Posted by: balladofyoko | February 5, 2009

Feeling Closer?

I hesitate in writing yet another post on language miscommunication, but my recent exchange with Gil Asakawa made me think some more about a conversation I had on the subway the other day.

While I was riding the subway home, an African American man hailed me with “Ni hao” and “Anyeong haseo.” After telling him that I speak neither Chinese nor Korean, he asked me what my native language was. I told him “English.”

He laughed, but he didn’t let up. He said that he started out saying both greetings because he thought it would make me “feel closer to him.” He further said that he knew there are people who don’t speak English, and he wanted to “reach out” by speaking another language.

Obviously, the guy was trying to pick me up. But this was the first time I’ve heard the justification of why someone would start out by greeting me in a foreign language. Is it really so different from what I’ve said about wanting to connect with someone– meeting someone halfway?

Aside from wanting to pick me up, the intentions were similar. The delivery was absolutely wrong. Why assume that I can’t speak English? Instead of “feeling closer,” he annoyed me by making an incorrect assumption of my ethnicity, and thus stopped any desire of communicating further on my part.

In response to my previous post, in which a Chinese woman assumed I was Chinese and started speaking to me in Mandarin, Gil had remarked, “That’s interesting that Chinese assume you’re Chinese. To me, the context [of] that interaction is different from a European American person assuming I’m Chinese, or Japanese.” I disagree. In both interactions, there was the desire of establishing a connection. And in both instances, my reaction was the same– I had to define myself to the other person by what I was not. Which I don’t enjoy doing.

The punchline to this story is that after I said goodbye to the guy and stepped out of the subway car, he proceeded to say hello to an African American woman– who gave him the cold shoulder.


  1. He didn’t want to meet you halfway. He was using what I call the “dog whistle”.

    When you “meet someone halfway”, that means you necessarily assess your location in respect to the other person, the distance is between you, and the quality and nature of the “terrain” that separates you.

    When non-Asians “reach out” to me by greeting me in various Asian languages, it means they are judging that distance between us based purely on the ethnicity of my features and whatever mistaken cultural assumptions my set of features has come to (wrongly) signify to them. It’s always based on the assumption of Asians as perpetual foreigners in America.

    Therefore, they are not “meeting me halfway”. They are actually “putting me in my place”–the place they see as appropriate to me, not the place where I actually exist.

    Also, by using the language they consider “native” to me (a language that 99.9% of the time they do not actually speak), they reduce elements of various Asian identities to something meaningless which they can appropriate as pass-keys, as tools to give them access to me and my attention–in short, as “dog whistles”. There always seems to be a kind of thrill at being able to somehow touch the foreignness or exoticness that they perceive to reside in me. It’s not really a gesture of inclusion and openness and has nothing to do with connecting with me and who I really am. It has everything to do with their consumption of my Asianness as an experience for them.

    It would be the same as if you greeted a black man you did not know with “Hey, brotha!”. I doubt he’d see that as you “meeting him halfway”.

    When Chinese or Japanese people mistake me as sharing their ethnicity (which happens quite a bit), I see an entirely different phenomenon at work. It’s a simple case of wrong assumptions. Yes, this is based on appearances, too. But I’m rarely offended, because I feel it’s an attempt to honor some sense of kinship, even though the assumption of shared culture is mistaken. In this instance, as opposed to your encounter, there’s no subconscious program on the part of the addresser to enforce a sense of difference and otherness and to assign to him/herself the role of the “gracious host” and to you the role of “welcomed guest” in this society which actually belongs equally to you both.

  2. I should add that when non-Asians guess my ethnicity correctly and greet me with “Anyeong haseo”, I still don’t see that as “getting it right”. I don’t see that any different from getting it “wrong” and mistaking me for Chinese or Japanese. Whatever Asian language he (because it’s always a he) uses, I simply don’t respond. I prefer not to perpetuate the notion that using an Asian language greeting is some kind of magic way to get me to engage in social interaction. If he insists on pushing the point or getting offended at my perceived rudeness, that’s when I consider engaging him not not–in English.

  3. Um, that was “or not–in English”. Sorry for the confusing typo.

  4. I understand what you’re saying, Ten Feet, about non-Asians attempting to use whatever Asian language they know as supposed passkeys, and about Asians using their language as attempts at inclusion. However, my response to both attempts are the same because there is a failed connection through an assumption. In the first scenario, yes, it’s almost certainly a pickup line, a display of exoticizing what they perceive of my ethnicity, and it’s offensive to me. And like you, even if the person talks to me in Japanese, I never respond in kind- I will talk to him in English or not respond at all.

