In Her Language, We’d Call You “Baka”.

It was early afternoon when I had decided to head on over to the store down the road during my break to soothe the sugar craving that had been going on all day.

When I was ready to leave, I scooted behind a small, elderly Asian woman in line at the cash register. The Cashier, who seemed to have misplaced his Adderall, started throwing her items across the scanner before doing some over-the-shoulder in the air trick with her rewards card.  He looked at her and exclaimed “Ni Hao Ma!”

I stopped what I was doing and stared at him for a bit, then looked at the lady.  She seemed amused.  She smiled and laughed as he continued to load things into bags for her. For those of you who don’t know “Ni Hao” is a greeting in Mandarin Chinese.  My initial thought was What an idiot. Does he even know that she’s Chinese? Let alone speaks Mandarin?!

I still pondered these as a second thought came to mind.  Maybe he knows her. Maybe she comes in often and he knows that she’s Chinese?  Still, hearing “xie xie” (Mandarin for thank you) and some other garbled mess as she left gave me a bad feeling – like nails on a chalk board.

He got me through the line quickly, trying to be funny in an English accent.  Oh, so you think I’m British too? Bastard.  At that point in my head I had already decided he did not know the lady.

When I was leaving the store I noticed the lady was standing with her family outside.  They were all talking to each other.  I prepared to perk up my ears as I walked by to see if I could detect what they were speaking.  However there wasn’t much detecting to do when the very first thing I heard when the door opened was a younger member of her family clearly saying “Daijoubu”.  Which basically means “Okay or It’s Okay” — in JAPANESE.

I walked away wanting to back and tell off the guy in the store.  I mean, some people (like this lady) might not notice or care but what if he does that to someone who really does and then gets himself in a lot of trouble?  Am I overreacting to think he’s an idiot that needs to shut up?  With such a huge race of people who were born here or not born here — how would you even attempt to guess their nationality for one, assume they don’t speak English for two, and add those two together to make yourself look like an idiot by talking to them in not their language for three?!

It’s times like these that remind me that there still are ignorant people — even in Western Washington.  It takes me back to the days of elementary school when kids still stretched their eyes at the corners to imitate Asians.  Sick.

Have any of you out there wrongly assumed someone a different nationality than they were?  Have you ever been a victim of that?

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2 thoughts on “In Her Language, We’d Call You “Baka”.

  1. I’ve been mistaken for Mexican (by Mexicans), or some variation of Latino, Chinese, Korean, Filipino… Oddly enough I usually get Japanese as last. It’s hard for me to get offended anymore when it comes to these things. I always think back to the first time it happened, and the first experience I remember is kindergarten, and kids doing the old rhyme “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these.” (I’m old) And the kids would stretch their eyes just like in your example, and say the rhyme. When I was a kid, that didn’t bother me at all, but it’s funny to think back and remember very clearly about that if it wasn’t important to me.
    Was I actually offended and just couldn’t articulate? Hard for me to tell. I’m too far removed from it now to really connect with it. Do I think it’s an appalling lack of understanding? Absolutely. That stupid rhyme probably came from back in the World War II era as far as I know, and it simply exists because nobody ever corrected the behavior. Most of the time though, I know it’s not done maliciously. I’ve been on the receiving end of actual malicious racist name calling, and by comparison, an innocent mistake doesn’t really offend me.
    The only third permutation of this that I could see is the person who makes a racist remark in passing just trying to be funny. There’s a lot of people who believe that they’re comedians, or maybe they’re trying to be edgy, or say something inappropriately funny. Those people can be a toss up for me. If the joke is original, I’ll laugh, but if it’s the same old “ching chong chang” bull, then I’m liable to put a guy through a wall. I think if they’re going to do it, then they better be damn sure that they are as funny as they think they are.
    Perfect example was when I did a production of Hairspray a while back. One of the young white actors made a passing remark using the “n-word”, trying to be funny. Well, one of the young black kids (probably around 11 years old) heard it, and was really upset by it. The woman playing our Motormouth Maybelle happened to see him distraught and talked to him. She came stomping up the stairs pulled me aside and demanded to see the director or she wouldn’t go on for her scene. I just nodded, called the director, and talked to the young kid and made sure he was okay. The actor who said it was made to apologize, and he honestly didn’t mean any offense by it…but what does he know? He’s a 16 year old white kid who never experienced anything remotely close, and it was said in a stupid way.
    Also ironic that the show itself was about racial intolerance and self-acceptance, so that probably didn’t exactly help matters any. But there we are.
    Okay, this ended up into its own post…but just thought I’d share. 🙂

    • I do remember that playground rhyme, and I’m sure I may have even participated in it as a youngster, not realizing what was wrong with it.

      Another problem I encounter is not unlike the white people who have large groups of black friends. The ones that everyone makes fun of for adopting stereotypical speech, actions, and words typically reserved for African American usage. Because I have a large group of Asian friends — there are some things I do and say that to most people outside my group of friends would probably be offended by. I make jokes about Fobs or friends acting like Fobs and I’ll go back and forth with a friend about how “chinky” someones eyes are. Out of context, it’s almost embarrassing to type out that I say stuff like that, but in context, I don’t even think twice. And someday, someone who doesn’t know me may be hanging out with this group of friends and get offended by something I do or say, and I’ll be the one getting called an ass. It’s a fine line, but once you cross it, chances are you won’t again.

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