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.