Viewpoint: Nisa Simila – A complicated question

—COURTESY PHOTO

—COURTESY PHOTO —COURTESY PHOTO

By NISA SIMILA

For the Ledger-Transcript

Published: 05-24-2024 12:03 PM

“Where are you from?”

I'm of Asian descent and living in rural New Hampshire, so I've been asked this question countless times. People often don't realize how complicated it is for me. My siblings and I were born in different countries, to parents who only spoke English at home since they were also of different ethnic backgrounds. I grew up in Canada and have spent nearly all my adult life in the United States.

So, where am I from? It’s a question I dread. Even worse is, "Where are you really from?" because my response was unsatisfying to them. I've wanted to share my experiences for years, and recent events have finally pushed me to speak up.

Celebrating heritage and confronting challenges

May marks Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the rich histories and diverse cultures within the AANHPI community, as well as their contributions to this country. It’s also a time to highlight the struggles and challenges we face, and to encourage everyone to promote equity and inclusion for all.

One of the subtle yet significant issues we deal with is microaggressions – everyday acts of discrimination that often go unnoticed. Recognizing and addressing these behaviors is the first step towards becoming an ally to marginalized communities.

A personal experience with microaggressions

When I first moved to New Hampshire, I was in a stressful job right out of graduate school. During a visit to the doctor, the nurse, while taking my vitals, joked, “Have you been putting a little too much soy sauce on your rice?” I was stunned and laughed it off at the time, but it bothered me afterward. She based her perception of me on my skin color, not who I was. 

Online encounters with racism

A recent thread in a New Hampshire food scene Facebook group revealed much about the persistence of stereotypes. A review of Chinese takeout led to several comments like “Don’t tell [him] what the ‘chicken’ is,” implying offensive stereotypes about Asian cuisine. Despite the group having over 100,000 members, no one spoke up against these comments except me. The admins eventually removed the comments, but it took them two days to decide if they constituted hate speech. This delay and the silence from the group members were telling.

The problem with stereotypes

People often lump diverse cultures under a single stereotype. For example, assuming that adding soy sauce makes a dish Chinese, or that peanut sauce makes something Thai, oversimplifies and invalidates the diversity of Asian cultures. There are over 50 different ethnic groups within the Asian community in the United States, each with unique traditions and histories.

The need for allyship

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In Peterborough, where Asians make up only 1.38% of the population, racial stereotypes and microaggressions exist. I have been on the receiving end of many. However, it doesn’t need to be this way. Being an ally means to advocate for and support people from marginalized groups. At a recent workshop on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB), a quote from the presenter resonated with me: “The first thought that goes through your mind is what you’ve been conditioned to think. What you think next defines who you are.”

Taking action against microaggressions

Microaggressions can come from anyone, not just white people. We all need to be allies, fostering safe environments and treating each other with dignity. Recognize your unconscious biases, listen to those who experience discrimination and take action to challenge harmful stereotypes. Speak up and show up.

“Where are you from?” is a question that is a difficult question to answer, especially in this day and political climate where intent may be more than genuine curiosity.  Instead, ask “Where did you grow up?” or “What’s your nationality?” or “Who do you think will win the World Series?” Be mindful of your words. Know that you might make missteps, so just be open to feedback. Be an ally and be a part of the change that makes everyone’s world a safer, welcome and more-inclusive place to be.

Nisa Simila is a longtime resident of Peterborough, where she lives with her multiracial family and cat.