Recently, I went to an outlet mall and ran into a surprising problem–that ticked me off to no end. It’s something I wouldn’t be surprised to face when I’m in the city and there are some obnoxious people around me, but the setting and situation were a bit different.
This was a nice outlet mall, and twice, people tried to talk to me and my family in different Asian languages to figure out what ethnicity we were. It first happened when I was passing by a gelato place I wanted to go to after stopping by a store. Some young guy, another minority, first asked us, “Nihon?” as in Japanese, I guess, and then tried other languages. I kept on walking, ignoring him and pretty pissed off to be honest. Yeah, I wasn’t hitting that gelato place after all.
Then later, what surprised me was we went into a store and the worker, this time White, who was standing by the door to greet customers, spoke to us in Chinese then Korean. He was smiling; he thought he was being polite, but I was just bewildered. Seriously, again?
What makes them think this is okay? I honest-to-goodness think they thought that this was perfectly acceptable, that they were trying to reach out to us as customers of their shop or store in a polite way (although honestly, the way the gelato dude did it seemed condescending; still, it intrigues me that the other man seemed completely oblivious).
Now, here’s the thing with this outlet mall: there are a ton of foreigners. It’s famous or something, so lots of people come here and are even carrying their luggage around like this was their first stop from the airport. I get that the workers there were trying to reach out and engage with the customers who mostly seem to be from other countries–that doesn’t mean they should automatically assume I’m a foreigner just because I look it. Here’s the thing with being Asian-American–I don’t look like I belong. It doesn’t matter that I was born and raised here, only left the country once, and majored in English so I can speak and write better than average (scratch that, I knew an English major who shocked me with how horrible her writing was, but you get my point).
It ticked me off that their automatic reaction was, “Oh hey, she’s Asian. She must be from Asia. Let me try to guess where in Asia she’s from. Maybe she’ll buy something from us then!” Yeah, what they succeeded in doing was pissing off an American and deterring her from wanting to buy anything from them.
Even though they seemed to have meant no harm, this is basically an ethnic microaggression. They’re pointing out that I don’t seem to belong because of the way I look; they’re saying I don’t belong here whether they mean to blatantly or not by assuming I wouldn’t be American from the get-go from first impressions. Why not speak to me in English first? Test the waters. And even if they thought I might be American but still wanted to guess my ethnicity, my question is: Why? Why do people care so much? It’s not polite or purposeful to try to find out what country my ancestors are from. It just makes me feel out of place–not to mention, it’s very close-minded because Asians live all over the country. For all they know, I could only know how to speak French. Oui oui. And a certain inappropriate phrase from a song everyone knows that I won’t attempt to even spell out.
I really see no point in them even doing this because lots of foreigners know basic English. Plus, I doubt they’re actually fluent enough in any of the Asian languages to continue engaging the customer in conversation for long, so why bother? Am I supposed to be touched, like, “Oh wow, you can say hello in my native tongue. How admirable–how much is a pistachio ice cream sandwich?” I should’ve said it in Korean and then thrown a huge screaming fit when I couldn’t get through to them because it turns out they know nothing.
What really boggles me is that they weren’t actually trying to be obnoxious. They were just trying to be good at their jobs. Plenty of people do it to be obnoxious, but there are also surprisingly a whole lot of people who do it with kind smiles, thinking that this is all okay–it’s just nice small talk, NBD. Well, it is a big deal. Microaggressions are all big deals. I might be more American than a White-looking girl right next to me because America=/=White or anything like that, at all. That’s just not what America is about.
So stop trying to guess my language because I will own you in ours.