Seeing Opportunity In A Question: 'Where Are You Really From?' Alex Sugiura says he understands why people ask. "I have always thought I've had a particularly strange face," he explains. And the query, he says, gives him a chance to really talk about what it means to be mixed-race in America.

Seeing Opportunity In A Question: 'Where Are You Really From?'

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It's time again for the Race Card Project where people express their thoughts about race and cultural identity in just six words. Multiracial identity has been the focus for the past month. For more on that, here's our colleague Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: In this next segment, we look at the role of appearance in determining or deepening ones identity. This morning, we meet 27-year-old Alex Sugiura of New York City. Because of his racially ambiguous appearance, there is one question he cannot seem to escape.

ALEX SUGIURA: My name is Alex Sugiura. I live in Brooklyn, New York, and my six words are No, really, where are you from?

INSKEEP: No, really, where are you from? NPR special correspondent Michele Norris is the curator of the Race Card Project. She's in our studios once again. Hi, Michele.


INSKEEP: OK. Explain why it is that he cannot escape that question.

NORRIS: Well, it has something to do with his appearance and that has something to do with his parentage, so let me tell you a little bit about who he is.


NORRIS: Alex's father is a first-generation Japanese immigrant. His mother is from mélange of Eastern European immigrants and she's Jewish. And Alex, he describes himself as racially ambiguous and so that is why he always gets this question. There are actually two boys in the family. Alex's brother Max looks more identifiably Asian, but as I said, Alex is just a big question mark.

INSKEEP: In other words, people look at him and whatever he may say about his identity, they don't quite buy it.

NORRIS: This comes up again and again in interviews that we do. In other cases, people have said if feels accusatory, like where are you really from, do you really belong. They're trying to point out their otherness in some case.Alex actually welcomes it and he welcomes the conversation that flows out of that. And frankly, he says he understands why people ask him this question.

SUGIURA: I have always thought I've had a particularly strange face.

NORRIS: Now, you have to explain that. Why strange?

SUGIURA: Having broken my nose several times as a teenager, my face has changed slightly. But I looked at my parents growing up and I didn't see their faces in my face, but I did see some combination, some mixture. I could see a clear link when I was young between other people and their parents or for, like, what a typical American face would be.

But I'd look in the mirror and I'd look around and I'd think, that's not me.

INSKEEP: He may not think, Michele, that he looks typically American, whatever that is, but apparently other people think he is because he was recently used as the illustration for a National Geographic story about the changing face of America.

NORRIS: Indeed, that's how we found him, as part of a collaboration with National Geographic Magazine's online photo-blog called "Proof." And he's one of several people who were photographed by a well known photographer named Martin Schoeller and that piece looked at the growing number of people who are multiracial and the growing questions around identity and appearance, but particularly how people choose to identify themselves.

INSKEEP: Okay. So once he gets asked a second time, how does this guy of Japanese/Eastern European Jewish decent identify himself.

NORRIS: When he fills out the Census, he checks the box for Japanese. But in more casually, is he's just, you know, if someone walks up to him at the subway or at a dinner party, he self-IDs as American, but says he's ethnically Jewish. A lot of people, when they look at him, think that he comes from Latin America. And Alex says this has been happening to him as long as he can remember.

He shared with us a story that took place when he was young, six or seven years old, he's at the park with his mother, they're waiting for ice cream and someone approaches him. Let's listen.

SUGIURA: An old man came up to me and just started asking me questions in Spanish. And almost started crying cause I was just so terrified. But with varying frequency, yeah, I found myself conversing with people who would approach me in Spanish.

INSKEEP: Que paso. A culture that, actually, he has nowhere in his ethnic background, that he knows of, yeah.

NORRIS: Not as far as he knows. And yet, he fell in love with the language. At a very early age, his parents enrolled both he and his brother Max in Japanese language and cultural classes. And when he was about 11, he started to take Spanish classes and he liked that so much more. And he just fell in love with the language, and the culture and everything that he discovered that came along with that.

And he says that he found another aspect, another dimension to his identity, which was important for someone who says he grew up feeling like he had a foot in two worlds, but never really belonging in either one.

SUGIURA: It was a passing fancy at first, this idea that by people jokingly or mistakenly identifying me as Hispanic, that I thought there was some kind of safe space there, you might say, that I was given a kind of fictional persona. So yeah, I would say it propelled me forward and I feel very much like my own man through the Spanish language.

NORRIS: When we, you know, look at this intersection, again, with race and appearance, and in the case of Alex Sugiura, there is yet another interesting wrinkle. Alex has inherited his parents' curiosity. He's inherited their love of storytelling, their love of food. He's also inherited several physical characteristics, including their height.

This is an uncomfortable part of the conversation, but he says that his height, his deep voice, his type-A personality, his sort of, kind of big physical presence, has helped him sidestep, in some ways, some of the more painful, offensive stereotypes that are too often attached to Asian men.

SUGIURA: My father did us a great favor by marrying our mother and they made two tall, loud boys. So we have been in a really fortunate position with regards to that question. When you're a typical, you know, shorter, soft-spoken Asian male, you are perceived almost to be weaker or lacking the fiber of what an American leader is supposed to be.

But I've been in the weird position of just being really tall and loud my whole life.

INSKEEP: I wonder, Michele, if because of the way he looks, he actually overhears people in his presence making use of these stereotypes, referring to them in some way and not realizing they're actually talking about him or people of his ancestry.

NORRIS: He does hear that and it often is the case that the people saying it don't understand that there's someone in the room that would be quite offended. This goes back to the reason that he welcomes this question, where are you really from, and the conversations that flow from that, because he sees these conversations as an opportunity to, you know, to talk about identity and to make the point that there are lots of different ways to be Asian.

There are lots of different ways to be Jewish. There are lots of different ways to be white. There's a lots of different ways to be a New Yorker. And he has a chance to make that point if he actually gets to participate in those conversations.

INSKEEP: And we've been having this conversation with NPR's Michele Norris. She curates the Race Card Project. And Michele, I gather this conversation you've been sharing with us continues online.

NORRIS: It does. You can find out a lot more about Alex Sugiura, his family and there's a wonderful story online that he shared with us, his family was traveling to the American South. They walk into a gas station. Behind the counter is sitting someone he describes as a good ol' boy and they ask the family, they asked his father in particular, this question.

SUGIURA: Where are you from, boy?

NORRIS: It sounds like the encounter is laden with all kinds of tension, but the answer will surprise you.

INSKEEP: And you can find that answer at where you can also find the National Geographic story that featured Alex Sugiura. Michele Norris, glad you came by once again.

NORRIS: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Talk to you soon.

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