It was about quarter to noon when my stomach began rumbling, signaling to me that it was time to have an early lunch. Lost in my own thoughts, I casually walked past a group of people on my way to the first floor kitchenette and didn’t immediately register that the “你好 nihao” I heard was directed at me by a middle aged white man, wearing a green sweatshirt and denim pants with a slightly bored expression on his face.
While my curry was heating up in the microwave, I had one minute and thirty seconds to process this situation. Who did he think he was, and why did he feel the need to address me that way? Both my food and my usually calm temperament began steaming. I decided to confront the man, but when I opened the door, he was gone. I went back to the lobby area to eat my lunch when I saw the man at a coffee cart, buying a drink. What’s more, the people in his group were standing by, waiting for him relatively close to where I was sitting. They decided to meet the man later, which gave me the perfect opportunity to talk to him when he walked past my direction.
“Excuse me,” I said, “Did you just say ‘你好 nihao’ to me?”
“你好吗 nihao ma,” the man replied.
Confused that he would continue down this offensive path, I told him that the next time he ran into an Asian person, he might not want to assume they’re Chinese. East Asians are a diverse group of people who speak a number of languages, even within China.
“I didn’t assume you were Chinese,” he told me. “I assumed you might want to learn Chinese.”
Why would this man make that assumption? The obvious answer to me was simply my Asian appearance, and he was just trying to defend himself in whatever option was still possible. Despite what he claimed, I am confident he wouldn’t have called out 好吗 nihao to a white or black or racially ambiguous person walking by. Furthermore, how much Mandarin was I going to learn in a two second interaction with a stranger in which he simply said, “你好 nihao.”
After providing some further justification, the man continued, “I’m sorry if you thought that. It wasn’t a racial comment at all. Uhh… won’t happen again. You know a lot of my work has been debunking Donald Trump’s campaign and his comments regarding immigrants and refugees. He’s really racist.”
His attempt to sway the conversation through Donald Trump mockery didn’t work with me. I quickly responded,”I agree with you, and when people say things to me like 你好 nihao, it marginalizes me and shows that I’m not thought of as American, but as the other.”
The man replied, “I see you as American.” And I asked with exasperation one final time, “Then why would you greet me with 你好 nihao?”
“Because…,” I could tell he was struggling, “all my Asian friends want to learn Chinese… And I know people from Nigeria and Australia who want to learn Chinese, too. But like I said, won’t happen again.”
His simple 好吗 nihao was unwelcome because it was not a setting in which I had revealed that I spoke Mandarin. I was simply walking to heat my lunch. His 你好 nihao exemplifies the “Fresh off the Boat” mindset about Asian Americans despite the fact that we have been in this country for hundreds of years.
I realize that he probably was trying to be friendly and that offense was not his intent, but he could have just as easily connected with me in English – the same way he would have interacted with anyone else. What was particularly upsetting about this man was his extremely defensive and pompous demeanor. While I am frustrated by culturally insensitive comments, I can understand ignorance and underexposure to some level, but when this ignorance comes paired with arrogance, it’s absolutely unacceptable.
Very well written! I am afraid my English is insufficient to comment properly but you handled this situation in a very mature way. So much more mature than the man who made the comment.
Thanks for reading!
As a white foreigner in Japan, though I had lived there for 4 years, people always yelled “Hello!” at me as I walked by. They did want to learn English, or try it out, so I cut them some slack. It depended on how they did it. If they were also yelling Gaijin-da! (Foreigner!) and kind of treating me like a zoo animal, i did not like it. But if they were more genuine and came up to me and tried to have a warm conversation, in English, I would engage and make friends, or I would answer in Japanese and they would often
switch back to Japanese with me at that point. Of course, several hundred years in a multilingual/multiracial society with English dominant is very different from 4 years in Japan.(a particularly closed society, linguistically and socially – historically)….but now even Japan’s society is becoming more multi-ethnic and diverse linguistically as well. I agree that we have to get past assuming language and culture about people
based on their appearance only. HIs answer was lame and arrogant as you said, “I assumed you wanted to learn Chinese!” …Give me a break!
Hopefully he thought about it and will change his ways. I am glad you called him on it. Sometimes though, if you figure out a person’s mother tongue, and address them in it, the effort is seen as respectful. It can be that way, as Martin Luther King said ” Speak to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his mind. Speak to him in his own language, that goes to his heart. ” But it is all in the figuring out first, and asking politely, and not assuming that someone is not “local” based on their appearance only. Of course, using English would have been the most respectful, inclusive overture in this case…..as that would have implied the respect and status of a local being given to you….which you deserved. (understatement)
I hope that…
Someday we will all be accepted as “locals”
wherever we are on this Earth! Language=Status=Power still, wherever you go. and racial diversity is what makes Canada great. We need to all start answering the question “Where are you from?” with our complex answers, to really explain our diversity and complex heritages. When people share this…. it is really fascinating.
