Monday, July 18, 2011

What is the Yogic Response to "Are you Japanese/Chinese/Korean/Vietnamese?"

This is one question that I get from time to time from total strangers. And I suppose I will continue to get this question for as long as I live in this country; unless I do a Michael Jackson, of course. (uh, is this politically correct?)

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?       


  1. You could try "No, I'm Chinese".

  2. Yes I have thoughts on this. No mini lecture is going to make anyone more shall we say cosmopolitan? It is also useless to be mad at yourself because you are offended by the comment even when it was not intended as harmful. Take heart. My friend Hernan would have to explain he is Colombian and a grandchild of Chinese grandparents, who is raising his daughter to use french as her first language like her mom, who is french and also the grandchild of Chinese grandparents. Or you could be me- trying to answer: You do not look Colombian but your sister does!! Unsolvable without compassion and humor....

  3. Oh, and I forgot to mention that both Hernan and I live in the NYC "cosmopolitan" area where we are constantly interrupted with inquiries demanding to know why we are speaking in Spanish to each other!

  4. Oh boy, I hear you, I get that A LOT when I open my mouth... and in New York City, but still.... I agree with SF up there, humor seems to me to be the best policy.

    A taxi driver recently asked James where we are from, he was clearly from somewhere around either India or Pakistan (judging - and there I go myself - by the accent). He responded for both of us, said "New York City".

    The cabby not convinced asked ME, where I was from, he wanted me to say, so I also said New York. Which is not true originally as in the born place, but is true of heart and of the moment. He insisted: "You have an accent"

    "So do you" said James right away. And that lightened things up.

    By theway, he maintained he was from Queens. He was not from Queens.

    It all ended up being a funny mess in a NYC taxi ride.

  5. Hello V, good suggestion. I will keep this in mind :-)

    It sounds like your friend Hernan has a really interesting life. At any rate, it is so cool that he is able to speak so many languages by virtue of his family background. But yes, I can see how that would be a lot of explaining to do, if he chooses to explain, that is. Or trying to respond to "You do not look Colombian but your sister does!!" Yes, it does seem that humor backed by compassion is the best policy in these circumstances. This is one thing I need to work on, I suppose: My sense of humor always deserts me at such times.

    That was a hilarious incident, Claudia! Yes, the "Where are you from" question is a sticky one: People always expect you to tell them where you were born or grew up, but very often, that answer just doesn't gel with what we are in our hearts at this moment. Hmm... if I were better at talking about such things, I could write a post about this. I suppose it would be titled something along the lines of "Is where you are from a matter of geographical location, time spent in a certain place, or something more intangible?"

    P.S. It appears that the taxi driver did not really identify with where he was from geographically either...

  6. Oh, sereneflavor, the second paragraph of my last comment (the one beginning with "It sounds like your friend Hernan has a really interesting life.." is meant for you. I suppose you probably figured this out by now anyway, since it wouldn't make any sense any other way. But I thought I'll clarify this here anyway :-)

  7. In an NYC taxi, I feel like it's most likely just a sociable person trying to make conversation, learning about the people you cross paths with. What else might a loquacious cab driver think to ask you? In NY, I don't see any reason not to just answer the questions and perhaps hear someone's interesting story and/or learn something new.

    In Middle America, maybe it's more misguided curiosity about the foreign-looking person; I don't know how homogeneous it is where you live. But people asking sports-related questions based on where you live or where you went to school is very common; doing so based on your potential ethnic group is not far off from that. It's also really annoying. It's not going away any time soon, though, so unless you want to find yourself moaning and complaining about people all the time, the easiest way to deal with it is to just answer honestly and move on.

    Of course, sometimes it is rather amusing! Like when I sat down at a bar at a restaurant in the Village and found myself next to a lady who was probably 85 years old. Out of the blue, she asked me how old I was, where I lived, what I did for a living, and if I was Jewish. Clearly, she must've had a single granddaughter she needed to set up with someone... :-)

  8. i think living in another country (and by this i mean not your homeland) you will always be a foreigner. i have lived outside croatia (where i am originally from) for the last 9 years and am always confronted with the 'where are you from?' question (they can never guess where my accent is from ;-)). but i don't mind it. i love england and london, but i know i am not english - i am croatian, very proud of my heritage and proud to say where i am from. i think what makes UK - and US - so great is the multicultural aspect of it. i love walking down the street and seeing all different skin colours, face shapes and dress sense, cultures and religions. i am so grateful to be able to live here and find it so enriching. so maybe, when you are asked next time where you are from just say you were chinese with the biggest possible smile on your face. there is nothing wrong in being a foreigner ;-)

  9. I don't understand - why is your automatic reaction to questions like this to keep quiet? Is it because you're being asked by a complete stranger? Would it be better if someone had asked you in the context of a social gathering, after you've exchanged some introductory words? My husband and I get asked where we're from all the time because people automatically assume we're Americans until we start to speak. From my personal experience, I actually appreciate the asking because I've been in situations where people have assumed I'm a local (in Thailand and Indonesia) and I was treated a lot worse!