    But in the second scenario, if an Asian person talks to me in his/her native language, and I respond in English by politely saying “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Chinese/Korean,” what usually happens is not an apology on the other person’s part. In my experience, the other person persists in speaking in the language I can’t understand, backs off without apology, or asks me what ethnicity I am (in English), and then says “you look Chinese/Korean” and sometimes holds it against me, as if I deceived them somehow.

    Pushing the assumption does not sit well with me– it doesn’t matter what the ethnicity of that person is.

  5. People often speak to me in Spanish. In my case, it’s not a dog whistle, but an attempt to find someone with whom they have something in common in a confusing and alienating city. Yes, most of the people who speak to me in Spanish are not trying to pick me up or get special access to me. They are usually asking for directions on the subway. When I tell them I don’t speak Spanish they apologize and hurry off to find someone who can actually help them.

    SuperFudge gets it more, and for her it’s very different. She used to work in a store where the other employees spoke Spanish. (In fact, she was the only employee who is fluent in English). She was accused often of losing her heritage. Some customers were actually angry with her.

  6. Yoko, I don’t know that I’ve ever had an Asian person of another ethnicity react with suspicion or disbelief when I tell them I’m not Chinese or Japanese. Koreans sometimes have hostile reactions to the fact that my Korean sucks, but that’s more of a judgment they make about the fact that they believe I’m “losing my culture”, which is a separate issue.

    I find that, when Japanese people mistake me for Japanese, they are generally polite and apologize. Chinese people often do try to continue to communicate for a little bit longer. They’re also more brusque when they do realize that, indeed, I am not Chinese.

    I attribute this to two things. First, cultural differences. Japanese culture seems to place a much higher premium on behaviors that Americans interpret as politeness. Chinese people tend to be much more brusque and businesslike, especially when they realize there is a linguistic barrier. Native Japanese speakers in the U.S. also tend to be from a higher socio-economic bracket, either tourists or businesspeople, professionals, artists, etc., which can affect “manners”.

    Secondly, I think that Chinese people are used to dealing not only with people who speak different Chinese languages, but also the huge variety of different local accents even just in Mandarin, which can really be almost mutually incomprehensible to one another. So I don’t interpret repetition as insistence or suspicion so much as a behavior that stems from being accustomed to sometimes having to try hard to communicate with people even from their own ethnicity or country of origin.

    I wouldn’t know about how recent Korean immigrants would react to being told they were mistaken, but, in terms of politeness vs. brusqueness, I would imagine generally somewhere in between. I also imagine that different class backgrounds would result in very different reactions here.

  7. Ten Feet– “losing culture” is indeed another issue entirely, and probably one I could revisit in another post.

    My experience with native Japanese speakers here is that they will usually address me in English. I agree that many of them are from a high socio-economic bracket– especially when I worked in University City, those who approached me were fellows/students at one of the schools nearby.

  8. I’m working on turning your experience into a 3-panel comic strip :-)

    Seriously I need to get some comics online, but I tend to draft them and then never totally finish – I promise if this one even gets to “clean draft” stage I’ll send it to you.

  9. Funny you mention this; about a week ago, at a gathering, I was making fun of an experience I had a few months ago.

    As I was walking home, carrying up the hill two heavy grocery bags a guy started screaming at me “Ni hao, ni hao!”

    He made two big mistakes:

    1. Assume I was Chinese. The Mexicana in me got quite upset that I started mumbling obscenities at him along with “do I have to wear stupid hoop earrings for people to know where I am from?”

    2. Did he really think I’d respond to a screaming madman that is using the only two foreign words he knows?

    Now, while I do enjoy speaking my mother tongue whenever I can, I find it absurd when men try to pick me up with “Mami” (Hello? your mother is at home!) and it makes me upset that non-native males assume that I will speak with them in Spanish. Specially this one creepy guy that I know…

  10. BTW, if someone approaches me for help in any of the three languages I’m fluent on; I gladly help them because i know how one feels in a city you don’t know…but only if they keep the pickup lines as far away as possible…

  11. I don’t really think there’s anything I can add to this discussion, but I wanted to tell you that I liked this post (although I’m sorry you had to have this experience to be able to write about it) and it really gave me a lot to think about. I’m wondering if maybe your experience is the other side of the coin of what I experience: Other white people assuming that because I am white they can make a racist comment and I’d let it pass or agree with them. Or maybe it’s just that asshats all make assumptions and just don’t get it regardless…

  12. Yoko,

    (where [x] = East Asian language/ethnicity which is not applicable to the subject)

    I wonder if Asians who address you in [x] would react differently if you responded right away with “I am not [x]”, as opposed to opening with “I don’t speak [x]”.

