Seeing Opportunity In A Question: 'Where Are You Really From?'

Nov 11, 2013
Originally published on November 11, 2013 10:40 am

NPR continues a series of conversations about The Race Card Project, where thousands of people have submitted their thoughts on race and cultural identity in six words. Every so often NPR Host/Special Correspondent Michele Norris will dip into those six-word stories to explore issues surrounding race and cultural identity for Morning Edition.

"Where are you from?"

"No, really, where are you from?"

Those questions about identity and appearance come up again and again in submissions to The Race Card Project. In some cases, Norris tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep, people say it feels accusatory — like, 'Do you really belong?'

It's also a question that Alex Sugiura, because of his racially ambiguous appearance, can't seem to escape.

Sugiura, 27, is the child of a first-generation Japanese immigrant father and a Jewish mother of Eastern European descent. Sugiura's brother Max looks more identifiably Asian, but when people meet Alex, they're often not satisfied to hear that he's from Brooklyn.

Some people find this question accusatory, as if the person being asked doesn't quite belong. But Sugiura actually welcomes the question and the conversations that flow out of it — and he says he understands why people ask.

"I have always thought I've had a particularly strange face," he explains. "I looked at my parents growing up and I didn't see their faces in my face — I did see some combination, some mixture." When he looked in the mirror, he says, he didn't see a "typical American face."

That may be so, but Sugiura's face, along with his brother Max and other adults and children of mixed race, was recently highlighted in the October issue of National Geographic. "The Changing Face of America" examines the nation's growing number of multiracial people and how they choose to identify themselves.

When Sugiura fills out question about race in the census form, he checks the box for Japanese. But in more casual situations, he self-identifies as American but says he's ethnically Jewish.

But for as long as Sugiura can remember, he's been confused with someone of Latin American descent. It first happened when he was 6 or 7 years old, when someone began asking him questions in Spanish. "And at that point, I had no faculty for the language and almost started crying cause I was just so terrified," he says.

But by age 11 he started to take Spanish classes. And while he'd already been taking Japanese language and cultural classes for years, he found he enjoyed Spanish much more.

"It was a passing fancy at first, this idea [that] by people jokingly or mistakenly identifying me as Hispanic. ... I thought there was some kind of safe space there, you might say — that I was given a kind of fictional persona," Sugiura says. "I would say it propelled me forward and I feel very much like my own man through the Spanish language."

There's another interesting wrinkle in Sugiura's thoughts on the intersection of race and appearance, Norris says, noting that this particularly sensitive subject was a bit tough for Sugiura to talk about. "He says that his height, his deep voice, his Type A personality, his sort of, big physical presence, has helped him sidestep ... some of the more painful, offensive stereotypes that are too often attached to Asian men."

Sugiura bristles at those stereotypes, and yet, he notes that his father "did us a great favor by marrying our mother. ... They made two tall, loud boys."

"When you're a typical, you know, shorter, soft-spoken Asian male, you are perceived almost to be weaker or lacking the fiber of what an American leader is supposed to be," he says.

Sugiura says this all goes back to the reason that he welcomes this question, "Where are you really from?" He sees that question as an opening to make the point that there are many different ways to be Asian, Jewish, white or even a New Yorker. "And he has a chance to make that point," Norris explains, "if he actually gets to participate in those conversations."

And, Sugiura notes, this question about where you come from can lead to some very unexpected conversations — like one his family experienced on a stop at a gas station in the American South. An older white man behind the counter asked his father, "Where are you from, boy?"

And while the question felt laden with tension, the outcome of the encounter surprised everyone. But the experience was a reminder, Sugiura says, of the unfortunate reality that one must assume the worst in this country when it comes to questions based on the color of one's skin.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's time again for the Race Card Project where people express their thoughts about race and cultural identity in just six words. Multiracial identity has been the focus for the past month. For more on that, here's our colleague Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: In this next segment, we look at the role of appearance in determining or deepening ones identity. This morning, we meet 27-year-old Alex Sugiura of New York City. Because of his racially ambiguous appearance, there is one question he cannot seem to escape.

ALEX SUGIURA: My name is Alex Sugiura. I live in Brooklyn, New York, and my six words are No, really, where are you from?

INSKEEP: No, really, where are you from? NPR special correspondent Michele Norris is the curator of the Race Card Project. She's in our studios once again. Hi, Michele.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. Explain why it is that he cannot escape that question.

NORRIS: Well, it has something to do with his appearance and that has something to do with his parentage, so let me tell you a little bit about who he is.

INSKEEP: Sure.

NORRIS: Alex's father is a first-generation Japanese immigrant. His mother is from mélange of Eastern European immigrants and she's Jewish. And Alex, he describes himself as racially ambiguous and so that is why he always gets this question. There are actually two boys in the family. Alex's brother Max looks more identifiably Asian, but as I said, Alex is just a big question mark.

INSKEEP: In other words, people look at him and whatever he may say about his identity, they don't quite buy it.

