When you go to a Chinese restaurant, the staff speak to you in their language and look disappointed when you can only offer a small shrug and a ‘sorry’. They may offer you forks, and no doubt take note of the fact your white partner uses chopsticks a million times more deftly than you do.
When an elderly Asian person tries to communicate with the bus driver, and fails, the driver casts a meaningful look back at you over his shoulder, and all you can do is offer a small shrug and a ‘sorry’.
When an Asian person comes up to you on the street and (presumably) tries to ask you for directions in their language, and all you can do is offer a small shrug and a ‘sorry’.
When people at work ask if you speak any other languages, clearly hoping that you do, and all you can do is offer a small shrug and a ‘sorry’.
When a white security guard says ‘ni hao’ to you as you walk past, and you don’t know how best to respond.
When people learn your Chinese/legal name and gush about how beautiful it is, and you don’t know how best to respond.
When you open your mouth and someone hearing you for the first time expresses surprise at your total lack of an accent, and you don’t know how best to respond.
I’ve had too many of these incidents happen too close together of late, and I’m tired of feeling apologetic all the damn time. It’s my own problem to deal with, I know; it’s not about malice, it’s about what’s going on inside me and my own identity issues.
I am Chinese by heritage, born in Malaysia, raised in New Zealand. I know more Malay words than I do Chinese, and I am pretty sure I know even more Maori words in total. English is the language we spoke at home – my parents grew up speaking different dialects – and while my dad briefly tried to teach me Mandarin once, I had neither the desire nor inclination to succeed. If it weren’t for, I suppose, external forces, I wouldn’t even care. Maybe in my dotage, like my mother, I’ll feel the urge to reconnect with my birthright and start taking Mandarin classes – but for now, it’s just not on my radar. But being non white in an overwhelmingly white industry makes me feel like I need to be some sort of ambassador or representative at times. But I’m not. I’m an impostor.
I am surrounded by white people for the vast majority of my waking hours. At work. At home. In the media I consume. Sometimes, despite the fact I see myself every day in the mirror, I think I actually forget I’m not white too.