    In terms of how more recent immigrants construct identity, saying “I don’t speak [x]” when you look [x] to them has a whole different meaning. In a lot of cases, I’m sure it is first interpreted to mean that you are [x] but don’t speak [x] or don’t want to speak [x]. This is maybe why they sometimes continue to speak to you, since many Koreans and Chinese on the East Coast are only one generation away from native Korean/Chinese speakers and will often be able to understand some of the language, even if they don’t speak it well at all. And then, when you tell them you are, in fact, Japanese, there may be an element of feeling like you were holding out slightly on some essential fact about yourself. From their point of view, it would probably seem odd that you would wait to make it clear that you are not Chinese/Korean and are instead Japanese.

    To say “I’m not [x]” removes that ambiguity right away. To those of us who have been raised in the U.S., it seems a kind of limiting and overly essentialist way to view identity. But recent Chinese and Korean immigrants definitely have a more stark “us” vs. “others” view of the world, as is the case with members of most recent immigrant communities.

    If a non-Asian person addresses me in Chinese or Japanese, if I respond at all, I tell them “I don’t speak [x].” But if an Asian person does the same, I respond, “I am not [x].” That’s because I see the two people as having very different motivations. To the first person, it’s my way of saying, “Whether or not I am genetically [x], I am American. An American who, by the way, does not speak [x].” To the second person, it is my way of saying, “You have mistaken me for a member of your ethnic community. I am not.”

  13. Quiconque: I can understand how SuperFudge feels.

    Kalina: I’d love to see this comic strip!

    Angie: besides Spanish and English, what’s the other language you’re fluent in?

    Cubicalgirl: I would love to hear your experiences of having another white person telling you a racist remark.

    Ten Feet: that’s an interesting take that I’ve never considered before. I’m not entirely positive that I haven’t responded before with “I’m not [x],” but if the situation comes up again, I’ll try that and I’ll let you know what happens.

  14. Ah, jeez.
    I’ve had people go out of their way to wish me a Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, assuming (incorrectly) that I’m Irish. I find that ethnicity or religion seem to be more important in urban environments, where population is denser, than in suburban environments. People seem to need to know, “What ARE you?” so they think they know how to treat you. I had a landlord practically break his neck with questioning to determine my ethnicity, when I was trying to explain to him that I’m so much of a mixed bag that I’m no one thing. His Egyptian heritage was very important to him. I kind of wish being a not-completely-horrible landlord was important to him.

  15. I think the most famous instance of having someone white say something to me was several years ago on election day. There was a power outage in my polling place (the lobby of a small office building) and I was the only voter there (I usually go early on my way to work) and the only person with a cell phone. I called the phone number the poll worker gave me to report the incident and I got a bit exhasperated trying to make the person on the phone understand what was going on. I handed off my phone to another poll worker and the first poll worker looked at me and said, “Are they black?” meaning, “No wonder you can’t get satisfaction – they’re black!” I looked at him and pointedly said, “I have no idea what the ethnicity of the person on the phone is.” He nodded his head sagely and said, “They’re black.”

    The receptionist where I work is an older woman (probably in her early to mid 70’s) and she has that sort of old-school mentality where everything out in the world is so scary and as soon as you step out of the house you’re going to be robbed by a minority. I guess it doesn’t help that she listens to right-wing talk radio all day in the office*. But if I’m doing something in the lobby she’ll start in with her latest, “Did you see on the news where XYZ happend…” and this will turn into a general lamentation of how things used to be safe but now “those people” will kill you as soon as look at you. A black man once walked into our lobby, obviously realized he had the wrong office, then just turned around and walked out and she pitched a fit and freaked out about how scared she was to be sitting in our lobby with no protection.

    *Which I think is SO inappropriate, but that’s for another day

  16. I grew up as a visible minority in a mostly white suburb, and my ethnicity seemed to be pretty important to other people. Not to say that people were necessarily prejudiced about my ethnicity–it’s just that they were very often preoccupied with it in ways that seemed strange or unnecessary to me. And this was a well-to-do suburb with a highly educated population.

    I’ve had interesting experiences in more working-class almost-all-white suburbs in places like Pennsylvania. Believe me, to many people who live in such places, ethnicity is very important.

    So I wouldn’t say that ethnicity is more important to people in cities. I do think people tend to acknowledge ethnicity more freely in cities. And many people in cities place more value on their own sense of belonging to an ethnic community. But I attribute that not to general population density so much as to the density of immigrants and the way in which immigrants can organize into enclaves and form distinct identities in cities. In cities, this includes white ethnic groups (Russians, Greeks, Irish, etc.) as well.

    People in cities just have more knowledge of and experience with many different ethnic communities and don’t feel so awkward about bringing up the subject of a person’s background.

    Of course, both ignorance and familiarity can lead to stereotyping, wrong assumptions, and feet in mouths.


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