by guest writer, I.K., in response to Asian greeting phrases
© Zak Keith, 2010
Children of immigrants often find themselves struggling for self-identity, straddling several different realities. As the daughter of first-generation immigrants, there always seemed to be a schism between the three: the country of my heritage, my country of birth, and the country that I grew up in and came to love. To compound the complexity, I’ve come into external conflict with how others see me and have experienced all too often, the unpleasant sting of cultural stigma. ALthough I am proud to be an American, assumptions about my nationality and culture are made in reaction to my dark hair and “yellow” skin. What defines an “American” should be determined by citizenship, yet many people seem to assume a person’s nationality based on their skin color.
When working as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant or walking along the beaches of Los Angeles, or shopping at the Centre Commercial in France, I’ve had complete strangers come up to me and say “nee hao!” In my positions involving customer service, I’ve had clients thank me at the end of the session (conducted entirely in fluent, sans-accent English or French) with “shi-shi.” In these instances, the morons foolishly assumed not only that I had to be from an Asian country that spoke Mandarin (and not Japanese or Korean, for example), but also that I would understand them.
Acquaintances of similar backgrounds have also reported such incidents. A close friend of mine who is of Indian origin was born and raised in Iceland, and considers herself Icelandic in every way. She is more familiar with Icelandic tradition and culture than she is with her Indian heritage. However, she is also extremely proud of her ancestry and sometimes wears the “third eye,” not so much for its actual cultural significance as for her finding it attractive. Currently, she resides outside of Iceland for her education. She complains that strangers will often approach her and ask, “So, where are you from?” When she answers, “Iceland” and although she really is from Iceland, the follow-up question is usually, “No, but where are you really from?” She will usually firmly reiterate “Iceland,” to which she will always be asked, “But where are your parents from?” If she answers Iceland, the following question then becomes: “where are their parents from?” “… and their parents?” etc. For these culturally-unrefined boors, the idea that anyone with the physical appearance of an Indian could possibly be from somewhere else besides India is outrageous.
Clearly, a person’s physical appearance can make them appear to be of a certain ethnicity and/or nationality. Yet, physical appearances and facial traits by themselves do little to distinguish a Walloon from a Flemish, a Nigerian from a Kenyan, a Chinese from a Japanese, or a Welsh from a Scotsman.
There are many situations where attempts at politesse can backfire, resulting in an embarrassing mistake, or even worse, an offensive cultural faux pas. When someone uses a foreign language they are unfamiliar with in a patronizing manner, they are usually unaware of the ignorance and racism associated with their feeble and generally inadequate use of the language. On the lighter side, a woman wanted to write hello in French and instead of writing “bonjour,” wrote “bon jour” changing the meaning from “hello” to “the day is good.” But in another not-so-pleasant instance, I was horrified to hear someone say “konnichiwa” (a Japanese greeting) to a Korean server working at a Mexican restaurant.
My attention to the social incompetence [civil illiteracy] and assumptiveness [bias] associated with lame efforts at foreign language was first triggered by the blatant cultural impudence of a colleague, with whom I would go out for Indian food once a week. The Indian restaurant was operated by servers who had the physical appearance of being of Indian heritage. However, they spoke English well, with only the slightest hint of an accent, and we ordered in English. At the end of our first lunch date, my colleague said thank you to our server in Hindi. I immediately began struggling between my conflicting emotions of amusement and horror.
My colleague seemed so eager to share her extremely limited Hindi vocabulary—at maximum she possesses perhaps a ten-word lexicon of Hindi: hello, good-bye, thank you, excuse-me, etc. She wore the proudest expression on her face–an expression of fierté equal to that of a toddler who had just rewarded for learning to use the potty. I couldn’t bring myself to point out her cultural faux pas. Instead, I found myself trying not to laugh in her bright red face for her cultural gaffe, while simultaneously attempting to conceal my shock at her appalling ignorance.
The following week, we went back to the Indian restaurant, and once again, my colleague tried to “show off” by thanking the server in Hindi. Once again, her face bore the cheesy grin of self-achievement. This time, I caught the server’s eye, and as the server shook her head in disgust, I earnestly tried to silently convey my sincere embarrassment and regret for my colleague’s uncouth lack of cultural awareness. I looked at my colleague and wondered:
What are you seeking to obtain by using your limited vocabulary? Are you looking for praise from the server along the lines of “Oh my God! You speak Hindi so well! I’m so impressed!” Or perhaps you want to be rewarded a gold medal for effort?
The truth is, my colleague’s use of Hindi was pathetic and embarrassing for herself. It would have been impressive if she had actually tried to learn the language, instead of just foolishly using her limited vocabulary to seek attention. Her self-aggrandizing, mindless, linguistic ventures were evidence of her deficiency in cultural comprehension, absence of global education and crass disregard for cultural integration. Yet here she was, trying to be culturally sophisticated.
On our subsequent weekly visit to the Indian restaurant, as the server cleared my colleague’s plate, she said thank you, again in Hindi, right to the server’s face. The really pitiful part was that she didn’t notice that the server had completely disregarded her comical endeavors at cultural sophistication. Once again, her face turned profoundly scarlet as she revelled in her self-created bliss for utilizing her very limited word stock. She was oblivious to the fact that everyone was trying to supress their derision over her inappropriate attempts at savoir-faire. I realized that she was a paragon of cultural naiveté and a prime candidate for ridicule. She deserved the silent mockery, even if she was unaware of it. Once more, I stared at her in disbelief at the extent of her cultural callowness. She had just been ignored to her face for her social clumsiness and hadn’t noticed. She had just pasted a giant “I’M AN UNEDUCATED IDIOT” sign on her forehead, but still had no clue.
