a left-eyed girl

living in a 2 dimensional world

You speak-a chinese?

with 19 comments

While volunteering to help set up a local 4th of July celebration, I met a bunch of people, including one asian woman, presumably of Chinese descent. One and a half hours after we had started setting up, during a lull in the work, she introduced herself. She did not do it in the typical way of starting with her name. Instead she chose to ask me a question in her heavily accented voice:

“You speak-a Chinese?”

I told her that no, I do not speak Chinese, and that I am not even ethnically Chinese in the first place (thanks for assuming that I’m Chinese). When she learned that I was Filipina, she then asked if I speak Tagalog. The woman was hell-bent on assigning a spoken (Asian) language to me. When I replied that I do not speak Tagalog either, she once again did not respond with the regular response. Most people simply say, “Oh ok” when I state the sad fact that I only speak one language fluently, but not this woman. She then demanded:

“Why not?”

Why not? Did she really just ask me that? Needless to say, I was annoyed. I then told her that my dad speaks only English, to have her say, “Why’s that? You must have been born here.” Ah… assuming my place of birth now, as well as the ethnic descent of my father to still be Asian. Even the replies that, “No, I was born in Manila,” and “My dad is from NY” were really not enough for her. I could see more questions brewing as to this mystery why my assumedly Asian dad did not speak Some Asian Language and how it could be that I wasn’t born in America and my parents still did not make me learn Some Asian Language. I think she was starting to think that my parents were terribly irresponsible for not teaching me Some Asian Language at some point.

I really did not feel like getting into the fact that my dad is a white half-polish Jew from NY, because it would only make her more confused and also make it more difficult for her to put me into a neat little ethnic category. What? Your dad is white?  But you don’t look like you’re mixed. And then the person will Care Bear Stare me into the ground. I am well versed when it comes to the standard responses when it comes to discussing my family background.

The entire exchange made me a bit angry because:

A) She does not have the right to ask me about my ethnic descent
B) She could not accept that I do not speak another language and was quite argumentative
C) This was our very first verbal exchange after an hour and a half of me trying to catch her eye and introduce myself to her

By the way, the top ethnicities that I get mistaken for are Chinese and Korean, especially round these parts of the Bay Area. Being mistaken for Korean is very rare, and I never get mistaken for Vietnamese or Filipina. I think that most people make the mistake of assuming that I’m Chinese because Frank looks really Chinese and if I was with him, then I must be Chinese too, right?

Written by Reese

July 6, 2008 at 8:48 am

Posted in random encounters

Tagged with ,

19 Responses

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  1. I love the little corners of ethnicity that point out people’s simplistic worldview. I feel, if I could teach the world one thing, it would be that absolutely nothing is as simple as you might think it is at the first grasp.

    Mrs. Wirehead speaks astonishing amounts of Spanish largely because everybody assumes she’s Latina even though she’s not even part Latin and will just start in on Spanish without even asking what ethnicity she is. When we came back from Peru, she got snide remarks from the customs agent about abandoning her culture because she couldn’t speak Spanish.


    July 6, 2008 at 12:49 pm

  2. Why didn’t she have a right to ask you your ethnicity?


    July 7, 2008 at 11:55 am

  3. @Ken: Ugh… that’s ridiculous when people simply assume your ethnicity and your spoken language based on the way you look, dress, act, etc. I would never assume someone’s ethnicity or language skills based on the way they look. So weird…

    @David: Maybe I put it incorrectly. What I meant was that I don’t think she had the right to assume my ethnicity, indicated by the way she opened our conversation. I do not generally think that asking about anyone’s ethnicity is something you do in the first 5 minutes of conversation with someone that you have never met before, but that’s just me.


    July 7, 2008 at 12:11 pm

  4. I agree that her question reflected a lack of sophistication and sensitivity. I’m surprised she didn’t ask if you were having egg rolls for dinner!


    July 7, 2008 at 12:12 pm

  5. @David: I wouldn’t have minded having egg rolls for dinner! My latest obsession is Banh Cha Gio that incorporates everything I love about Vietnamese cuisine into one wonderful bowl! Mmm… How Asian of me!


    July 7, 2008 at 12:27 pm

  6. Do you always wear your ASIAN dress when eating ASIAN food?


    July 7, 2008 at 12:30 pm

  7. @David: Yes, of course! I also can use chopsticks in either hand, and I know all the basic rules of etiquette for the separate Asian cultures (don’t lift the rice bowl to your mouth in a Korean restaurant, and tap the table to say thank you when someone pours your tea in a Chinese resto). I even know how to pronounce most of my favourite foods in the original language! How ASIAN!!

