Where are you from?


By Michelle Nosratian

Did you find everything okay?” the store clerk asked.

“Yeah, just fine,” I answered, as I handed him a copy of “Thank You for Smoking.” We stood in silence for a few moments as he scanned the DVD and took my credit card. I could tell he was itching to say something.

“Where are you from?” He finally asked. “Are you Brazilian?”

I was taken aback by his question. What does that question have to do with renting a movie? Do I look that different from normal Americans? What does a normal American even look like? Brazilian? I’ve never gotten that one before…

“Uh…no, I’m not,” I responded quizzically.

“Then where are you from?” He asked.

“Los Angeles.”

“No, really. Like where is your family from?”

“Guess.” He guessed countries on every continent except for Antarctica. Finally I decided to help him out. “It’s in the middle east. There are about 100,000 of us in the greater L.A. area.”

“Oh, Pakistan!”

On the car ride home I asked myself why the clerk’s question bothered me. Sure, it was slightly intrusive, but it was not offensive in any way. I settled on the conclusion that I was too used to the atmosphere at Harvard-Westlake, where people neither ask nor care where I am “really” from.

Thankfully, there is not that much tension between ethnicities on campus. Large friend groups are composed of students of multiple ethnicities, but on the other hand, tighter friend groups within those larger groups usually tend to be of one ethnicity. People generally feel more comfortable with those who share the same background as themselves, and this attraction brings similar people together in a way that largely avoids tensions between groups.

Also, Harvard-Westlake students are well-educated (as opposed to the clerk who mistook “Middle East” for a south Asian country). The school requires sophomores to take Choices and Challenges, a multi-faceted course which aims to promote tolerance as one of it’s goals. In addition to the Choices and Challenges requirement, many opt to take electives such as Assimilation and Conflict, Ethics, Psychology and Gender Studies, which touch upon race and gender relations in their curriculums.

What some people don’t realize is that ethnicity is a sensitive subject. I don’t take racial or ethnic slurs lightly. It doesn’t matter whether they are meant to be humorous or hurtful, they still perpetuate bad feeling towards a certain group.

Some may think it doesn’t matter, and may tell people like me to “lighten up”, but having seen the destructive effects of name-calling on previous generations of my family and on friends, I have decided to adopt a zero-tolerance policy regarding racial or ethnic slurs.

Sure, ethnicity is appropriate and sometimes necessary to bring up in certain contexts, for example, when some sort of inequality exists, or there is a trend that affects a particular ethnicity more, such as certain hereditary diseases.

However, in everyday life, there’s no need to draw attention to somebody’s racial or ethnic background. America is a nation of immigrants and Los Angeles one of its most heterogeneous cities; it simply shouldn’t matter where somebody is “really” from.