As I looked at her crimson face, crooked teeth, frumpy hair and boxy build, I realized the true value of education and world travel. It was eviden that lacks and inadequacies in these areas clearly fed her ignorance and stupidity—to the point of comical unawareness at being hated for her idiotic “cultural appreciation.”
There are good reasons for my strong words.
It is not only prejudicial to assume someone’s nationality and/or ethnicity based on their physical traits—it is also very ignorant and presumtuous to expect that they should of course speak that one particular dialect/language among many, which you happen to know less than 10 words of.
With adoption becoming commonplace, there is always the distinct possibility that that “foreign-looking” person does not even speak a word of the language of what seems to be of their country of heritage.
Someone with “yellow” skin might speak Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or any other number of Asian languages. Someone who appears to be of Indian heritage could speak any one of numerous Indian languages and dialects and, just which language is theirs, is not always determinable based on the height of the bridge of their nose, the position of their hairline or any other physical attributes.
As for this business of imposing Hindi on every “Indian” person you see, Hindi is actually only spoken by 41% of the people of India. Furthermore, Hindi is only one from among 15 national languages recognized by the Indian Constitution. There is even a linguistic schism in India with the North labeled as “Hindi speaking,” and the South often labeled as “non-Hindi speaking.” This division led to the Indian Government’s decision to make English the national language of India. While Hindi is widely used in the Northern States of India, the people in the Southern states speak many different languages that are completely different from Hindi. English thus became the link language allowing people who speak different languages to become united.
As such, I would imagine that it is rather inappropriate and brash to force your limited Hindi vocabulary onto someone who appears “Indian,” since people do move around and their facial features may do little in allowing you to make a solid conclusion as to whether he’s from the North or from the South.
I’ve been a language teacher myself and I would never stop a student from learning or practicing—but in the right context. Imagine a concert pianist: he wouldn’t just play on every piano he ever saw, but only when appropriate and for a willing audience.
Within our work environment, there is a professor of German who speaks nothing but German, whether the person understands German or not. Anyone that speaks to him will receive a response in German and if you don’t speak German, you just have to guess about what the answer was. But there is a considerable difference between a teacher expecting a receptive pupil to learn, and someone deciding for someone else what their own language must be, based on their skin color. There is a difference between language education and practice, and assumptively forcing your ideas of which language language belongs to whom. That, in my book, is being a social retard.
Unfortunately, ignorance fuels stupidity and stupidity never changes. In a futile attempt to augment my colleagues’ miniscule intellect, I brought her cultural illiteracy to her attention. She responded with:
“Oh but I think it makes them feel right at home when they hear their own language, so I’m not going to change a thing. I’ll still keep on doing it.”
By making this ignorant assumption and refusing to change, my colleague is evidently handicapped with stupidity or at the very least, she’s suffering from “cognitive dissonance.” The concept of an Asian-looking American born in Germany or an American of South Asian heritage seems unable to penetrate her thick skull. Rather, her intellect will extend only so far as to allow her to define a person solely by what their physical appearance hints to be their origin. If the world were to follow her reasoning, then not only would adopted children never be “at home” in their new families, but even a fourth-generation Irish family in America would never be allowed to consider the US their “home.” Furthermore, the assumption that someone is supposed to feel more welcome in your country by hearing what is presumed to be their mother tongue, is simply a condescending way of assuming someone to be automatically foreign, inassimilable, or non-citizens by virtue of their race.
Unfortunately, tackless cultural handicaps and regrettable diagnoses of Cognitive Dissonance are not limited to my obtuse colleague alone. Many others who act in a similar fashion are just as guilty of socio-cultural inablity stemming from their own personal ignorance and a shortage of cultural appreciation. Analogous incidents include running up to a complete stranger to say “nee how” just because the person has “yellow” skin, or assuming that any “white-skinned” person in an Asian country will of course speak English.
While these idiots (including my colleague) may be trying to be courteous, or rather trying to make someone “feel at home,” they do need to realize that they are being offensive: instead of politely asking, they are foolishly assuming to know someone’s language through stereotypes of physical appearance. Instead of coming across as being friendly or urbane, they are only succeeding in acting distasteful and obnoxious. As a “yellow-skinned” American, I find such presumptions extremely derogatory and ridiculous.
My colleague’s and these other ignorant people’s pathetic attempts at cultural embracement and politesse is to be commended; however, the rudeness of their actions, as well as the underlying and implied racism involved, is unforgiveable. It’s best to use the language of the country you are in, to avoid such chagrin.
Apart from my annoyance, I certainly find it hilarious that these idiots have no idea as to the stupidity of their ignorant actions. Perhaps their pitiful attempts at acting educated and culturally-aware allows those of us who are actually more refined to have a good laugh. After all, where would we be if we didn’t have uneducated impolite retards to laugh at? The next time my churlish colleague tries to used her limited Hindi, it would be the most entertaining sight if the server did actually speak Hindi and answered in Hindi; then we could all then watch my colleague squirm as she tried to figure out what to do next with her 10-word vocabulary. Perhaps it’s best to just feel sorry for these ignorant buffoons and swat them away like an irritating fly.
Enjoy the experience, love the culture, skip dessert and forego skin-hue bias. Instead of looking at complexion and picking a country, consider that we are all citizens of the world.
©Zak Keith, 2009