Sunday, April 15, 2007

Try Saying, "Hi"

The church JG and I attend is new and small and meets in another church’s building for Sunday service. Today, a member of the other church, a man with whom I am not acquainted, approached me and I expected a normal, good-natured conversation. Instead, I got the following (my gut reactions italicized):

He: So… is your family Vietnamese?
I: (What in the world? Oh, he’s just asking what my background is.) Uh, no, my family is Chinese.
He: Oh, sorry, my mistake.
I: (Ooh, he feels bad. Just make light of it and be nice.) Don’t worry, I can’t tell the difference sometimes.
He: If you had been Vietnamese, I would have been able to talk to you.
I: (Um, because we’re not talking right now?) Oh.
He: Well, have a nice day.

With that, the man ambled off. I guess we’re done now, I thought.

Admittedly, this episode does not come close to the ignorance displayed by the Rice Knowledge Woman, but I’m obliged to raise my eyebrow in a general expression of, “What the heck just happened here?” Besides the obvious fact that asking someone about ethnic background this bluntly is awkward and generally inappropriate, I have three major objections to the conversation.

First, I hate how I feel obligated to maintain my composure when I’m caught in these circumstances. Why is it my role to be sensitive to people’s ignorance and lack of common courtesy when it comes to race? Why can’t I just lash out with some zinger? (“I think all you middle-aged, pot-bellied, white guys look the same, too.”) Oh, right. I’m supposed to be a docile, Asian girl who giggles behind her hand and wears chopsticks in her hair.

Although this conversation did not include this pet peeve explicitly, I always become irritated when people are surprised that I don’t speak Chinese. I was born in America! Where we speak English! I was an English major, for goodness’ sake! I hardly expect to meet a third-generation European-American who speaks Italian or French or whatever, but I don’t exclaim, “Oh, really? That’s a shame! Why didn’t you try to pick it up?”

Last, but certainly not least - why didn’t this man even introduce himself? I think I may have been a little less startled if the conversation had started out with something like: “Hi, I’m Joe. I learned some Vietnamese back in the day and I was wondering what your background is.” I imagine that the interaction would have been strange nonetheless, but I think it may have felt better with a different lead-in.

I don’t mind being asked about my ethnicity, but the question is so often posed in such a coarse manner that I am completely turned off. To this man, I was no more than an Asian face. I wasn’t a person he thought to address directly and that bothers me most of all.

Here’s a little tip for those who might be interested in others’ ethnicities: To break the ice, try saying, “Hi.” It’s kind of like speaking to any other person.



janet said...

Maybe he meant that if you were Vietnamese he could talk to you in Vietnamese? Not that what he said is an excuse because it doesn't make sense at all, but I was just trying to figure it out? Why are people so weird?

alyndabear said...

Whatever his motivations were, I think it was kind of rude the way he started and ended the conversation. No matter what, a little politeness never hurt anyone..

L Sass said...

That is unbelievable... but, yet, completely, unfortunately believable.

I always find it amazing how often it is assumed that non-white people are somehow closer to their heritage / less assimilated to American culture.

Especially because I'm 3rd generation American and we keep in touch with our Swedish and Norwegian cousins! In my family, I feel like the immigrant experience has been felt keenly in the collective memory. How is that any different?

zandria said...

I think that's good advice for people: Just say "hi." It would do away with a lot of problems (and potential misunderstandings), wouldn't it?