Would you be insulted?


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From time to time, bus drivers tell me “Ni hao”. Or people in the workplace will ask me if I know Japanese/Korean/Mandarin, etc. They are often kindly old men, or working-class types to whom I am obviously somewhat exotic.

I don’t get upset in these instances. Perhaps a little puzzled. Bewildered, and disappointed that I couldn’t help. But not angry, even when others tell me I would have been within my rights to slap the person in question. I suppose this is a form of racism, albeit one that is not deliberate or hateful.

But heck, I can barely tell various Asian ethniticies apart at a glance. Sometimes it’s more obvious than others. But I’m not of the breed that can take one look at a person and declare “That is a mainland Chinaman” (Mum…). Although if you hail from Malaysia or Singapore, I will recognise your accent.

After all, I don’t get angry when random Asians on the street accost me in the hope that I speak their language (although to be fair, maybe every one of those approachers has actually been Chinese. Maybe to them it’s obvious).

So, I don’t really know. Am I underreacting? For those of you who experience this, are you insulted when it happens?

13 thoughts on “Would you be insulted?

  • Reply Geek in Heels June 29, 2011 at 09:46

    This used to bother me a lot when I was younger (especially when people would ask, “Are you Chinese? No? Japanese? No? Then what are you?”) but not so much anymore. I think it’s a combination of building a thicker skin to racial ignorance (because I really have met people who really *are* just that — ignorant) as well as being exposed to, and living among a more diverse community as I got older.

  • Reply Serendipity June 29, 2011 at 10:24

    At first glance, one would think I’m Mexican and although I am probably half ( on my father’s side), I do not speak a lick of it. My grandmother was fluent in Castalian, which is very similar to Spanish, because she’s from Spain but she never taught any of her children and she never taught me either. I’m not really sure why she never taught any of us, which saddens me.
    I;m usually asked if I know Spanish and a lot of people do become frustrated when they need something but I can’t help them. Like, why does she not know it?!?! The kind of racism I experience is people thinking I can’t afford certain things because I’m hispanic and we’re not known to have very high paying jobs in the SouthWest, which makes me sad.

  • Reply cantaloupe June 29, 2011 at 09:51

    People always assume I’m Russian. I’m Polish and Latvian, which is similar, but not the same really. (And both sides don’t necessarily like Russia…) But I would never be offended by someone speaking to me in Russian, etc. How on earth would they know? And they’re always apologetic when I stare at them blankly in response to their rattled off Russian or “I knew you were Russian!” when they hear my first name.

  • Reply Lesley June 29, 2011 at 10:16

    I can completely relate. I used to be very apologetic about it as if it was somehow my fault that I couldn’t speak Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc. when questioned by complete and random strangers. Most people just assumed that I had bad parents who didn’t teach me about my culture and background. They assumed wrong but I’ve learned it’s not my responsibility to explain. I mean, really, why is it not enough when I say that I’m Canadian. Why do I have to be anything more than that? I’m not ashamed of my background, I just can’t give them the answer that they’re looking for.

    I’ve never before thought about it as racism, but it’s always been annoying. I get that 99% of the time someone who looks similar to me will fit their assumptions but obviously it’s not always the case. For me, it’s not something I take offense at because I believe that most people are just trying to reach out and be friendly. They mean well, so I try to just take it in stride.

    Another thing I’ve encountered lately is people being shocked that I don’t know how to use chop sticks and that I’ve never before had bubble tea. Even friends have shown surprise. It really boggles the mind for some people.

  • Reply Kara June 29, 2011 at 11:58

    I’m never insulted when people assume I speak some form of the Asian language, mostly because I think I hardly look Asian to begin with. It’s almost flattering, really. And I don’t think I’ll ever, ever be able to tell a part the different “kinds”. They all look the same ,lol!

  • Reply addvodka June 29, 2011 at 14:12

    I don’t think that’s racist. I think it is probably a bit annoying. I know if people kept asking me if I spoke Swedish or German because I have blonde hair and blue eyes it would get exhausting after awhile, but I don’t think the point is to be racist at all.

    Also – about Lesley’s last comment about surprise about not being able to use chopsticks/know about bubble tea – I think even as a white girl, I would get weird looks if I told somebody I didn’t know these things. My friend (white male) hadn’t ever tried bubble tea and there were a lot of shocked looks.

    Bubble tea and Asian food (particularly Japanese) are part of pop culture right now. Around here, in Vancouver everywhere you look there are bubble tea shops and not knowing how to use chopsticks is now seen as a little bit out of the ordinary.

    Serendipity’s comment about people assuming Spanish looking people don’t have any money – now that to me is racist.