    Alternately, I break out my woven poncho and straw hat when eating Mexican food.


    July 7, 2008 at 12:32 pm

  8. The mind reels at the thought of what you wear when eating schnitzel.


    July 7, 2008 at 12:53 pm

  9. i agree, you don’t ask within 5 minutes of meeting people. what’s bizarre to is it’s usually with asians. never of say…white people. hey, white person. what’s your ethnicity? what’s your background?

    yan – who you met on saturday is kind of like the chinese lady you met. she’s incredibly direct in an off putting way. granted i know her well but still. she comes out with – so when are you getting married. when are you having babies. and not just to me but to erik too.

    when i was in hong kong years ago, everyone came up to me and started speaking chinese and i had to say…uh. sorry. i don’t understand. they looked surprised and then disappointed. until finally my family friend would tell them – oh she’s adopted. by white people. and then it was…OHHHH. and then it was “okay” for me not to speak any chinese.

    and my final comment – you should have just said, sorry. i don’t understand english. ha.


    July 7, 2008 at 2:02 pm

  10. @David: Ha… I’ll leave that to your imagination, doll!

    @Kat: I think I’ll go around asking white people their ethnic backgrounds from now on, and not take “I don’t know” as an answer. I’m going to require percentage breakdown and foreign languages, if any. Haha…


    July 7, 2008 at 4:59 pm

  11. This should be funny. You could get a hidden camera and upload the best videos. You should also force them to provide sufficient evidence before being able to claim Native American descent, because a lot of white folk try to make up for their otherwise boring ancestry.


    July 7, 2008 at 6:38 pm

  12. OMG, I was just thinking that before I read the last part of Wirehead’s latter comment–about the “trying to use the Native American descent card to try to make oneself seem more interesting”.
    but I guess you could try to think of stuff like this encounter as proof that *you* are interesting. if you were in any sense uninteresting, she wouldn’t care to ask you anything at all. people never ask me “what” I am…! I dunno, I’m working on the optimistic thinking, sorry if it’s annoying 😛


    July 7, 2008 at 9:49 pm

  13. @Ken: YES… I think this will be awesome. Maybe I should have a podcast! Hmm… I wonder if I should dress up in some kind of random outfit when I conduct the interviews.

    @Lorelei: Haha… I like your optimistic thinking!


    July 8, 2008 at 7:08 am

  14. I’m totally late to this conversation, but I was angry for you when I read the story! I think it’s horribly uncouth to (1) assume she knows anything about you, and (2) she seemed to be judging you for whatever your circumstances are. I’m a BIG BELIEVER that nobody should ever judge anyone else for anything that that person chooses to do with their lives (or for who they are) — unless, of course, they’re risking their lives or living dangerously. Then, I think it’s reasonable to step in.

    But seeing as how you aren’t in jeopardy of anything, she’s just an unreasonably judgmental woman.

    Since I don’t appear to be “typically Jewish,” people tend to say things around me that they wouldn’t say around someone that they perceive to be more Jewish-looking. I guess the blond hair and fair skin don’t scream “SEMITE.” 🙂 I love to correct those jerks after I’ve given them plenty of rope to hang themselves…


    July 14, 2008 at 5:52 am

  15. @Rebs: I loved your comment. Like you, I don’t really get it when people assume what I am. I don’t mind if someone is curious and asks me “what” I am at some point when knowing them, but I just don’t like it when someone assumes that I’m something when they ask me. A better question might be, “Hey, I’m just curious, but what’s your ethnicity?” instead of just asking, “Hey, are you Chinese?” Yeah… I also don’t like having to explain that my mom is Filipina with some Chinese and that my dad is Polish/Jewish/possibly Hungarian, but maybe he’s part other-eastern-European-country, because we’re just not sure. Oh, and no, I don’t speak any languages, but I did grow up eating all kinds of weird stuff like goulash, stuffed cabbage, chicken adobo, egg rolls, chicken cacciatore, etc. Yeah…

    Assuming something about someone really never helps the situation. Always better to politely ask right? Haha…

    Revel in your ambiguous ethnicity! Hahaha…


    July 18, 2008 at 4:59 pm

  16. It’s not asked of white people because we’ve been ethnically homogenized in America since near its inception. People had to hide their cultural identities due to racism. Irish covered their accents, Swedes spoke only English around the house in order to prevent their children from picking it up and being labeled “just another dumb Swede”, etc. Discarding cultural heritage was something people needed to do to “fit in” and ensure their children stood a chance at a better future.

