Second, why do you want to know? Are you just curious? Or are you curious because you assume they are not from here?
And finally, how might you phrase it or contextualize it better?
To stop the wave of anti-Asian violence, we need to build a culture that recognizes the deeply personal and uniquely American experiences of Asian Americans. Through art, storytelling, and learning about each other’s complex ties to the places where we feel at home, we can change perceptions and build the empathy necessary to disrupt the deep-rooted xenophobia and racism that has harmed our AAPI communities.
Jo-Ann Yoo is the executive director of the Asian American Federation. Curtis S. Chin is a member of the Asian American Federation’s Advisory Board and a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. Follow them at @AAFederation and @CurtisSChin.