In Malaysia, no single question annoyed me more than “You don’t speak Chinese? You’re not Chinese ah?” I’ve had to deal with this sort of thing ever since I could toddle, and it infuriates me. Ironically, it was anti-bananaism that made me the banana I am. See, when I was little, my relatives used to put me down for not knowing Chinese. I remember an aunt once calling me “stupid girl” in Cantonese because I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Experiences like that combined with scary kindergarten Chinese teachers ingrained in me a deep aversion to the language.
As a result, I cried for days when I learnt that I had been enrolled into SJKC Chung Hwa at 7. My parents tell me I wouldn’t stop crying until I was pulled out and enrolled into a kebangsaan (Malay-medium) primary school instead. Much of my aversion towards the language has been done away with by non-judgemental Chinese-speaking friends, and if I could go back in time I would have stuck it out at Chung Hwa, if only to spare myself the irritation of dealing with “You’re not Chinese ah”?
While I still haven’t encountered a more annoying question than that (and I doubt I ever will, unless it’s the more racist variation: “You don’t speak Chinese? Are you Malay?”), here are a few I’ve encountered in the U.S. that, while don’t come close on the racism scale, are still pretty annoying.
- You’ve only been here a month? Wow! Your English is really good.
Uh…thanks? My objection to this one isn’t just “Malaysians speak English too, you know!” because technically, a majority of us don’t. What bothers me about this question is the implication that English belongs to the Americans. English is as much my first language as it is theirs, and I love it, and I resent the implication that I’ve done really well to master it when I’m not American. You know English is spoken all over the world…don’t you?
- You’re 28? Whoa you look, like, 15.
Oh, stop it you. It’s an Asian thing. I guess this one isn’t really racist. But you get tired of it after a while. And anyway, isn’t it supposed to be taboo to ask women their ages? Not if you thought I was 15, I suppose. Curse you, Asian skin!
- So do you plan to stay here [forever]?
Some people ask this out of genuine interest; they want to know what I plan to do after hubby and I finish our studies. There’s a type of person though (mostly Uber/Lyft drivers) who, when they ask you this question, ask as if they expect the answer to be yes, of course, because who wouldn’t want to live in the U.S.? Especially if you come from [insert Asian country here]. Come to think of it, I’ve gotten that vibe from Malaysians too. With our daily headlines, I guess I can understand the sentiment. But guys: while the grass may seem greener here, they don’t have durian trees. And movie tickets cost, like, 12 USD each.
- So have you been to Chinatown?
Yes. Have you? Variations on this theme include: You must go to Chinatown a lot, and, do you cook Chinese food?
- Do you speak Chinese?
Et tu, America?
For the most part, people in Philly have been friendly and accepting. I don’t get those questions all the time. But every time I do, I’m reminded that this isn’t my home. I wonder if Asian Americans have to deal with this too. What’s their version of “You’re not Chinese ah?”
When racism/politics/life stress you out, remember,
p.s. I’ll be back in Malaysia for two weeks starting next Thursday. If you want to catch up, call me!