The Narrative Burden

It seems like an innocuous question, but for an international adoptee it’s a complicated one.

My typical response, “Madison, Wisconsin via Central New Jersey and I’ve lived in DC for about five years.” Which elicits a frown, or quizzical facial expression of the person asking and their follow up question becomes “where are you really from?”

I assume they ask me the “really” part because my skin is brown, but my English is sans an accent. So I clearly must be leaving out some detail(s) from my origin storyline and this confounds them. Most of the time, I’m in a good mood, happy to converse with total strangers (I do this quite well as my friends will attest) and so I continue along. “Well actually I’m from India and was adopted.” But other times, I don’t want to share my life story with people I’ve never met and don’t feel like it. So I repeat the Wisconsin, New Jersey, DC spiel and leave them perplexed.

A few years ago I attended a conference made up of entirely of international adoptees and I heard for the first time a great term to describe the “where are you from question.” We named it the “narrative burden.” What an apt description.

Everyone else can get away with a simple one or two sentence answer that sufficiently satisfies the questioner, but for the adopted person of color, that’s nearly impossible. It can be a burden for us.

How much information is too much information? That’s a question that each individual adopted person has to decide for themselves. I don’t fault the person asking the question at all. It’s one of the most fundamental in small talk. What annoys me, is when I clearly do not want to continue the line of questioning, they can see this on my face and yet insist on pushing the issue. I’m nearly always willing to talk about being adopted, with anyone who wants to listen, but sometimes I don’t. However, for some reason, people think when I don’t what to delve into my history that I’m being rude. My story is a convoluted one, and if I don’t want to share it with you, that’s my prerogative.

With people who I’m talking to from the Indian subcontinent, it’s even more difficult. After we get to the “where are you really from” question, I don’t usually say I’m adopted from India. I reply that I was born in India. Oh, but it does not stop there. “Where in India are you from?” or my personal favorite, “You don’t look Indian, I thought you were Middle Eastern, or from somewhere in Africa.”

Then we move to the questions of lineage. “Do your parents still live in India?”-technically the answer is yes. But I say “no.” Then they ask me how often I get back to India to see my family. I reply that I haven’t been since 2001, but conveniently leave out the fact that I didn’t visit any family in 2001- because I have no family I know of there.

Sometimes I blunder revealing that I’m adopted from India when I’m talking to Indians – this is a large mistake on my part, which opens a whole new line of queries. “Where are your real parents?” I smile, even though I absolutely hate it when anyone asks me where my “real” parents are. My parents who raised me are living, breathing creatures, and so they are my real parents. What these folks want to know is where the people who created me, my birth mother and birth father are now? For that I have no answer.

This can get really frustrating for me. At this point I feel trapped and on the defensive, and it all started with “where are you from?” Sometimes, it continues, if they ask my name. Usually I say A.J., which they frequent hear as the Indian “Ajay” and out pops the last name question. When I reply “Bryant,” it’s a flurry of questions. “Bryant, that isn’t an Indian name, how did you get that name? I thought you were from India.” Ah, the narrative burden, gotta love it.

Usually I just laugh off the last name vein of questions, and say something about the British formally ruling India, why would my Anglo name come as such a surprise. They smile and sometimes chuckle. The interrogation is over, and I thankfully am done.

“Where are you from?” Be careful when you ask us the question, it might be a half hour until you get the answer.


  1. Thanks for posting this. People think this is such an innocent question but they also forget there are deeper implications. Where are you from carries the implicit “You don’t belong here”. I really struggle with this because it is often a well meaning question spurred by curiosity but people need to consider it more closely.
    Here’s a quote from a paper I wrote: Oparah, Shinn and Trenka (2006) point out, “Although it appears to be an innocent question, ‘Where do you come from?’ carries the implicit rejection ‘you are not like us’ and underlies the assertion, ‘you do not belong here’ (p. 8). Being forced to address smile and be kind to those who assert that one does not belong because of their skin color can take the power away from the person of color. This adds layers of complexity when an adoptee already feels like an outsider in the adopted home, community and country.

  2. Though I do not have completely parallel experiences to those described in this posting, it really struck a cord with me as a second generation Indian-American. Professor Frank Wu of Howard University also seems to voice the feelings and latent meanings of this question very well. I would recommend reading his short piece on the matter…

  3. Kind of along this topic, I could relate so many ill-thought-out comments. Fortunately I have a sense of humor about them but others would be horrified, I’m sure. Some include:
    **”Can I practice my Chinese on you?” (NOTE: I’m Korean and don’t even speak that).
    **”Do you read any Mandarin?” (Before I could catch myself, I said,’I’m not familiar with that author.’)
    **”Can you teach my to stir fry?” (at the dining hall in college)

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