Emily Cheng: But Where Are You Really From?



Photography and Artist Statement by Emily Cheng, Copyright 2018


But Where Are You Really From?


To be Asian and living in America is to be a perpetual foreigner in our own land. Regardless of whether we were born in this country, or how much we have culturally assimilated, we are always deemed ‘other’ because of the color of our skin. I came to the United States four years ago from Hong Kong, armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and an American accent honed by years of international school and reality TV. Perhaps it was naivety, or just ignorance, but I believed that acceptance would come easily to me. While my experience in the U.S. has mostly been positive, it’s been marred by everyday incidents, from well-meaning questions to racially-charged catcalls, that constantly reinforce my foreignness.

“Ni Hao!”

“Damn China”

“Wow your English is so good”

“But where are you really from?”

I liken the Asian identity to a costume that we cannot shed, no matter how much we try. It’s something that differentiates us, exoticizes us in the eyes of our American peers. For Asian-Americans, that hyphen in our name is a constant reminder that we are not quite as American as our white counterparts. This photo series highlights the complexities and contradictions inherent in the Asian-American identity. It also expresses the otherness that Asians experience in American spaces everyday – from restaurants and supermarkets to schools and workplaces.

I came to America thinking it was a cultural melting pot. But as I prepare to leave after four years, I see a country that is increasingly hostile to immigrants and foreigners, a country that strives to be homogenous rather than full of color. I hope that this series gives you pause, that it makes you question the arbitrary characteristics that divide Americans. After all, to be American is not to have a certain skin color, nor to speak a certain language, but to simply embrace the country’s principles of freedom and liberty.

To quote former president Ronald Reagan, “America represents something universal in the human spirit. Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.”



Portrait of Emily Cheng by Esther Fleischer, Copyright 2018


About The Author: Wing Hei Emily Cheng is a Senior enrolled in the College of the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2018. To access additional articles by Ms. Cheng, click here


This entry was posted in Blog, Current Events, Documentary, Environment, Photography, Politics, Popular Culture, Portraiture, Student Life, Travel, UPenn, UPenn Photography, Women.


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