    But I think regardless of what race you are, you get asked about your background. Upon meeting many people, I get asked, and once again – blonde haired blue eyed Caucasian. People just want to find a way to relate to you.. if I say I’m Scottish then somebody always has family who is, or who’s been to Scotland. I think people are well meaning.

  • Reply SP June 29, 2011 at 15:45

    I’m white and boring and never get asked about my heritage, so much so that I typically will gladly spout it for you (Norwegian, German, English, Irish, Scottish!) Not really interesting, since most people were the same where I grew up (seriously less than 5% “minorities”).

    I’m often interested in people’s ethnic backgrounds, but I usually don’t ask, because I’m afraid of being rude. And I really don’t need to know – I’m just curious.

  • Reply Cathryn June 29, 2011 at 21:27

    I once had an exam invigilator, who after, checking that I was the same person on my student ID card , thanked me by saying ‘xie xie’, which is mandarin chinese for ‘thank you’. At the time I think I found it slightly offensive, but that may be because I hate exam invigilators in general. I’ve had countless other people say nihao and konichiwa as well. Once, I was in an Asian grocery store with a friend, and a Caucasian man and his wife/partner/friend/whatever asked us where the soy sauce was. I found that a little off as well, though I know they didn’t really mean anything by it. And at uni, I absolutely hate it when other people assume I’m an international student, because I’m not. I don’t exactly know why I get so offended, but I do. Maybe it’s because of the assumptions, and the underlying attitudes and beliefs following those assumptions? I know everyone does it, I do it myself, it’s a cognitive shortcut and whatever, but still.

    I don’t even know what my point is. I have to keep scrolling back up to read your post because I keep going off on tangents. Anyway, I think I prefer that they take an interest into what ethnicity I really am, rather than just categorising me as Asian and leaving it at that.

  • Reply Maggie June 30, 2011 at 05:37

    I don’t get offended, I think it would be more of a compliment. And, it’s ok, I can’t tell the difference between different Asians either. I know some people who can and they’ve explained it to me but it’s a bit complex to me..

  • Reply oilandgarlico June 30, 2011 at 09:32

    I wouldn’t be insulted. Although when I was younger, it was usually old white men who asked me the question or tried to speak Chinese to me. I wish I was fluent!

    Sometimes there can be racist assumptions behind the question but I think most of the time, it’s just curiosity.

  • Reply Manda July 5, 2011 at 05:39

    I’m half-Chinese, so I don’t always get approached by people speaking Mandarin or Cantonese, but I do speak both languages so I’m not offended or anything. Sometimes they’re shocked I can speak Asian languages (general opinion is that I look mixed but I guess not everyone thinks that), but that’s a whole ‘nother story. There have been instances where I’ve bumped into Chinese (tourists, I assume) that were unable to communicate in English (in the US) properly and I’ve stepped in to help translate.

  • Reply Revanche July 11, 2011 at 11:34

    I thought I replied to this from my phone when you first posted it but apparently I missed it.

    I can’t say I ever considered it racist when it’s either in the context of someone seeking assistance or just wanting to reach out and be friendly by relating to me. Some people are most comfortable relating to their own people.

    Plus I’m so race-blind myself in that I can’t tell the difference between any Asian or other groups of races. Languages, I’m better at, but visually, I’m crap. So I can’t and don’t hold it against other people when they swear up and down that they can just TELL I’m: Japanese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Thai, Malaysian, Cambodian, etc. because I look just like their cousin. *shrug* I’m not, but then I can call up my authentically [fill in the above] friend who can’t actually pass for their own race and tease them how I just passed the race bar and they didn’t. Because heck, in most cases, it’s harmless. At least here, anyway.

    I did worry a little when traveling, though, because there are times you do NOT want to be mistaken for a native when you do NOT know the customs well enough and you want them to know that you are an ignorant tourist, so please give me a pass if I accidentally do something stupid.

    Alternatively, kinda fun to be taken for anything but your own race when your people are being ignorantly rude right in front of you and you can catch them at it. 😉

  • Reply Vera July 13, 2011 at 09:12

    When I went to Spain last year, people were always very friendly to me after finding out I was from Romania and would ask me “ce faci?” which is “How are you?” in Romanian. I always smiled at that… and didn’t really think any more of it.

    What did piss me off, was in London. One of the guards was trying to be friendly and upon hearing where I was from he offered a huge grin and said “Oooh Dracula, Dracula!”. For about 10 seconds I think I seriously considered throttling him… then just gave him a forced smile, and hurried away.

    So really, it depends on what people associate you with. I don’t care if they ask about traditional food, random words… but I draw the line at Dracula. 😛

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