On May 28, 2013, around 3:00 in the afternoon, I posted this status on Facebook.
It put me in mind of all the different hellos I’d heard throughout my life. Bear with me as we revisit my childhood.
My classmates comment constantly on the fact that I am Asian; one of the only Asian people they have ever seen. Some comments seem mostly born out of curiosity; others are mean-spirited, especially as we get older.
One winter, my best friend starts talking to me excitedly about celebrating Hanukkah. She is a little younger than I am, but I still look up to her. “I can’t wait for Hanukkah, either,” I say. She looks at me. “You can’t celebrate Hanukkah.” Even at four, I understand what she means.
I hear, constantly, “Where are you from?” Then, “No, where are you really from?” when I try to tell them I’m from Connecticut.
One day I walk past the gym, and a boy I’ve never seen before starts making what I can only describe as “Chinese sounds” from the doorway. It reverberates throughout the hallway.
Like I said, as I got older, the comments tended to come from a less curious place.
I like this boy. The boy I like and I get into a fight over AOL Instant Messenger. He calls me a chink.
In school the next day, he catches my eye and smirks. I am more subdued than usual. It’s hard for me to concentrate on anything; all I can think about is how unfair it was that he got to bring my race into an unrelated situation, and in such a hurtful way.
I end up talking to the vice principal, who has my back in a way that the other students do not. One of my friends tells me that he deals with that kind of thing by calling himself a chink as a joke, before someone else does. I know that some people do this with all kinds of slurs, but – partly because I don’t know of any widespread effort by Chinese-Americans to take back that particular word – this just makes me sad.
College and Expat Life
One of my first good friends has a crush on my (Chinese-American) roommate. When she turns him down, he redirects his attention towards me. This may be a coincidence, but I still hear snide comments from our friends about his “Asian fetish.”
I notice every time somebody makes a comment about how much they love Asian women. I notice this from white guys when I studied abroad and later lived in China. I notice every time in Uganda when someone checks me out and yells “China!” I also notice when I have lunch with a Ugandan friend in the States, and he tells me how “nice” Asian women are. How could he find one to date?
When I say I don’t know, he asks me if I would be his girlfriend.
I teach English in France, and got successively angrier, when seemingly everywhere I turned, men of all ethnicities stare and then yell out “Ni Hao” or imitate my supposed native language when I walk by them, or if they pass by me on the train. At least once a month, a student at the school I taught at singles me out in this way. I end up becoming grateful that they don’t know the word “chink.”
Some of these attempts really are just someone’s way of “saying hello,” and some other times the intent is malicious. Either way, people don’t realize how wearing it is to deal with someone who just seems interested in you because you’re an Asian woman, who can’t look past that fact. It’s worse when it’s a stranger, because you have no other information about them, and no chance to show them that you’re more than just your gender or ethnicity. It’s enough to make anyone defensive and suspicious, when these incidents add up over a lifetime.
I had been sitting on a park bench, on a break from work, reading. Not looking up. His “Ni Hao” startled me out of my reverie. He didn’t even break his stride, but he did look back to see my reaction. I don’t think he was just saying a friendly hello. He wanted me to feel uncomfortable. And he wasn’t going to stop and calmly explain his intent, sinister or otherwise, and give me a chance to politely criticize what he did. He was acting in bad faith, and I only had a split second.
I could have written this entire essay in the Facebook comments to try and make Luke understand, even though I don’t know when he would’ve given me the chance to do so. It’s possible that Luke has never heard the term “Asian fetish” or “sexual harassment,” and can’t look them up himself. I also suppose, even though he lived for seven years in China, that he doesn’t have any other female, Chinese friends he could have asked about this.
Obviously, Luke’s experience is the one that counts here. His growing up in a small village matters more than my present situation in a park in Boston. His suggestion that the guy “may have been German” is just as valid than my read of this man’s facial expression and body language, having been there, as well as having to deal with years of incidents that were depressingly similar to this one.
Maybe he was German.
I also could have chased this man down, and asked why he said that exact phrase to me. I could have been reasonable and polite after a stranger tells me “Ni Hao” and then strolls away. This goes for everybody who has been harassed in public. If a person is reasonable enough to say something rude because they’ve noticed something different about you, they’re not trying to upset you, they’re just having fun. And they won’t take any measured response as an invitation to continue on in that vein.
What did that “fuck you” accomplish in the end? It made me feel empowered and in control of the situation, but I know it also made me look rude. “Angry.” Even “irrational.” And what did posting about it accomplish?
I wasn’t supposed to share the fact that I didn’t shrink away when that man said “Ni Hao” to me. I was also supposed to understand that some people have no choice but to berate me for my response.
If I seem angry, I’m not. In fact, I’m grateful to Luke, to the boy chanting in my middle-school hallway, to the men shouting “China!” and “Ni Hao” in the street. Thanks to them, I now know the rules.