    I weakly identify culturally as English and Italian because that’s where my father’s parents are from (grandpa from Italy, grandma from England, dad “American born overseas” in England.) My mother’s family traces back through the homogeneous soup loosely identifying as German Canadian (I think), but there’s been nothing passed down and no immigration recent enough to latch on to.

    Fortunately American society has become much more tolerant of polyculturalism, particularly in the Bay Area. While we still have a long way to go it’s no longer a necessity for immigrants to abandon their cultural heritage in order to have a life here. There’s an opportunity now for many cultures to exist together in close parallel without having to boil down to a least common denominator.

    Language is a big part of culture and “Why not?” is a good question. At the same time you shouldn’t feel defensive about your answer.

    She easily just could’ve been happy at the possibility to speak Chinese with someone, and failing that, got interested in your background and was making conversation. That she made some incorrect assumptions about your background doesn’t necessarily mean she was trying to ethnically pigeon-hole you. People make incorrect assumptions about other people’s backgrounds constantly. I get the “what is/was your major” all the time (often within the first 5 minutes) by folk assuming I’m in or went to college. I think you even did this to me, Reese.


    August 4, 2008 at 11:11 am

  17. You bring up some very good points, Paul. I can never really be sure of someone else’s motivations in assuming my background, and my own reaction probably had more to do with the fact that I’m pretty defensive of the fact that my father is Polish/Jewish/other, my mother is Filipina, and people never seem to choose either of these ethnicities when trying to figure out what I am. I guess it’s just easy for people to assume that I’m chinese based on my last name and medium skin, and it’s a nice little box to put me in.

    To be fair to her, she probably WAS looking for someone who could speak Chinese, in the hopes that she could identify with me, the only other Asian person there. She also might have had some difficulties with English and was just looking for someone with whom to be at ease. I guess I just get sensitive about things like this because I have such issues with my own identity and exactly which culture I should be identifying with in the first place. Sure, it’s easy to really get into being Filipina, and I could even try learning Tagalog. I could probably even learn to speak Chinese since Frank does and his parents would really love it if I could communicate more easily with them. Then again, I could also go the other way and learn more about my Polish background, so maybe find some halfsie groups and try to figure out what other people do when it comes to figuring out what the heck to think about themselves. To be honest, I’m probably just pretty lazy when it comes to this, so I just stick to being who I am beyond the ethnic stuff.

    Oh, and yes, I did assume you went to college. Sorry I assumed something about you.


    August 4, 2008 at 11:26 am

  18. Reese, I grew up Italian-American in northern New England, which probably doesn’t seem that exotic to you, but in the late 50s, in this area, I was DIFFERENT! People always made comments, asked questions, pronounced my name wrong (repeatedly).

    It was a good experience, because it taught me not to be self-conscious, how to make conversation (which is all people are usually trying to do, even if it comes out awkwardly or seems offensive to you), and to turn the attention back to them and ask about them and their lives and origins. They usually love to talk about themselves and you can really learn a lot!

    I was so pleased to read Paul’s comment and your response as you think about your experience and the progression of your emotions. Thanks for sharing and for being open to learning and growing. And for reminding me of my childhood!


    August 9, 2008 at 4:36 pm

  19. @Morag: Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I really appreciate sharing about your experience as well. I agree that having awkward conversations with people really does teach you a lot about how to guide an exchange and figure out how to tactfully react to something that might have caught you off-guard before.

    I guess that I just get tired of people caring “what” I am instead of caring “who” I am. I know that for a lot of other people, “who” I am is deeply intertwined with “what” I am, and for them, their personality and identity is closely linked to their heritage. Hmm… I’m positive that I’m probably sticking my foot further into my mouth at this point, but I really just could care less “what” someone is because I would rather decide if I liked someone based on their character than based on their heritage. I know I shouldn’t judge other people if they do base their evaluation of me on whether or not I’m into my heritage. I guess it’s just a difference of what’s important to each of us.

    By the way, I think your name is quite beautiful, but I will admit that I have no freakin’ clue how to pronounce it!


    August 10, 2008 at 9:25 am

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