  10. Interesting, Frank. Yes, I think where the exchange takes place (in an NYC taxi vs. Middle America) probably does make some kind of a difference in where the person is coming from, although the underlying intent is probably to be sociable/friendly in both cases. And yes, that incident in the restaurant in the village is quite amusing :-)

    Thanks for sharing, Ivana. Yes, I see that being able to say where you are from straightforwardly and having a sense of humor about it is very useful. I'll keep this in mind :-)

  11. Maybe it's just me, savasanaadict, but I can't shake off the feeling that when a total stranger comes up to me and asks me where I'm from, that person is trying to size me up and make certain assumptions about me that may or may not be true. And that makes me very uncomfortable. Yes, I feel that it would be more appropriate if this question had occurred in a more social context, after some introductory words, or after that person has already known me in some way or other.

    Then again, I suppose people make assumptions about me all the time in some way or other, and there's nothing I can do about it. And I see where you are coming from too: I have never been in a situation where people assume I'm a local and I got treated worse.

  12. HI Nobel, I live in Sydney (pretty cosmopolitan) and tend to get asked this question pretty frequently . I simply answer straightforwardly "I am Chinese, born in Singapore and moved to Melbourne when I was 14". However, I agree that it really depends on the where the exchange occurs, perhaps it it were asked in one of the more "red necked " areas , then I would probably be more wary. I might also add that had I received a hostile to my answer in the past, I may not be so naive.

  13. I hate it (the assumption-making) as much as you do, particularly when I'm considered a local woman in a developing country and treated accordingly (i.e., without respect), but that is the way the world works. We can each do our bit to avoid perpetuating stereotypes and assumptions about other people in our encounters, but we can't control what they assume about us.

  14. Thanks for sharing your experience, MIn. Ah, you are from Singapore, too? Interesting how we all meet in the blogosphere :-)

    Yes, savasanaaddict, you are right that for better or for worse (for worse, actually), this is how the world works. And you are right that we can do our bit to avoid perpetuating stereotypes and assumptions ;-)

  15. i can understand their lack of knowledge of which part of Asia you're from. before living in california i was not as much exposed to Asians, so would not pick up the clues that would quickly tell me which part of asia a person was from. you're in the midwest, so you're a minority. here i'm a weiguoren o laowei if i step out of shanghai into a remote province - and people voice it out loud. in the big city it's not an issue i'm a foreigner.

    i would not say, "why would it matter that..." - that would be rude. to have fun with it, why don't you give your response in Chinese? it's likely to give them a baffled look, but at least you could have fun at your end.


  16. There are a couple of us from Singapore actually :p

    In China, people think I'm either local, Japanese or Korean, but never a Singaporean.

    In Manila, they assume I'm Filipino Chinese.

    In Hong Kong, people think I'm local and speak Cantonese to me. I try talking back until my poor command of the dialect gives me away. haha.

    At home, people think I'm a local who studied overseas and came back with strong views.

    I welcome all nationality conversations with strangers :p

  17. This reminds me of a conversation I had with a Minnesota photographer Wing Young Huie. The guy was born in Duluth, and has lived in Minnesota his whole life, but because he is Chinese-American, white folks sometimes assume he's "a foreigner." And ask him all sorts of stupid things.

    I do believe that sometimes, people are really just trying to connect and don't know how. But that's not always the case, and I have witnessed enough anti-immigrant sentiment and racial prejudice to know better than assume the best in all cases.

    Humor can be a great response if you can pull it up, but I think it's important to not stuff the variety of feelings and internal responses that come with such encounters. Sometimes, what people say doesn't warrant a response, and sometimes it might even warrant a clear, direct, even sharp response.

    Yogis often default to trying to be nice and friendly. But sometimes that kind of response is the exact thing that will maintain stereotypes. Seems to me the best response is one that, at it's base, isn't coming from hatred and ill will. How that looks, though, will be different every time.

  18. No, I'm serious. Every time I'm in the States, everyone assumes I'm Mexican and intending to stay. Here in London, I get 'Italian?' a lot. Why take offense? Most people are just being curious and as somebody above mentioned, trying to connect. If you smile and tell them you are Chinese, you get an opportunity to educate them. Not everyone has the chance to travel and be exposed to other cultures. And most people are not trying to be racist.

  19. I wouldn't know the best way to address the situation other than to answer them honestly if they seem like they mean well and don't really understand that they're being inappropriate, or ignore them if the comment is tinged with racism.

    My sister (who is adopted from Korea, came here when she was 5 months old and does not speak Korean) has encountered a lot of this, and I've seen over the years that it's difficult to deal with people who just feel no qualms about coming up to you and making assumptions about your life. Sometimes you have to laugh at it, though. When we were traveling in the middle of Indiana, I think, a store keeper complimented her on her good English, and my dad, overhearing, said something to the effect of "Yes, she's my daughter, she's lived here all her life!" The shop keeper's response was "Wow, you've raised her from a baby?" Sometimes it's just ignorance, without any malicious intent.

