© Zak Keith, 2009
QUESTION: How do you greet an Asian person? How do you say hello to an Asian person?
THE SHORT ANSWER:
When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
If you want to be polite to Asians, just say hello like you would say hello to anyone else—in the language of the country you’re in. If you’re in an English-speaking country, greet Asian strangers in English; if you’re in France, greet them in French... and so on.
THE TRUTHFUL ANSWER:
It’s best not to assume to know what a person’s language “must be” based on their looks. If you are face-to-face with an Asian-looking person who is a perfect stranger in your country, saying hello to them in “their own language” is a bad idea, because:
THE ANSWER YOU MIGHT PREFER (but still what not you should say to a total stranger):
Mandarin Chinese: Nee-how
Cantonese: Lay ho ma
Korean: Ahn Neyong Ha Seyo
Thai: Sawadee-kahp (if you are male) or Sawadee-ka (if you are female)
THE LONG ANSWER:
“I’ve had people try to impress me with a Thai phrase, a Japanese phrase, something in Chinese, Korean, Malay, Tagalog... What these oafs have no clue about is that you could swear at this Chinaman in Chinese—the “right” language—and he’d never flinch. To top it off, he’s probably the only chink in town who can’t even handle a lousy pair of chopsticks. Not very Chinese, you could say, but what you see is not always what you get. While most people think of me as a friendly guy, this ignorance gets old real fast and I am known to retaliate.”
—Zak Keith, author of My Life as a Squint-eyed Chink
Shopkeepers, hotel staff and restaurant workers in tourist districts around the world seem to think it’s such a great idea to greet people in “their own language.” Hotel management schools and educators in the tourist and hospitality industry actually encourage such praxis. It should no longer surprise you in this day and age, that saying hello to perfect strangers in what you assume to be “their own language” can be a very bad idea. People generally hate being mistaken for someone of a different nationality. The fact is that longstanding animosities exist between nations and people tend to despise their closest neighbors: a Chinese person will generally hate being mistaken for a Japanese and vice versa, just as a Greek person would not appreciate someone deciding they ought to speak Turkish and greeting them with Merhaba.
There is a time and place for everything: If you’re traveling abroad and meeting locals, then it’s a good idea to learn to greet them in the local language. If you’re visiting an Asian person and you know that they speak a specific Asian language at home, then by all means, go for it! If you are receiving a conference group comprising visitors from a specific Asian country, then do learn to greet them in their own tongue.
In the words of this skin-deep “Asian”:
“Unless you’re in Asia, to try out Asian phrases on every Asian stranger you see in the West is a way of collectively ‘othering’ Asians, of creating a them-us dynamic. It is patronization borne of exotification. It is pro-active marginalization of a minority, a subtle reminder to Asian individuals that ‘you are different, you are still not one of us.’
“It’s a subtle reinforcement of cultural rights and ownership vs disenfranchisement: ‘my language is English (or Swedish, etc.) whereas yours has to be something else.’
“It is stating that by virtue of their skin color or looks, all Asians are foreigners by default, like a fish out of water, and you expect them to be appreciative of your magnanimous gestures of reaching out to them in their own language. It is a reflection of the world view that Asians in the West are foreigners in your midst. It is social branding, the automatic assignment of the Eternal Foreigner status to all Asians. It is a citizen vs. non-citizen dynamic, borne of the idea that all Asians are never truly 100% integrated or assimilable and will always have inseverable allegiances and ties to a culture of their own. It is the idea that Asians are steeped in traditions and will never really change or adapt.
“It is asserting the belief that culture and language are limited by or inseparable from genetics—which is pure racism. It is the arrogant assumption that French / English / Swedish / etc. cannot possibly be an Asian-looking person’s mother tongue, because with their genetic makeup, they must belong to another language and culture.”
However, it’s a totally different kettle of fish when you meet a perfect stranger—anyone you perceive to be a foreigner in your own country. That’s when you shouldn’t assume to know who they are (their nationality and/or language) just by looking at them. Do not try out your cheap phrases on total strangers!
Only smart-asses assume. It’s generally okay to use an Asian greeting phrase if you’ve ascertained the person’s culture/nationality and heard them speaking and you recognize their language and most importantly, you actually speak more than just one phrase. But it’s a really bad idea to assume what a person’s language must be just by looking at them. It’s the 21st century—populations get displaced and people have been moving around for centuries! An Asian-looking person might be a fourth-generationer born in the West and will find it extremely annoying that people are constantly trying to impress them with phrases in Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Tagalog, etc., assuming that their language cannot possibly be English or German or French. They are subjected to Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome, regarded as inherently inassimilable no matter how many generations they’ve been living in the West. Trust me, they will not appreciate your “friendly” gesture!
Certainty is the mother of fools. There is a category worse than smart-asses: those who are cock-sure about their infallibility on differentiating between Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Thais, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Malaysians, Indonesians, etc. If you believe that you too have this magical ability, try these tests: here... here and here.
I’ve been told that I “must be Japanese” because of my beard because the “Chinese don’t have beards,” that I am “absolutely 100% Thai” because of my complexion, that I am “surely a Filipino” because I’m a musician who speaks good English, that I “must have” Korean blood because I look exactly like some Korean person they know, etc. The truth is that even Asians themselves cannot differentiate between nationalities. In terms of genetics, there is five times more variation within races than there are differences between races. In other words, race is essentially a social construct and not a scientific one.
Culture, race and nationality are highly separable concepts!
In English-speaking USA, it’s best to greet Asian-looking people in English. In Germany, greet Asians in German; in France, greet Asians in French, and so forth. Do not make the mistake of (even subconsciously) automatically seeing Asians as foreign, or inassimilable, or non-citizens by virtue of their race; do not assume that English, German or French, etc. cannot be their own language. Do not assume you are doing them any favors to “feel more at home” if they hear their “own” language. That makes you an asshole. All you will be doing is “othering” them and highlighting your own simple-mindedness, because all you are capable of seeing before you is a foreigner by virtue of their skin color.
©Zak Keith, 2009