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Thank you for recognizing the difference between being exoticized in my home country versus being greeted differently in a country that was not yours.
It wasn’t Martin Luther King, it was Nelson Mandela.
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I totally get your frustration, so don’t take this as a comment on that, but Chinese people didn’t come to America “hundreds of years ago”. First arrived less than 200 years ago and for any substantial population to be noticed it’s more like a mere single century has passed, at best.
While you’re correct that the first major wave of Asian immigration to the U.S. was in the 1800’s (which I am defining as hundreds of years ago), the earliest Asians actually set foot on American land in the 1500s with Spanish explorers. Regardless of the impact of 500 years or 200 years, it is long enough that we Asian Americans should no longer be considered foreigners in our own home.
I’m so glad I found your blog even though it’s a few years old. I just came back from a solo trip to Spain and had the worst time of my life in terms of the racism I experienced and had to google if other female Asian travelers experienced the same. When my friends ask me how my trip was I am reluctant to admit my trip was bad so I will have to get this off my chest online to warn other Asians what to expect.
Luckily I was in Madrid, which I hope is a more open-minded, melting pot. I would hate to know what I would have had to endure if I went to the rural areas. I was taking in the sights and just minding my own business but would have Ni Hao shouted in my face by passerbys about 10 times a day. When I turn around they would have a mean smirk on their face. It wasn’t just the Spanish who did it but also Arabs and a black. What would they feel if I shouted Akbar Allah!!! at them? After getting ni-haoed every single day it ruined my spirit and my resting bitchy face came out which is basically a frown and this must have attracted even more Ni Haos at me. They were said in a exaggerated, mock Chinese accent. One kid even pointed at me to my friend and started laughting! WTF!
Now that I think back, I think the Spanish must have some sort of inferiority complex. They don’t look that white to me. They are n Europe, sure, but they are somewhat dark, hairy and short and scrawny build, like little monkeys. I think their lack of confidence makes them take it out on Asians, who won’t ever fight back. I don’t think my Asian male friends had this problem, it seems to be a female thing.
Anyway, I refuse to go back there, I heard that Italy is just as bad? I won’t shop at Zara or Mango or any of those other Spanish high street shops and I advise other Asians to avoid the place unless they have thick skin and find it “funny”.
Hey please. Someone is trying to say hello in a nice way and you make it a big problem? There is world full of real violence and racism and everything so please try to take friendly words in a friendly way, no matter what language! You are racist yourself if you concentrate on the language. I am glad if people say hello, what ever language they use!! If I understand their language, I try to say hello to them too and then my day is better. You just made that mans day worse, don’t be proud of yourself. You know who you are and that’s enough. Don’t be so sensitive that someone can’t say HELLO to you! Sounds weird and rude from your side. If you are SO sensitive of that topic that you can’t handle that kind of small thing, what ever the man thought (to be funny or to be polite or just friendly because you were so cute or good looking that he wanted to be nice and say something – you should think about that! People don’t always even talk to strangers and I don’t wonder that if they can end up with that.. Maybe you look nice but you are not. I hope you are more fun to people around you.) maybe you should see a psychologist or something or talk with some friends until you feel like you belong to that country and you can receive and give smiles and nice and normal thoughts between different kind of people. Can’t you be proud of your roots and explaine them in a happy way if someone asks or you want to tell them? What is wrong with different appearance? Nothing. If someone tries to be friendly, LET HIM BE. There is enough hatred in this world and you just give negative picture of Asian or Asian looking people with that kind of attitude. If someone likes Asian things, let him. I love them too and I’m happy that my intentions have always been understood in a nice way, no matter whom I’m talking with. Next time you can answer in Spanish or French if you like and you make a point too but in a nice way.