  20. Thanks for sharing, yoginicory. Hmm... it seems that you are a person of many worlds, and people perceive you in different ways in different places. Sounds very cool to me :-)

    Thanks for sharing, Arturo. Maybe you can write a post sometime about being laowai (foreigner)? This whole Chinese practice of calling Caucasians "laowai" is actually quite amusing; I have actually overheard Chinese students here in the midwest calling Americans "laowai"! Which is , of course, very ironic, since if anything, they are the laowai here! As for giving my response in Chinese, well... I'll have to think about that one. I seem to have difficulty switching quickly from speaking English to Chinese sometimes; some time ago, a Chinese friend actually told me that I speak Mandarin with a "laowai accent"! But then again, I don't suppose the other party would be able to tell, in any case...

  21. Thank you for your very thoughtful comments, Nathan. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said,

    "I do believe that sometimes, people are really just trying to connect and don't know how. But that's not always the case, and I have witnessed enough anti-immigrant sentiment and racial prejudice to know better than assume the best in all cases."

    It is true that yogis often default to being nice and friendly. And in many cases, this default response may be the most productive and appropriate one. But as you pointed out, I have realized over the years that being nice and friendly is not necessarily always the best response, especially if it feeds into certain ungrounded assumptions that people hold about me, which they then use to make certain judgments and decisions about me.

    Of course, as savasanaaddict pointed out above, there is often little we can do about what assumptions people choose to hold about us, one way or the other. Perhaps it comes down to making a case-by-case assessment in every situation: Am I okay with this person possibly making certain assumptions about myself? Or is some other, more direct and sharper response needed (especially if the situation is one in which the person can use those assumptions to take certain actions that might put me at a disadvantage)?

  22. Thanks for sharing, V. I am learning a lot from all this.

    You said, "Why take offense? Most people are just being curious and as somebody above mentioned, trying to connect... most people are not trying to be racist."

    For my response to this, see my response to Nathan.

  23. Hello Ellie, thanks for sharing about your sister's experiences. I agree that a lot of it is just being ignorant, without any malicious intent.

    The really interesting thing is that people's trying to connect in this way often have little to do with their educational background, or even with their amount of exposure to people who are different from oneself. Some years ago, after a yoga class, this woman whom I had never met came up to me and greeted me in Chinese. I later learnt that she was actually a college professor who has spent a lot of time interacting with Chinese students, and she probably picked up something in my accent (or whatever) that cued her in on the fact that I was Chinese. The funny thing is, she did it in such a disarming way that it didn't even occur to me to be offended! (Come to think of it, this may be good material for another post: "The kinds of things that people can get away with in yoga classes that they will never be able to get away with in the 'real" world.")

    In any case, I struck up a conversation with her from there, and we became good friends. So yeah, I guess it comes down to being able to perceive whether people mean well and are trying to connect, or whether they are being racist.

  24. V - a couple of additions to what I wrote above. I am occasionally mistaken for Latino, probably due to having darker skin. Anyway, I recall one time in particular in my late teens where this mistake proved to be trouble. The white guys involved thought I was a member of local Latin gang, and wanted to pummel me. There certainly wasn't a curiosity with these guys, nor was it simply about basic ignorance.

    Another point. There is a big difference between experiencing this kind of stuff as a traveler, versus having frequent encounters in your daily life. It's probably best to brush things off or find a way to be humorous while traveling. However, when people face this stuff over and over again in their own communities - their homes - well, I think it's really difficult not to take offense sometimes. Furthermore, the whole "educational opportunity" point is something that might sound like a great thing, but consider if you had to do that dozens of times over the course of a given year. It can be a real burden.

    Most of the time, I can walk around freely without anyone coming up to me and asking highly assumptive questions. However, since I have had the experience a few times of being in that position, and because of the friends and ESL students in my life, I'm well aware of how quickly it gets old to just smile, be friendly, or offer some "teaching" to some stranger.

  25. You've based your argument on the assumption that I only experience this occassionally. You are wrong. I agree that it can be a burden, but tell me, how does getting worked up about it help anyone?

  26. Hello Nathan, thanks for sharing your personal experiences. I think you are right that there is definitely a difference between experiencing this kind of stuff as a traveler vs having such encounters as part of one's daily life: In the former case, it is easier to see being asked such questions as an interesting, even exotic experience. In the latter case, well, it's harder to see it this way (I'm not saying it's impossible).

    Hello V, you said, "I agree that it can be a burden, but tell me, how does getting worked up about it help anyone?"

    I agree that getting worked up and/or offended probably doesn't help anyone, least of all me. It's just that I haven't gotten to that place in my life where I can just see these experiences as opportunities for educational experiences (actually, I'm not even sure that it is my role to dispense such experiences in such situations, but that is another matter). But maybe I'll get to that someday. And then we'll be having a very different conversation :-)

  27. V - I never said getting worked up is a great idea. But I can understand the frustrations that build, and the less than friendly responses that can follow.

    My point is that smiling, being friendly, or trying to teach someone something aren't the only "right" approaches. It might be a good approach some of the time, but sometimes the situation calls for something else. Silence. A pointed question like "Why are you asking me, a total stranger, that question?" Or some other response.

    Frankly, I think too many people in spiritual communities mistake being nice for compassion. The reality is that compassion takes numerous forms, according to the circumstances that are present.

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