The latest such incident happened yesterday. Here's the backstory: If you follow soccer, you'll know that the US Women's Soccer Team lost to Japan in the final of the FIFA Women's World Cup. The two teams tied at 2-2 after overtime, and the game went to the Japanese after a nail-biting, heart-breaking penalty shootout, despite the most heroic efforts of Hope Solo, the U.S. goalkeeper, to hold the fort (yeah, now you know which side I'm on...:-)).
The heroic Hope Solo (yes, I might be becoming her groupie :-))
[Image taken from here]
Anyway, we (my fiancee and I) watched the game at a local diner. After the game, we went shopping at Target. While we were strolling around the store, this middle-aged guy (if this is at all relevant, he's white, probably locally mid-western, and looks to be somewhere in his fifties or sixties) came up to me out of nowhere (or so it seemed to me; I'm not always conscious of where people pop out of in my surroundings) and asked me with a big smile, "Are you Japanese?" I immediately put up my default response to this question, which is to say nothing, and pretend that I am either deaf and/or do not speak English at all. I just kept on walking, as if he did not exist. He was starting to look really bewildered by the total lack of a response on my part ("Hmm... I guess Japanese people really don't speak English, do they?"). My fiancee (again, if this is relevant, she's white and American) felt really awkward, and responded by answering on my behalf, "No, he's not." The guy seemed to relax a little, and explained his reason for the abrupt question, "Well, you know, the Japanese just won the World Cup!"
Now what is that supposed to explain? Even if I were Japanese, would it follow that I must definitely support the Japanese team, by some kind of default? And I'm actually kind of glad that I did not answer his question: Not only would I have to tell him that I'm not Japanese, but I would also have to explain why my sympathies lie with the U.S. team, and not with an Asian one.
Anyway, my fiancee thought that I overreacted, and was being an asshole. Well, maybe I was. After all these years, I still don't know how to respond to something like this, or to situations where people would just come up to me and say something in Chinese/Japanese/Korean, and expect me to respond. (In these kinds of situations, I also adopt my default response, which is to basically pretend that I don't understand what is being said, and just keep walking on).
Of course, in almost all of these cases, the people who do these things actually have good intentions: They see themselves as trying to reach out to somebody who clearly looks different from them. Which makes the whole thing even more difficult for me. In my opinion, there are a few ways I can respond in these situations:
(1) Ignore them, and pretend that I either don't understand what is being said and/or am deaf (which is usually my standard response).
(2) Tell them that I am not Japanese, and explain to them what I am. And, if I have the patience, maybe give them a mini-lecture on why it is so inappropriate and ignorant to ask this question of a perfect stranger. But honestly, I just don't have the patience to give this lecture to a perfect stranger...
(3) Respond with a question of my own: "Why should it matter to you what my race/ethnicity is?" But unless one is able to pull this off with a certain level of panache, one is apt to come across as confrontational with this response. Which is why I don't use this response.
After all these years, I honestly still don't know what the yogic response would be in such a situation. I guess the thing to do would be to respond in such a way that accords with ahimsa, or non-violence. But how should one respond in such cases without inflicting violence on the questioner who, after all, started out with good, albeit misguided intentions? Any thoughts on this?