[Topics explored: bilingual; languages; Chinese; intentions; curiosity; benefit of the doubt; talking with strangers on airplanes; The Atlantic magazine]
Why has it been so long since I posted to this website that I pay SiteGround to host and claim my domain name? And that is coming up for renewal next month? And therefore causing me some anxiety about my low post rate? (Yes, this is also a bald attempt to draw attention to my referral link here. A girl’s gotta get that bag, er, a few free months of hosting rather.)
Alright, I should take a deep breath. Just write and create for me, right?
This is also what I said to myself on one of the legs of my flight returning from Palm Springs. (The second part came later…that is, now, as I write.) Why?
Towards the end of the flight, an old white man in the middle seat next to me asked me, apropos of nothing, if my magazine was (in) Chinese.
It wasn’t. I had open on my lap the latest issue of The Atlantic, an American magazine that is definitely in English. I forgot which article in it I was reading at that moment, but it was definitely in English because I can’t read more intellectual, “fancy” material in Chinese. I am sad about this for reasons upon reasons, but I acknowledge while I’m fully bicultural in my social mores, language-wise I am clearly stronger in English–writing, speaking, and in this case, reading.
Of course, a few ways I could’ve reacted:
a) flipped a sh*t and asked him, “what is wrong with you? Can you not clearly see that this is in English? You think because my face is Asian that I can’t read English?”
This didn’t happen even though I am prone to sh*t-flipping because my rational brain said “he looks to be on the older side and therefore maybe has vision difficulties I mean god knows without corrective lenses I am blind as a bat.”
b) tried to smile and calmly explained that no, my magazine is in fact in English because I am not as fluent a reader of Chinese as I’d like to be
Ding ding ding. Well, maybe I spoiled and hinted at it above.
c) said nothing
This didn’t happen because I am educated and was level-headed enough to speak up for myself. This is also because this wasn’t one of those high-stakes, high-danger encounters that keep showing up in the news. Exhibit A, B, C, D – plug to the NextShark team for reporting, always. #StopAsianHateCrimes #StopHatingAsians (I know there’s a more popular hashtag out there, but I have mixed feelings about the mixed signals it can send.)
So I’ve given you the answer as to what actually transpired: b. The man responded by saying something along the lines of oh, got it! He couldn’t tell because of his age and being without glasses.
Ahh. “Haha, no worries! I do wish I could read something this dense in Chinese, but I grew up here so.” Shrug.
OK! He didn’t mean anything by it other than being curious and seeing (the wrong) things. OK!
Let it go. I’m getting off the flight soon. We were silent the whole flight. He probably just wanted to start some conversation. Not everyone is like you, you who is perfectly fine with not speaking with people for an entire day because they TIRE YOU OUT.
I am proud of the way I responded: it was factual, unbothered, and ultimately ended the interaction in a way desirable to both of us.
More importantly, I operated under the principle of staying open, open-minded, open-hearted. It is more of what we need in the world today. That’s about as much of a statement regarding world affairs that I feel qualified making.
But there is definitely a niggling thought in the back of my mind that goes, “Why the f*ck do we have to always be calm? Why can’t we lash out every once in a while because god knows we deserve to? Why do we, or rather other people, give so much benefit of the doubt to those who doubt, mock, or prod at us?”
Cue searching for my stress relief squishy toys.
So: who is the “we?” Why didn’t I say “I?” Short answer: Asian. (For the more enlightened, they’d maybe tack on American, Canadian, etc. But you and I both know that people see and think “Asian” first.) Longer answer: because my face is my face, I’ve learned that people tend to–incorrectly–not see us as individuals. This grates at me. And yet, there is a strength to being “grouped” per se. It’s how people think of voting blocs and customer groups, e.g., “XYZ-Americans will be the deciding voters in this election,” “the spending habits of ABC consumers are changing how retailers think about [RETAIL CONCEPT HERE].” In summary, thank you for trying to understand any of this.
And this is why I am back on here again. I spent a lot of time recuperating from my trip and digesting this particular interaction, trying to make sense of it. Putting fingers to the keyboard, with the ultimate intention of sharing my thoughts out into the ether of the internet, has helped me because I’m forced to put a form to the swirl in my head. Maybe it’ll help someone else think through tangles, too.
Maybe someone will say: I get you. I see you. I want to hear you.
And that is why I paid for another year of being able to say to my friends, “Sometimes I share my thoughts at iamjwang.com. No pressure though.”