White people are worried about being perceived as racist and xenophobic, so they try to make friends of colour to make themselves appear cosmopolitan and a “good white person”. Although white people insist that they are racially “color blind” when accused of racism, when meeting new people of colour, the first thing that white people are interested in is racial categorization. After they find out the ethnicity of their new “friend” of colour, they can then tell other white people about how ethnically diverse their group of friends are and that race doesn’t matter to them.
When a white person tries to make friends with an Asian person, the most important thing is “what kind of Asian” this person is. “What kind of Asian” does not mean whether this person is mean or friendly, whether this person is superficial or philosophical, or what this person’s likes and dislikes are. “What kind of Asian” specifically means where the Asian is supposedly “from”. This is of prime importance for the white person, because the white person’s purpose when making friends with a person of colour is to diversify his racial portfolio of friends, which may protect him from future accusations of racism.
When a white person asks an Asian stranger, “Where are you from?” the Asian person may be delighted to tell the white person about her native country, if the Asian person happens to be actually from another country. This boosts the white person’s self-esteem, and the white person pats himself on the back for having a successful social interaction with a non-white person. This positive feedback leads the white person to conclude that asking an Asian person, “Where are you from?” is a successful social strategy that makes any Asian person feel good.
When a white person asks an Asian stranger, “Where are you from?”, sometimes the Asian person stiffens and replies coldly, “San Francisco” or “Toronto”. The white person feels that this answer is inappropriate and the Asian person is being evasive, because telling other white people that he has a friend from the same city he lives in will not raise his white-person status.
The white person feels that he knows the Asian person’s past better than the Asian person herself, and that the Asian person must be lying or being coy, so the white person then says to the Asian person, “No, where are you really from?” When the Asian person gives the same reply, the white person feels that the Asian person is being aloof and withholding trust from him for no apparent reason.
Unsatisfied with the answer and convinced that the Asian is being tricky, the white person changes his strategy. “Where were you born?” he asks. When the Asian person gives the same answer again, the white person feels that he is being made fun of and that the Asian person is unfriendly. Because previous experiences with asking “Asians” where they are “from” were successful, the white person cannot figure out what he did that was wrong.
Unable to make sense of the incident, the white person concludes that this Asian’s unusual distrust of him signals a cultural divide between the East and the West within this Asian person’s psyche.