“Are you Eurasian?”

I was at Yum Cha a couple of weeks ago with a few friends (one of whom is Eurasian). It was very crowded and we had to share a table with a middle-aged lady and (presumeably) her teenage son. We didn’t really say anything to them. I think that’s the etiquette when sharing a table at Yum Cha; you just treat your half as a separate table. After our first order arrived, the lady asked my Eurasian friend:

Do you mind if we settle a bet we have going here?… Are you Eurasian?

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but when I was relaying the story to Heidi she thought that it was very rude of them to ask. Considering it further I imagined that it sounds very offensive if you replace “Eurasian” with any other race:

Are you Aboriginal? Are you white? Are you black? Are you Asian?

Asking country of origin doesn’t sound as bad as asking race. Maybe beacause you assume that they are basing their query on more than your appearance (possibly taking into account your customs or accent). That makes it more cultural than racial.

Are you Canadian? Are you Thai? Are you American?

I guess that I didn’t take offense since they were asking because the teenager was Eurasian and probably looking for some sort of racial solidarity. You don’t see too many Eurasians in Perth and it may sometimes feel like he’s the only one. I think that a lot of Eurasians (living in Australia) may feel a cultural similarity and connection with other Eurasians because they assume that they have probably grown up in a similar cross-cultural family environment. This won’t always be the case. Race is different to culture, and it doesn’t intrinsically connect people in the same way that culture does.

19 thoughts on ““Are you Eurasian?””

  1. I guess it depends on how and when/where it’s asked, but none of those seem offensive to me. (Although having a bet is a bit strange) I can’t see the negative implication in the question, unless perhaps you decide a priori that the questioner is racist.

    Compare: Are you right-handed?

    Also compare: Are you female? This can be offensive precisely because of sexist societal attitudes about what a female should look like.

    But what is it about “Are you Aboriginal?” that offends you so?

  2. I personally think being offensive has to do with whether your behaviour is appropriate, and not so much with whether what the you do or say is positive or negative.

    For example, it’s widely considered very impolite to say “man, you’re so fat!”. However, I also think it’s equally rude to say “man, you’re so thin!” because it’s inappropriate to isolate a particular (meaningless) characteristic for scrutiny.

    I feel that asking a complete stranger their race is inappropriate because you’re singling them out for something that says (essentially) nothing about who they are. It’s irrelevant whether this is for negative or positive (or indifferent) treatment.

    I think cultural questions are less offensive because your culture does (necessarily) say *something* about who you are.

  3. So the offensiveness is in approaching a person without showing a meaningful interest in them? Treating them like an anthropological study perhaps. On the other hand, sometimes the more personal the question, the more offended we are.

    Or is it that the question itself suggests that you place disproportionate (inappropriate, as you say) importance on the answer? I’m not sure you can infer so much without regard to manner/context.

    Certainly saying “You’re Eurasian” as if it implied something would be as offensive as “You’re fat”. The statement must be intended to imply something because it lacks even the excuse of anthropological inquiry that the question had.

    But being unhealthily fat or thin does say something about a person, to the extent that it’s a choice. Nothing absolute (but what can be absolute about a human being?) but correlations for sure. Race has its correlations too, but as you point out, they all correlate more strongly to culture.

  4. Yes, I think it’s the act of initiating conversation with only a trivial interest in that person. It’s like approaching a particularly tall person or a very short person and asking “How tall are you?”… I feel that treating someone as a study (for personal interest) dehumanizes them and reduces them to a novelty.

    A few other thoughts:

    – I think the whole bet thing was a poor attempt at justifying the question, but it ended up making it worse. The person was suddenly a wager as well as a novelty.

    – I didn’t take offense because there was clearly no ill intent behind their inquiry.

    – In my previous comment, I was thinking about being called fat or thin when you don’t deviate that much from the norm. My sister used to get called “so thin” all the time and it really pissed her off. Sometimes people would even imply that she must be anorexic, which was completely ridiculous; people with advanced anorexia are markedly different from people who are just slim. (Ditto for morbidly obese people and “normal” fat people).

  5. How tall are you would be a great pickup line.

    I used “are you a model?” back when I was 16. Didn’t work as planned 😛

    Maybe I’m reading into it too much, but an older single lady and her eurasian son says a few things about her.

    1. She’s single (no husband) 2. She puts out (she has a son) 3. She likes asian guys (her son is eurasian)

    And here she is lucky enough to sit next to three attractive young asian guys and a token white guy. How do you know it wasn’t a pickup line? GO PHIL!! BURN THE MULES!!!!

  6. As someone who could be described as Eurasian (as defined by the Wikipedia reference) I’ve been in similar situations where my ancestral origins have been questioned. The most recent being my last trip to the hairdresser. Progressing from the usual “how has your day been?” and “got anything special planned tonight?” conversation starters, the hairdresser piped up with something along the lines of “have you got a bit of Asian in you?” (probably not those exact words, but definitely something as blunt.)

