I am in a signature store in Rochester N.Y. and I ask one of the employees about the fresh corn in the produce section. It is a high-end store and I admire the pile of the first of the season corn that I am about to buy. In front of this abundance a woman standing next to me says, “Where are you from? I noticed that you have an accent.” I have heard the question countless times since 1976 when I came to America as a graduate student. I say, “Where do you think I came from?” With a triumphant voice she says, “Russia.” I should have left it at that. Yet, being an anthropologist I am interested in the cultural assumptions that frame this recurrent encounter on accent and identity.
This is not a universal question, I have lived in France for six months, speaking fragile French with an accent and no one ever asked me where I was from so I regard the woman at the store as an American cultural informant.
Anthropologist: “What makes you think that I am from Russia?”
Cultural Informant: “Well, I have a friend, not really a friend, a friend of a friend and she is Russian and you so much remind me of her. And I am also interested in languages, it’s a passion of mine, so whenever I hear an accent I am fascinated.”
Anthropologist: “So what languages do you speak?”
Cultural Informant: “Oh, I never really had a chance to learn any languages, I’m just really interested in accents. It is kind of a hobby of mine. So you are from Russia, right?”
I am done shucking corn, I place it in a sturdy plastic bag and I turn to my next purchase when the woman says, “Are you?” As a subject of someone’s hobby I am losing my professional stance. I walk over to the apples and say, “No.” Now the woman accompanies me in the store, “let me guess again. This is really important to me. You are from Greece.” For those who don’t know, the town of Greece is on the northern part of the city of Rochester. I take refuge in a comedy of errors of presumed geographic confusion and say, “No. I am actually from the city of Rochester.” The woman persists, “I mean where are really from before you came to Rochester.”
I am done with apples. I look at my list and walk over to get milk; I am tempted to say that I am from New Orleans. A few months ago I was in the south and the tour guide, with a clear southern accent asked if I was born in Rochester. At that moment in the south I was categorized as a Yankee and who could account for Northern accents, so I let it go.
I realize as I pass the flowers section that there are a number of strategies that I can use. Some of my American-born friends think that when asked the question I should simply answer directly since, as they tell me, Americans are truly curious about accents and just want to know. How can I say how tired I am of the question that is never about geography or language; if I say Israel I get even more questions.
When is an immigrant free to refuse this conversation? Do I, a citizen with an accent, have an obligation to disclose personal facts to strangers?
I can hear many of my American-born friends protest that I am wrong, that as an academic I over analyze, that I am a hypersensitive immigrant and it colors my reading of the encounter as an intrusion. A friend tells me, “I always talk to people in stores.” I, too, speak to strangers, however is what I am having in the store, just “talking” to a stranger? Or, is the very encounter, “where are you from?” without any context, or preamble, an American cultural transgression?
From the immigrants’ perspective, the question, overtly or covertly constructs a difference/distance and assumptions of our ignorance. I have had people start talking slowly to me, sometimes sliding into grammatically incorrect English to communicate with me as though we are characters in an ethnic comedy act. My Asian-American academic friends have shared similar experiences of being spoken to slowly upon encounter. And when they answer that were born in the United States, the follow-up question is, “Yes, but where are you REALLY from.”
In the store I open the refrigerator door to take out milk, Organic 0% milk fat and the woman doesn’t let go, “it’s going to haunt me all afternoon, so could you please tell me where you are from?” I know that if I say, “you are harassing me,” she will feel aggrieved, insulted, hurt. I feel inspired to take action, I look at the milk and say, “What kind of milk do you like? Do you like whole milk, two percent, or non-fat? Do you buy organic milk?” While she tries to sort out this turn of the conversation, I turn my cart around and walk over to the cashier. The milk carton has a picture of a cow that says, “Pasture-Raised with Love.” I place the milk as my last item — just in case.