NORRIS: This comes up again and again in interviews that we do. In other cases, people have said if feels accusatory, like where are you really from, do you really belong. They're trying to point out their otherness in some case.Alex actually welcomes it and he welcomes the conversation that flows out of that. And frankly, he says he understands why people ask him this question.

SUGIURA: I have always thought I've had a particularly strange face.

NORRIS: Now, you have to explain that. Why strange?

SUGIURA: Having broken my nose several times as a teenager, my face has changed slightly. But I looked at my parents growing up and I didn't see their faces in my face, but I did see some combination, some mixture. I could see a clear link when I was young between other people and their parents or for, like, what a typical American face would be.

But I'd look in the mirror and I'd look around and I'd think, that's not me.

INSKEEP: He may not think, Michele, that he looks typically American, whatever that is, but apparently other people think he is because he was recently used as the illustration for a National Geographic story about the changing face of America.

NORRIS: Indeed, that's how we found him, as part of a collaboration with National Geographic Magazine's online photo-blog called "Proof." And he's one of several people who were photographed by a well known photographer named Martin Schoeller and that piece looked at the growing number of people who are multiracial and the growing questions around identity and appearance, but particularly how people choose to identify themselves.

INSKEEP: Okay. So once he gets asked a second time, how does this guy of Japanese/Eastern European Jewish decent identify himself.

NORRIS: When he fills out the Census, he checks the box for Japanese. But in more casually, is he's just, you know, if someone walks up to him at the subway or at a dinner party, he self-IDs as American, but says he's ethnically Jewish. A lot of people, when they look at him, think that he comes from Latin America. And Alex says this has been happening to him as long as he can remember.

He shared with us a story that took place when he was young, six or seven years old, he's at the park with his mother, they're waiting for ice cream and someone approaches him. Let's listen.

SUGIURA: An old man came up to me and just started asking me questions in Spanish. And almost started crying cause I was just so terrified. But with varying frequency, yeah, I found myself conversing with people who would approach me in Spanish.

INSKEEP: Que paso. A culture that, actually, he has nowhere in his ethnic background, that he knows of, yeah.

NORRIS: Not as far as he knows. And yet, he fell in love with the language. At a very early age, his parents enrolled both he and his brother Max in Japanese language and cultural classes. And when he was about 11, he started to take Spanish classes and he liked that so much more. And he just fell in love with the language, and the culture and everything that he discovered that came along with that.

And he says that he found another aspect, another dimension to his identity, which was important for someone who says he grew up feeling like he had a foot in two worlds, but never really belonging in either one.

SUGIURA: It was a passing fancy at first, this idea that by people jokingly or mistakenly identifying me as Hispanic, that I thought there was some kind of safe space there, you might say, that I was given a kind of fictional persona. So yeah, I would say it propelled me forward and I feel very much like my own man through the Spanish language.

NORRIS: When we, you know, look at this intersection, again, with race and appearance, and in the case of Alex Sugiura, there is yet another interesting wrinkle. Alex has inherited his parents' curiosity. He's inherited their love of storytelling, their love of food. He's also inherited several physical characteristics, including their height.

This is an uncomfortable part of the conversation, but he says that his height, his deep voice, his type-A personality, his sort of, kind of big physical presence, has helped him sidestep, in some ways, some of the more painful, offensive stereotypes that are too often attached to Asian men.

SUGIURA: My father did us a great favor by marrying our mother and they made two tall, loud boys. So we have been in a really fortunate position with regards to that question. When you're a typical, you know, shorter, soft-spoken Asian male, you are perceived almost to be weaker or lacking the fiber of what an American leader is supposed to be.

But I've been in the weird position of just being really tall and loud my whole life.

INSKEEP: I wonder, Michele, if because of the way he looks, he actually overhears people in his presence making use of these stereotypes, referring to them in some way and not realizing they're actually talking about him or people of his ancestry.

NORRIS: He does hear that and it often is the case that the people saying it don't understand that there's someone in the room that would be quite offended. This goes back to the reason that he welcomes this question, where are you really from, and the conversations that flow from that, because he sees these conversations as an opportunity to, you know, to talk about identity and to make the point that there are lots of different ways to be Asian.

There are lots of different ways to be Jewish. There are lots of different ways to be white. There's a lots of different ways to be a New Yorker. And he has a chance to make that point if he actually gets to participate in those conversations.

INSKEEP: And we've been having this conversation with NPR's Michele Norris. She curates the Race Card Project. And Michele, I gather this conversation you've been sharing with us continues online.

NORRIS: It does. You can find out a lot more about Alex Sugiura, his family and there's a wonderful story online that he shared with us, his family was traveling to the American South. They walk into a gas station. Behind the counter is sitting someone he describes as a good ol' boy and they ask the family, they asked his father in particular, this question.

SUGIURA: Where are you from, boy?

NORRIS: It sounds like the encounter is laden with all kinds of tension, but the answer will surprise you.

INSKEEP: And you can find that answer at NPR.org where you can also find the National Geographic story that featured Alex Sugiura. Michele Norris, glad you came by once again.

NORRIS: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Talk to you soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.