The first time someone asked me that question, I was stunned. The first time someone asked me that question, I struggled to answer in a composed manner. Why couldn’t my English be good? Why was I being asked such a question? Why was I so angry?
“I was born in America. I grew up in California,” I replied, after a moment of shocked silence.
“Oh, I’m from San Diego,” came the reply. As we lapsed into conversation, I couldn’t forget the wave, the feeling of anger that washed over me. It felt foreign; I’ve never been questioned about my English ability before. Perhaps I had been asked in Chinese before, asking why I could speak English by a curious shopkeeper or street seller; but never directly as a conversation starter in English. Was it because the asker was a white American? Was it because of his tone? I felt offended.
On the train ride back, I mulled over the question. Why? But then I realized that this question would have been unacceptable if asked in America– to an Asian American who has spoken English all their life suddenly to be asked about the validity of their American-ness, about their identity as an Asian-American. The question is akin to the “Where are you from?” question often asked to POC, as if America can’t be a valid answer because the color of their skin is not white. In this sense, this question is asking if one can’t be a native English speaker because their appearance is not of Caucasian descent.
The second time someone asked me this question, the shock was no longer there. “Why don’t you have a Taiwanese accent?” the person asked me.
“I grew up in America,” I explained. I had grown accustomed to the question; I had realized that the circumstances abroad and back in America are different; many people haven’t met that many Asian-Americans or other third-culture individuals. I was simply not used to the question; since asking this same question to an Asian-American or to an Asian who has never lived in an English-speaking country would yield very different results.
This question underlies the assumption that the askee is a foreigner– something that would be considered racist towards Asians who have always lived and grown up in an English environment. That’s why this question is acceptable when asked to Asians who have not grown up in an English environment; the asker is wondering how they acquired their English ability.
Once I came to understand how different people would react to this question, I began to understand. The assumption that I couldn’t possibly be American, the assumption that I couldn’t possibly be a native English speaker was what angered me. This assumption would be unacceptable in America, due to the ethnically and culturally diversified demographic. However, this is not the case in Japan, or in any homogeneous society. It is natural to assume that people are not third-culture individuals, or that people’s nationalities and upbringing match their ethnic and cultural background. It is natural to assume that I’m not American.
So if someone asks me this question, I’ll just take the compliment and say that their English is good too.