Why can't I go out for lunch in Chicago without getting asked this question? There I am, sitting in a Hyde Park restaurant, minding my own business, when this elderly white man comes shuffling toward me and strikes up a conversation.
Elderly White Man: I guess these are the high-class seats!*
Me: Yeah, I guess so.
EWM: I've never been in here before! I had no idea it was so luxurious!
Me: Yeah, it's pretty nice.
EWM:: You look like a regular customer.
Me: I guess I come in here occasionally.
EWM:: So! Where are you from?** Some other country?***
Me: ...**** [shaking my head]
EWM: This one?
EWM: Oh! I never would have guessed!***** But your ancestors must have come from some faraway place.****** Japan? Korea?
Me: ...******* China.
EWM: [utters something incomprehensible]
Me: Excuse me?
EWM: [repeats previous utterance]
[At this point I realize that the man is actually speaking Chinese. Not the usual "ni hao, ching chong" stuff: I distinctly make out the word "zhongwen" at the end of his sentence.]
Me: [laughing nervously] Well, your Chinese is better than mine.
EWM: It should be! I had a good teacher! The American government! You ever been to China?
Me: A few times.
EWM: Well, that's more than I have! But when I did go I stayed a long time!
Me: [packing up my stuff] Well, enjoy your lunch.
EWM: See ya.
*I was sitting next to the windows. I should note that at this point the man was actually hovering over my table, as if he were going to sit down with me; over the course of the conversation he gradually backed away.
**Notice the weird way in which this question is almost always used as a conversational entree, like asking about the weather. "Say, it's a beautiful day! Hey, did you notice that your skin isn't the same color as mine?"
***This oddly pointed clarification prevented me from using the usual response to "Where are you from?" which is to say something disarming like "Chicago" or "California" and look at the questioner blankly.
****This is the slightly stunned silence that you retrospectively fill with comebacks like "Why? Where are you from?" or "Same as you, jerk." At the time, though, one part of your brain is saying Is this really happening? and the other part is saying Yes, it's happening, again, which makes it a little difficult for your mouth to work.
*****I will admit that I was entirely clad in olive, which perhaps the man mistook for the uniform of the People's Liberation Army.
******This is, of course, a slightly more sophisticated variation on the usual follow-up, "No, where are you really from?"
*******Here I'm weighing the desire to just stop talking to the man against the realization that that would just prolong this further. Anyway, what was I going to do? Lie?
I've gotten the hostile version of this question, i.e. "Why don't you go back where you came from," only once that I can remember, on the subway in Boston.
I have never been asked this in California.*
Once, in Toronto, a guy on a park bench called out to me as I was walking to work, "So what about you? Are you from this country?" I just laughed, because the answer, of course, was "No, I'm an American."
*After I told Robin this story, she reminded me that this had, in fact, once happened to me in California, when a guy in a bookstore in San Luis Obispo decided to harass me (and my people) for being short.