“Your English is very good,” an older gentleman complimented me as we stood in line for the copier at the Chinese visa office in DC. The embassy keeps changing its rules for obtaining Chinese visas, and it had recently started requiring photocopies of the first page of your passport. None of this was documented on its website, which helpfully informs you that the office will be closed on May 31, 2010. Another fun fact: If you do a Google Maps search for “chinese visa office,” the correct address doesn’t show up until the fourth result or so. (It’s 2201 Wisconsin Avenue NW, and you want to get there half an hour to an hour before they open or else you might not get seen that day. You’re welcome.)
So, we found ourselves in line for the copier, along with everyone else. This fellow and I had just struck up a conversation along the socially acceptable lines of “the weather, am I right?” and “boy, all these rules.” Then, out of the blue, he said, “Your English is very good”.
Now, the thing is that I have lived approx 93% of my life in the US. This is a comfortable A-/A grade in a class without a curve, although back in the day my dad might have responded with “What happened to the other 7%?” Well, the other 7% of my life was spent in China, at birth and for two years immediately following. I have a whopping total of two memories from that time, which translates to the rather low rate of 1 memory per year. I have lived in the US, I have gone to school entirely in the US, and I cannot for the life of me write anything in Chinese beyond “I am a student, hello teacher, one two three four five”. But I am ethnically Chinese.
And there I was, trying to figure out how to tell this stranger that when the person you are talking to has no accent, she does not need to be reassured about the state of her English. In fact, unless she has said “I am worried about my English” or you two are rehearsing a play called Things Not To Say To People Who Look A Little Different From You, there just isn’t a need to compliment her on her English.
I thanked him, and dryly informed him that I had gone to school entirely in the US. We fell into a silence. I guess it was an awkward silence. Honestly, I hope it was an awkward silence for him. People should be made to feel awkward when they have done awkward, uncomfortable, and unfortunate things. Like me, when I drink too much, and I suddenly think I am able to speak thirty different languages, but all I can say is “I love you” with a terrible American accent, so I repeat that over and over again expecting someone to pat me on the head for being so worldly.
As far as drunk behaviors go, I would say that this is not a terrible thing (at least I’m not picking fights with parking meters), but I really should know better, as I have been on the receiving end many times. I have had non–Chinese-speakers throw out Chinese phrases at me, when our previous interactions have been solely in English and confined to “Thanks for holding the door open.” They yell out “xie xie!” and “ni hao!” and look pleased with themselves, waiting for a Real Asian Person to validate that Rosetta Stone trial they did online a few weeks ago because they are fascinated by exotic cultures and think pandas are *just adorable*. My usual response is a slightly patronizing “good for you,” although in the future I might switch it up with “this is America, speak American, you terrorist.” (That was a joke, I don’t actually interact with terrorists, please don’t fire me NASA.)
All this does not mean that we must pretend that we are colorblind and race-blind when we interact with each other. Sometimes I meet people who are genuinely curious and enthusiastic, in which case I might find their questions a little amusing but not upsetting. Depending on my mood and the absurdity of the situation (a couple of men I pass on the street calling me “Miss Yao Ming!” because what other famous Asian people are there am I right), it might be aaaall goooood. But some questions just don’t need to be asked if the person has not given you an opening. If I am chatting you up at a bar — you’re cute, dear reader — and I mention that my parents are immigrants, it is OK to ask me where I was born. If I talk about visiting family members that live in China, it is OK to ask if I myself am Chinese. But if we have been discussing the fact that the bar overcharges for liquor (ugh DC why you gotta be so expensively trendy) and there is a lull in the conversation, there is no need to fill that lull by blurting out “So what ethnicity are you?” I get it, I look different from the average American, the average person with media exposure in this country, etc. Awesome.
I have no doubt that there are some Asian Americans out there who would say I am overreacting, and others who would rather not talk about their ethnicity at all, and that is all OK. I’m also sure many people will interpret this as my being too politically correct, and I don’t really care, because those are people who have decided to write my words off no matter what my experiences or reasonings might be. But this all touches on much larger issues and ones that I feel unequipped to tackle at the moment. Maybe I will write more on these subjects in the future the next time I don’t want to write my paper on GRB 100116A.
And if you are the drunk college guy at the metro who told me my English was great and that you could barely hear my Chinese accent — dudebro, you might want to sit this one out, man.