“Where are you from?” by Erika Quach3 min read

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Illustrated by Louisa Tsui

The inevitable question I encounter every shift. Clad in a tight black tank top and minuscule skirt, I have a petite build under my work uniform.

I’m 4’11” and have long, dark hair. Strong calves. Chinese and Vietnamese.

I make conversation as a waitress. Sure, it’s easy to be the “order taker.” Ask people what they want to drink and eat. Write it down. Repeat it to them. Show you can record what’s said with accuracy.

But that’s the minimum.

My mentality is this: if I’m at work for a set time, I’ll have fun with it. And people tip more when they like you. Tips help with university.

I flash a smile, clear plates and chatter with children.

Then comes the question: “Where are you from?”

“You’re not Chinese, are you?”

“Yes, I am.”

“You’re pretty for a Chinese girl.”

I received that one at a women’s brunch.

“What are you?”

As if I’m some foreign creature.

“Where were you born?”

In a hospital. In Toronto…

“Are you half-Italian, half-Thai?”

Wait. What?

“You’re so exotic! Are you Lao?”


“You know how you can tell the lady boys in Thailand apart?” The man touched his Adam’s apple and said, “They have surgeries now. You can’t even see it! You have to bend their arms like this. Here, let me show you.”

I struggled not to roll my eyes and thought about the money I need for school. “How?”

He grabbed my arm and tried to bend it at an angle. “See?! Women can twist this part further back. Men can’t!”

Guests have also said, “I want to know your opinion on the pad thai.”

Yes. You know I have those Pad Thai taste buds!

The shape of my eyes convey the kind of Asian I am too.

“You’re not Chinese. Your eyes are more round.”

Oh. But I am.

One person wanted me to tell him my “Chinese name.”

When I did, I choked on the grace he didn’t deserve.

His friend giggled, “He wants to marry you.”

I asked my coworker to open their next bottle of wine to avoid them.

I must be courteous. I must be polite. I am at work.

But I feel I must be this way outside of work too.

Most Asians are part of the back-of-house staff. They fry, sauté, grill and portion food, or clean dirty dishes.

At least I can laugh with them over these stories.

Erika Quach was born in Toronto to two adoring Chinese and Vietnamese parents. Her love of literature started with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” in Grade 3. She completed the Early Childhood Studies program at Ryerson University with a minor in English and earned her Master of Teaching degree from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (teachable: English). She currently works as an occasional teacher for two school boards. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, cooking with healthy recipes, writing, and working out.

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