What’s Wrong with Nihao

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.

 

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6 responses to “What’s Wrong with Nihao

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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”.

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