Ni hao! Where are you from?

The other week, my mother showed me a video on Facebook: What (Not) To Say To An Asian Person. It featured a couple of East Asian women explaining how to avoid making a race-themed social faux pas. Naturally, the comments section was full of words like “special snowflake” and “stop-whining-about-issues-we-have-never-experienced-but-are-judging-you-for-anyway*, ” and “how DO you talk to them?”

Which, to be fair, is an interesting question. The short answer is: if you talk like one respectable human being to another without making assumptions about the other person, then you’re probably getting it right. But I thought I’d break it down further.

For a start, upon seeing someone who may be in a racial minority, I like to assume that they speak English and don’t want to be singled out. Apparently, though, it’s perfectly acceptable to say a random greeting to them in a language that all people who look like them must speak – especially if you have no other reason to talk to them. Or to shout it through the window of your moving car. Ni hao! Konichiwa! Or be downright racist and shout “Great Wall of China!” at them to impress your mates. Right?

Wrong. It’s not simply saying hello. Do you have the same urge to shout a greeting to a completely white stranger? I never know why people do it, but if they want to be funny, clever, or cool, then they’ve got work to do.

And sometimes it is meant to be friendly. But having heard “ni hao” used as a slur – and even combined with catcalling – I just associate it with being made fun of. Besides, how do you know what language someone speaks? A white person, for example, could come from any continent in the world! Don’t get me wrong, if you’re fluent in their language, and they struggle with yours, then great. Otherwise, a simple “hello” or “hi” will suffice.

Interestingly, when my mum lived in Taiwan, she had a lot of passing strangers say “hello” or “good day”. If I ever went back to Taiwan and experienced this, I would be too amused by the irony of being in a reverse situation to usual to be offended.

As for asking where I’m from? Loughborough, England, UK. No, where am I really from? Born in Taiwan with a Taiwanese father, but raised British since age 4. What about my mum? British. Do I talk to, or visit my father? No. My ethnicity is no secret, but honestly, sometimes it’s like being questioned by the Spanish Inquisition! I like to think I just look like a dark haired British person, but the number of times I’ve heard these questions has disproven this. I don’t mind talking about the subject – it’ll come up naturally if you hang around with me long enough anyway – but I can’t help feeling a little self conscious when questioned on the first meeting.

I realise I’m being a bit sensitive. I think having a learning difference has made me fed up of being scrutinised for my differences, and I am working on that.

So there you go. Discussions like this so often lead to people thinking minority groups expect special treatment. If I need special treatment, I’ll swallow my pride and let you know, but apart from that, it’s the opposite. I just want people to get to know me for me, and learn naturally how to treat me based on that.

 

 

*Well maybe not those exact words…

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Proud to be different?

For those of you who don’t know, I’m not only autistic, I’m also biracial. Specifically half Taiwanese, half British. And throughout my life, I’ve had more people than I can count react to this. Often unprompted. I get complete strangers saying ni hao to me. Men trying to be funny. Women selling Chinese literature. Boys at school who wanted to “have my Chinese babies.”

People have argued that there’s nothing wrong with saying “ni hao.” It’s only hello, right? Well it’s not funny. Or cool. It makes me feel the same as when men catcall me – they might not be using a direct insult, but it is still disturbing. Plus how do I know they’re not making fun? You don’t go around singing Lion King songs to black people. Or assuming that an autistic person is a living incarnation of Christopher from The Curious Incident. Oh, wait…

Yet being in a minority is seen as special. Which brings me onto a conversation I had with Mum, following a man-trying-to-be-funny incident the other day.

These days, it’s both healthy and trendy to do a Lady Gaga and proudly say “I was born this way, hey!” And many people believe it’s good to be different. Great that they think that, but it’s easy enough to say when you haven’t fallen behind at school, dealt with countless preconceptions about your race or how your brain works, feared judgement even from those closest to you, had people take you less seriously than they should…Sometimes I still hate being different. There, I said it.

But by all means be proud of your brain. Or heritage, or whatever. If you’re neurotypical and/or firmly rooted into your home country by 10 generations, your support means a lot to people like me. Either way, remember that no matter how well things are going, it can be tough. And if you’re not happy in who you are, don’t try to pretend otherwise – it’s ok to be frustrated.

If it does get you down and someone is trying too hard to be positive, say: “I’m glad you think it’s a good thing, and I realise that it’s important to be happy in who I am. But being/having x,y,z can be hard because (insert reason), and sometimes I need people to acknowledge that and sympathise.” This isn’t the same as being pitied just for being in a minority – it’s simply feeling sorry that someone else is struggling.

And if someone says something careless without trying to hurt you, just explain that you are a regular person. Say that displaying preconceptions about you makes you feel really uncomfortable, especially because sometimes people do mean it unkindly. Or because they have assumed something that just isn’t true. If they are apologetic, accept their apology and move on. If not, just…move on.

Meanwhile, I’d better get back to counting red cars. And giving out fortune cookies. Zai jian for now!

Proudly autistic and Asian