    Having caught me off guard, I asked her how the question came about. She said it was mainly my physical appearance, but also the texture of my hair. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but I later wondered if this was part of her standard banter for all customers. And, if so, had it resulted in any uncomfortable situations when the customer responded negatively.

  7. The last two hair stylists I’ve been too have fairly quickly asked “So, where are you from?” (clearly expecting somewhere outside Australia). In both cases, I think it was culturally-influenced banter. The hair stylists were from Hong Kong and Korea and I think that common small-talk there is considered fairly invasive in a Western context.

    A couple of asides:

    – I know someone who claims to have used the pickup line: “Have you got some Asian in you?”… he’s Asian and would follow with “Would you like some Asian in you?” (sigh)

    – I linked to the Wikipedia page because it provides a basic definition of the vernacular. However, after reading it fully, I think the article’s crap (far too subjective and unsubstantiated).

  8. Hm, the question I found was not offensive. The offensive bit is if the person uses the knowledge to insert some sort of racial slur afterwards. Most people who are racist don’t bother asking if you’re a particular race, they just assume you are and start making racist comments. (ie, you look Middle Eastern, so you must be a terrorist). Asking implies respect, depending on the tone/situation.

    I’ve met racist Chinese people who give you hass for not being “pure” Chinese, but then again they give hass to Japanese, Koreans and Mongolians (and others) for “looking” Chinese but being of lower supposed ethnic stock. You get the same from arrogant Anglo-Saxon types getting rabid on your non-Anglo-Saxon heritage for pretty much the same reason. Admittedly, it’s been a while since in Australia there’s so many races/types you can’t figure them all out anyhow. School seems to be the breeding ground for this sort of garbage, usually. You should have noted the son would have been in school for sure.

    My guess – the mother wanted to reassure her son that other people exist out there who are older and not necessarily immediately obvious on first glance what 1/2 and 1/2 ethnicity they are. Since mixed race people are only a recent development on a large scale for the last say, 30 or 40 years it’s probably only in the last 20 that people have to admit it’s commonplace (particularly in Hawaii).

    You still get a some grief over inter-racial marriages, but probably would still occur if the person is of the wrong caste, the wrong location, not rich enough, not prestigious enough, not intelligent enough, not the right religion, voted for the wrong party, brainwashed by cultists, not of a particular body type, etc etc etc. You get the idea. In more repressed societies this is more true.

  9. Yeah, I think that was the case:

    “I guess that I didn’t take offense since they were asking because the teenager was Eurasian and probably looking for some sort of racial solidarity.”

    You can feel pretty isolated if you think that you’re the only one of your ilk.

  10. As an “ABC” (“Australian Born Chinese”) I find the “country of origin” question can be just as touchy. I was born in Perth and lived there all my life, save for one year as a child spent in Hong Kong (where my parents come from) having only just moved to Melbourne this February. I have a standard middle class ocker accent which is obvious after uttering one or two words.

    As I worked in hospitals, I was often in contact with people from the older generation, in a multitude of variations of the following conversations, the outcome of which varied depending on how old-fashioned they were and how sleep deprived I was…

    Convo 1:
    “Where are you from?”
    “I’m from Perth”
    “No really…(sarcastic or exasperated tone)”
    “I’m a Perth girl, I was born and bred in Perth”
    “Yes, but you look Chinese”
    “My parents are from Hong Kong, they moved here in the seventies”
    “Oh, see, you’re Chinese”
    “Fine, whatever”

    Convo 2:
    “So how long are you here for?” OR “So when will you be going ‘home’ dear? (my least fave of all time)”
    Usually I would assume they were asking how long my shift was –>
    “Until xx o’clock”
    “Don’t be silly, I mean back to your motherland/homeland/real home”

    So, asking where someone is from/country of origin can be perfectly inoffensive, as long as you don’t insist that they change their answer when it doesn’t suit your expectations.


  11. Gosh, these example conversations are very familiar to me. I’ve definitely had my share of:

    “Where are you from?”
    “No, where are you from originally?”
    “Okay… but where are your parents from?”


    I also hate it when clearly ignorant people then try to act sophisticated by saying things like:

    “Oh, ‘Thailand’… yeah, I could tell you know. I thought maybe… um… Singapore, but yeah, Thailand…”


  12. Well, lucky you aren’t dealing with Americans. Just peeve them by saying something about Canada and how much better it is over USA. I guess when they mean “where are you from?” they mean “what nationality are you?” – not that you have to tell them, of course. Americans are amazingly touchy about being called Canadian and vice versa for some reason…

    Yeah the “I could tell” is kind of nonsense these days. Getting harder and harder. Koreans flip from looking Chinese to looking Japanese to looking Mongolian/Tibetian/Icelandic (depending on where they were from originally), some Chinese look like Koreans, some Thai look like Chinese (or Koreans), yeah, it’s pretty hard to make a generalisation just on looks (or language).

