In most other situations, the question is downright rude and insulting. The issue of my nationality is never more an issue than when I'm abroad. For Canadians who aren't white, it's a recurring theme. After "Where are you from?" the next question is usually "But where were you born?" or "Where are your parents from?"
My experiences with those questions came back to me in full colour during the French presidential election in May 2002. Jean-Marie Le Pen won 17 per cent of the vote. Le Pen calls the Holocaust a mere detail of history and blames immigrants for rising crime. It made me think about how different living in Canada is from living in Europe.
In France, where thousands of North Africans and Vietnamese have settled, sometimes a person would make motions with their eyes after I told them I was Canadian. They would ask "Pourquoi?" and make that slanty-eyed motion with their fingers. The question they were clumsily trying to ask was: how can you be Canadian if you look Asian? I always had to explain that my parents immigrated from another country. They would then nod, finally understanding my provenance.
No conversation would be complete without those questions. To them, I was a Malaysian-born Chinese-Canadian.
The questions always feel like an insult, an attack. When you tell someone that you're Canadian or from Canada, they expect you to be white.
When my friend Christine, who is Macedonian, visited Ireland, she was asked where she was from. When she replied "Canada," the young Irish man next to her bent his head low and asked in hushed tones, "are you legal over there?" He wondered if she was an illegal immigrant.
To the Irish guy, Christine's dark, Slavic features weren't "Canadian" enough. What does a Canadian look like? Pamela Anderson? Bryan Adams?
I always feel a little smug when I explain that in Canada, when you get your citizenship, you are Canadian – no questions asked. That's the beauty of coming from a country of immigrants.
Because of my experiences, I won't ask a person about their ethnicity or place of birth until I know them well enough. It's a personal question, to be treated as delicately as the question of sexuality or how much a person earns.
In Europe, concepts of race and nationality are entwined. That fact was made obvious to me when I visited my Spanish friend Macu and her family at their beach home in southern Spain.
After three days of spending time with the family, eating with them, laughing and swimming, a heated exchange erupted between Macu, her sister and their mother in the kitchen. They spoke in Spanish and in angry tones that made me think they were going to kill each other. I felt uncomfortable sitting in the living room with her father.
When the shouting ended, Macu took me out for drinks by the beach. Over beer, she told me they were debating my heritage.
"My mother and sister believe you should say you're from China."
Stunned, I could barely sputter, "why?"
"Chinese come from China," said Macu.
It was like a slap in the face. I had told them I was from Canada. They had smiled and nodded. I didn't think my nationality would cause such a furore. Macu understood the concept of immigration. Unlike most of her family, she had lived in other countries and talked to many foreigners about their own countries. She took my side in the argument.
"But, I've never set foot in China!" I told Macu. "And, I was born in Malaysia!" Macu took a drag of her cigarette and nodded knowingly. "They don't understand that. For them, Chinese come from China." She blew out the smoke.
It was futile. During the time I spent living in Europe, the question of my nationality elicited wonderment, puzzlement and sometimes ridiculous comments. Many Europeans regard nationality as an issue of race and birthright.
I ask, why can't the person engage me as a human being without resorting to putting me in a box? Why does my ethnicity need to be established right away? In Canada, I could declare myself Canadian and there wouldn't be those rude, prying questions. I could be who I am and Canadian and no one would question that. But of course, it's never perfect.
In the same week Le Pen won the first round of the French elections, Wilbur MacDonald, a member of the Prince Edward Island legislature, stood up and made a rambling speech, decrying the possible destruction of the white race.
"We seem to be on a track to destroy our society in a sense, especially the white human race... It won't be long in the United States when they will become part of Mexico and people from – I'm trying to think of, what's another name for the people of Mexico? – Spanish people. And I don't know what's going to happen to Canada."
MacDonald apologized for his remarks. His comments aren't shocking, if you go back about 130 years.
Before the turn of the century, the Canadian government debated levying a head tax on Chinese immigrants. Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, said he believed the Chinese would always be foreigners in Canada.
It has been more than a century since Sir John A. made that speech and yet it still resonates today in people such as Wilbur MacDonald and Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The good thing about living in today's society is that Wilbur was shamed into his apology. At the time of Sir John A.'s speech, there were no such recantations.
The next time you ask someone where they're from or where they were born, please consider the context. It makes a world of difference.