Greetings from one Finnish girl who loves languages and wishes good thoughts between people! I understand your point but I don’t like if someone starts to complaine everything to a total stranger. If I think people stare something they shouldn’t I don’t complaine it to them, I can tell my mom or some close friend that I’m frustrated in something. If strangers don’t mean anything offensive it’s useless to make it a huge and offensive problem. It was shocking to me to read this and realize that someone can be upset if he or she is just greeted! Can’t you see it is positive and tells something very good of your appearance if some stranger wants to say hi? Or if you want you can answer “I’m American but ni hao”, “Actually my family is from India but ni hao”, _”Hi”_ or “What does it mean” if you don’t understand or just smile and say nothing or don’t even look if you don’t care but don’t act like he has done something very wrong by liking Asian languages or culture or people or Asian looking people. If you are originally from there, accept it and be happy and polite and let others be too. Give a good image of yourself and your social skills by answering as polite as the other people try to be towards you. If someone has understood something wrong it isn’t their huge fault and you can correct them nicely if you like or just let it be. Do you really want that he doesn’t use his language skills with anyone anymore? Some really Asian people could be _happy_ if someone suddenly speaks their language! Now that man has fewer courage to do so. He was trying to care and notice and you could value that and not be like some diva who wants everyone to treat her one way only – her way or no way. You can’t change other peoples behavior but you can make their life better and that is why you’re living here.
..and now I read the other post about Spanish people who are like monkeys or what ever. What kind of people you are if you are mad at people greeting you? I have been to many European countries and Spain was great and they greet everyone in their language or they TRY to do so because they want to be friendly!!! They don’t mean it like that or offensive. Please.. Makes me wonder if Americans are very wise and if I really want to travel there either. What is wrong with you? Don’t have some weird racial war yourself and be just normal and you fit _anywhere_!! Calling someone a little monkey is BULLYING. Saying hello, god dag, päivää, good afternoon, ni hao, goten dag, bonjour, bongiorno or using Sign Language hand sign IS NOT. Have you ever heard make love and not war.. If Spanish people are different compared to you try to understand it. If there is a lot of Asians travelling there and they always say ni hao and you look like them try to understand it. They try to greet you and that’s the point, not the language!!! Meaning is everything, language is not(hing).
If I went to India and all the people thought I would be from Sweden and they knew one greeting word in Swedish and they would say it to me why would I be offended by it?? (Of course it could be frustrative sometimes but that’s just the situation and it wouldn’t be their fault.) I look the same as they do and that would be understandable. I would answer the same way if I can or what ever language, English or Indian, what ever. Talking and getting to know people makes life safer and nicer and that is 100% more important. Try to understand that everyone is different but you can have nice and polite (and warm!) relationships with almost everyone if you like. Or if you don’t don’t complaine if there is no love.. In you.
Btw what is wrong with Chinese really? Why is it offensive that you are being told you could be Chinese?? If someone thinks I look like German or British or Swedish or French it’s _totally_ okey for me, I look the same but I can correct it if I start to have a longer chat. Someone once thought I’m Australian and I was just proud of it and I thought it was funny =) Same thing with any nation, I can’t think of any nation that would offend me.. (I did wonder about North Korea if people look like starving or something..) And if they don’t mean to offend you but try to be nice then what’s the problem – unless it’s your own too sensitive and unlovable attitude.
I think Chinese or Asian looking people are the most beautiful or cutest people on the earth and I love their eyes and everything and that affects in my opinion little bit too. Just be proud of your looks, love yourself and love others, it’s that simple =) Be offended if you have a real reason. Being mad to many many good willing people or being miserable in a beautiful foreign country isn’t the right solution for You or anyone.
If you feel the need to write this much in response to the piece I wrote, it is clear that you are not in a position to receive any further remarks I have with an open mind. Hopefully, this can change with time. My assumption based on this essay response is that you are a white person. White people in the United States have not position in telling people of color how they “should” receive racism. You are right — there are certainly larger symptoms of racism to address than someone using “nihao” to greet all Asians, but this, too, is part of the system of racism that 1. assumes all Asians are interchangeable as Chinese, 2. assumes that all Asians are foreigners (Forever Foreigner) in the land of their citizenship and oftentimes birth, and 3. builds on to the daily onslaught of microaggressions that people of color receive that negatively impacts their mental health and ability to achieve status as equals in the United States. The “forever foreigner” complex through which Asian Americans are seen contributes to the Bamboo Ceiling, limiting Asian Americans professionally.
Lastly, your final paragraph is beyond unnerving. You suggest that I am “miserable in a beautiful foreign country.” I am an American. This is my country. I am not a foreigner. You also state that you “think Chinese or Asian looking people are the most beautiful.” This is a harmful form of fetishizing an entire race that puts Asian women, like myself, in danger. I compel you to think reassess your racial biases and examine the structures of racism from a more critical lens. Well intentioned comments or comments with a simple lack of thought can be racist, which was the entire point of this blog post and a message that you have yet to learn.