Honestly, I should have seen it coming.
I was at a homeschooling seminar last night and had mentioned I was homeschooling Cookie Monster in Chinese. People were impressed and then afterwards, the super nice, informative, lovely speaker (who I really liked) said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…”
And before she even finished her sentence, I already knew what she was going to ask.
“… how come you don’t have an accent?”
“It’s because I was born here,” I reply politely.
She then proceeded to expound on how awesome it was that my kids are learning another language, blah blah blah. I tried to take my leave as quickly as possible and since then, the comment has gnawed at the back of my mind.
Here’s the thing: I don’t think this woman was a bad person or had any malicious intentions. I don’t even think she is stupid. (Although her comment was.) So, let’s not pile abuse on this woman. I did like her and I’m sure if we were better acquainted, I would continue to like her.
That may be surprising to some of you since from my blog, I seem all ragey and like I’m spoiling for a fight. Don’t get me wrong. I can be. But most of the time, I really just want to go through life as pleasantly as possible. I want to like people and have them like me and we’re all happy and laughing and then get back to our lives.
But it bothers me. And I’m a little mad about it. And not for the reason you may think.
Well, a LOT for the reason you think – but that’s not the only reason.
Of course, it’s just one more comment in a long line of comments that pointedly remind me that people (especially white people) don’t think I belong in America even if I was born and raised here and am likely more “American” (whatever that means) than they are. After all, it isn’t the actual comment itself. It’s the piling up of 37 years of these types of comments. It’s the constant reminder that no matter how nice or kind or well-meaning, people really aren’t that safe. That really, I should stick to my own “kind.”
I mean, FFS, people. I live in the Bay Area, in an area that is flooded with Asians. It’s not like we’re somewhere that I’m a tiny minority and I’m some type of unicorn.
So, what does it say about this woman that she has so little exposure to Asians that she thinks everyone is foreign born? And doesn’t see anything wrong with that assumption?
Here’s a thought: maybe the reason I don’t have an accent when I speak English IS BECAUSE I WAS BORN HERE.
Then I thought, maybe it was the fact that I was homeschooling my kid in Chinese that threw her off.
But then I thought, being fluent in another language doesn’t preclude speaking English without an accent. I mean, come on people. That’s just sloppy reasoning.
So here’s the part that really makes me mad: why do people have to ruin being otherwise nice and lovely people by lazy thinking?
I mean, what was I supposed to do? Be mean? Come back with what I wish I could say in these situations with, “How come your English is so good?” and then act super surprised that she was born in the US?
Instead, of course, I just swallow all of the snark because if I didn’t, I’d be immediately shunted into “angry minority” status and who wants to be that? Who wants to always be so angry? Or have people be worried that they have to “watch what they say” around me?
But seriously. WHY CAN’T PEOPLE WATCH WHAT THEY SAY AROUND ME?
I mean, I watch what I say around white people all the time (unless I know that they are a safe space or ally). In fact, many minorities do this type of code-switching all the time. But think about it, it’s not just minorities. It’s everyone. You change your language and adapt your behaviors depending on what group you are with.
So why is it so hard to think a little more carefully about what you have to say?
I realize this post is all over the place. Mostly, because I am all over the place about it. I’m annoyed at this person, and then annoyed at myself for being annoyed.
I’m annoyed at society for being conducive to this type of racist stupidity – and for general stupidity. (Talk about being mad at the ocean for being wet or salty or huge.)
And I’m annoyed because I know I am guilty of this same lazy thinking all the time. We can’t help it. It’s ingrained.
And yet, I would like to think that when confronted, I attempt to change.
So though you are not that lady, please consider this a polite reminder to really think about the stuff you say. Whether it is some glib comment about body types, or values, or poor people, or black people, or Republicans, or whatever.
And not just because of some possible threat to your personal safety or personal concept of who you are as a person.
Think things through because faulty reasoning is bad for everybody. And what does it hurt us to change our way of speaking if it spares someone pain and harm?
Alright. As usual, I’m having difficulty ending this piece. So, I’ll just leave it at this: Have a lovely Monday.
I totally get how that can be offensive. But, just trying to see the other side… Did you say you were raised in a Chinese speaking family? The reason I ask, I have friends that are either first generation born American or have a lot of extended family around them who weren’t born here. And they accents… Not bad pronunciation but a slight accent. Maybe… just maybe that is what she was thinking? Not that I can imagine ever asking anyone about their accent. (trying to find a quasi-reasonable explanation;)
I know it sucks but you are expanding their worlds. It always amazes me just how small people’s experiences can be, even here in California. But I get picked on for saying certain Spanish words properly because I had a Mexican dad who taught me the word as a toddler (my over all Spanish sucks;). Is it surprising that most of those words are food;)?
Hi NerdMom! No, the only thing I mentioned was that I was homeschooling my kiddo in Chinese.
Yes, it never ceases to amaze me how small people’s worlds are. Who picks on you? Native Spanish speakers or non-Spanish speakers?
How is that something to pick on? People are dumb.
Non-spanish speakers because it comes out of this glow in the dark package;). I am always shocked that anyone living in California doesn’t say quesadilla and enchilada with rolled letters;).
Lol. “Glow in the dark.” Heehee.
I had a similar experience during my first job when I was working a customer support line. I told the person calling my name, and she asked whether I was Chinese. “Your English is really good!” she remarked. In the years since, I’ve thought of *so* many great comeback lines should the observation ever be directed at me again, but I’ve also understood why such remarks are made. If every experience with an Asian is one of broken, accented sentences, one could naturally assume that *all* Asians speak that way. Yes, it sucks for those of us who are the exception, but pretty much any minority group will have some kind of assumptions made about them. In time, only increased exposure will reduce that kind of prejudice.
I do think some increased exposure helps, but come on. This lady lives in the Bay Area, in a town where the majority of Asians do not have accents.
She also gets the privilege of representing just herself vs an entire people group.
Thanks for reading and commenting! So sorry that the lady’s comment still bothers you. I certainly have some scenarios that still bother me.
Racism ultimately is about painting everybody of a race/geography with a single brush. I think that’s what you just did, even if it was in the opposite way (expecting better of someone, instead of expecting worse like racism tends to lean). We’re all ultimately individuals, with experiences unique to ourselves.
Racism is not only a set of individual actions (although they can be). Racism is systemic and institutional, and exists within financial, educational, social, and government systems.
Being “ultimately individual” is for the privileged and a way to skirt personal responsibility, reaping the benefits of systemic racism, all the while allowing folks the illusion of deserving whatever they have.
Thanks for the reply and article link, and I realize I did use the term racism incorrectly when I should have said ignorance or prejudice, since I don’t sense there was any oppression in either of our stories.
The term for these types of acts is “microaggressions.” It’s not the individual act that is so terrible, but the constant assumption by society that we are foreigners in our own country, or that blacks couldn’t possibly be college educated, or any number of things. That’s why it’s so frustrating and after decades, it weighs on people. There is nothing in particular we can point to, and when we do, we are told we are just too sensitive and blowing things out of proportion.