    The Japanese are notorious – they can’t tell a Japanese from a Chinese if they’re speaking fluent Japanese. Having said that there’s some mighty good looking Thai women out there. So good in fact, they’re usually mislabelled as Koreans, Chinese or Japanese… (no Burmese or Filipino, however… well, give it time…)

  13. I’m Eurasian and because I look more bent on the asian side, people assumed I was chinese..growing up in an all-white suburb. When I was young, I didn’t know the answer to people’s cultural questions because I was raised in North America and lived in the orient for only a little while when I was young. I have had people guessing my ethnicity all my life. Now, as an adult, I think I turned out ok – looks wise and mentally. I’m happy, healthy and working hard at improving myself and contributing to society too. Other people I find who ask me questions about my ethnicity are interested to find out where I came from because I look different than they do. I think its ok to talk about because people are generally curious. Often others want to place you in order to get to know you better or have a conversation so its not all bad. its when people are narrow-minded that talking about one’s race becomes a problem.

  14. Hi, this is an interesting discussion and looks like I’ve found it a bit late. As an Aussie Chinese born overseas I get a lot of that “Where are you from?” and the residential address answer e.g. “Campbelltown” doesn’t usually cut it for my interrogators, which can be a pain since I’ve lived in Australia since I was 1!!!

    I wouldn’t find the yum cha question that offensive but hey, I’m not Eurasian, and I can certainly see how some might get irked by it.

    Anyway, on a side note, thought you might find this interesting. http://www.alllooksame.com/

    I bombed and a Caucasian friend who lived in China for a bit kicked my behind! See how you go. Warning: Don’t be misled by the clothes.

  15. Hi Chez,

    It’s never to late to add interested commentary! I’ve had a quick look at that website, but haven’t tried any of the tests yet. I’ll post another comment when I get around to it. 🙂

  16. Hey Nick, thanks – glad it’s not too late!
    I found the site quite amusing – hope you do too.

    BTW, since you’re Eurasian, can I ask, would you find the following comment offensive? I’ve said it a couple times around groups including Eurasians but now question whether I’ve ticked people off!!!

    “Eurasian people are really good-looking.”

    Naturally I mean it as a compliment, and pretty much all the Eurasians I know are hot, but is it like saying “Black people dance well/have great rhythm” or “Jews are good with money”? Is it just as bad to perpetuate positive stereotypes as with negative ones?

    I know in the US a lot of folks refer to Asians as “the model minority”. With me, I just ask why don’t ABCs get the same rap, but apparently some American Asians hate that kind of comment. Beats me. Maybe you can enlighten me Nick?

  17. Hi Chez,

    Um. I should first say that all of this stuff is a big grey area. I mean, my girlfriend thought that the question in my post was rude, but I wasn’t really offended. With that out of the way…

    I know of a few Eurasian people who don’t like being told that Eurasians are attractive because they feel like they have to live up to that impression (and don’t always do so). Obviously it’s pretty bad if they feel the implication is “Eurasian people are attractive… so why aren’t you?”

    That said, I don’t think it’s as bad as saying “Black people dance well/have great rhythm” or “Jews are good with money”. These statements assert characteristics that are cultural sterotypes and not based in genetics. In contrast, your physical appearance is greatly determined by your genes (and age and lifestyle).

    However, saying that Eurasians are attractive is a big generalisation in two ways. Firstly, there are many types of Eurasians with (arguably) a wider range of appearances than either Caucasian or Asian people (your appearance can be anywhere from either end or in-between). Secondly, “are attractive” is a universal value judgement. Maybe, “I find attractive” is more appropriate because it clarifies that it’s only your personal opinion.

    I suppose I think it’s better to be more specific to make it clear that you aren’t refering to general stereotypes. For example, I may say that “I find a lot of people who look half-Japanese and half-Caucasian rather attractive”. I think that’s better than “Eurasians are attractive” because it doesn’t bunch all Eurasians (or even all Japanese/Caucasian people) together, and it is clearly only my personal preference.

  18. Hey Nick, that makes sense. Thanks for the thoughts. I’m not a very PC person and sometimes maybe put my foot in it.

    In line with my non-PCness, I don’t really have a big problem with positive stereotypes. I mean they exist for a reason.

    Like with Asian kids for example, where the stereotype is that they are hardworking and studious. It’s true that there are Asian kids who do not fit this “mold” but on the other hand, who won the 1st season of “Australia’s Brainiest Kid”? A Chinese boy. Who won the 2nd season of “Australia’s Brainiest Kid”? A Chinese boy. Furthermore, 5 of the last 6 contestants in the 2nd season were of Asian descent.

    Maybe that’s why Ten dumped the “Brainiest Kid” idea and started up with the ridiculous “Brainiest Anything” shows (e.g. “Brainiest BB Housemate” – if ever there was an oxymoron…) – it just got too embarrassing to see the Asian kids kicking butt and ratings were probably plummeting! 🙂

    I have been following Survivor – Segregation Edition keenly too by the way. Now that’s a whole new blog topic!

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