Being Nice, Yet a Little Insensitive

I think I ran into more than my fair share of people who try to be nice, but come off as insensitive, ignorant or both, and it has to do with my Asian heritage.

Once, in DC, an African-American girl told me that my “eyes were slanted in the perfect angle.” She wasn’t trying to be rude. From her facial expression, she was genuinely trying to compliment me. Of course, there are better ways to comment about someone’s eyes than it being slanted in the perfect way, especially if the complimented happens to be Asians.

Then, of course everyone thinks we’re all Chinese. I always find that funny. And because I’m tall, there were actually people who called me Yao Ming.

I always find it entertaining when people try to find out what I am. I guess it became impolite to ask an Asian what their heritage is, but personally, I think it is more impolite when they try to go in circles to figure out what my nationality is. I can’t help but play along. Here’s an actual conversation at a mall in DC:
“So, where are you from?” (note: when someone asks me this, 8 out of 10 times, they’re trying to ask me where in Asia is my family from)
“Right now, I’m actually in DC going to seminary. But I’m really from Hawaii.”
“Oh. That’s nice, Hawaii. So is that, like, your hometown? Did you live anywhere before that?”
“Oh. Yea. My family used to live in Santa Barbara before we move to Hawaii.”
“Yea, Santa Barbara is nice. Would you consider that your hometown?”
“Well, I guess I’d consider my hometown as Columbia, South Carolina. I grew up there.”
“Oh. Okay. Do you have something that is considered a native language? Like do you speak another language?”
“I speak English. Maybe a little bit of Spanish.”
“Spanish, huh? Is that all you know how to speak?”
“Oh, I speak a little Chinese.”
“Oh! So you’re Chinese?”
“Oh. So where is your family from?”

I know that was real mean and insensitive on my part. But it was entertaining. I eventually told him I was Korean, and he started to talk to me a little in broken Korean.
But it’s always entertaining how people interact with me.

3 thoughts on “Being Nice, Yet a Little Insensitive

  1. Joseph – We (white people) can be very insensitive. I appreciate your willingness to share your experience. Sometimes insensitivity is the result of inexperience and ignorance (like not knowing what the polite way is to ask someone what their heritage is) and sometimes it is just the result of being willfully stupid. For the times that you have had to put up with people’s stupidity and racism, I am just sorry. I really appreciate your willingness to share your story because it helps me to learn more about how people who are different than I am would be most comfortable with me interacting with them. I also sense that you have been very patient and willing to give the benefit of the doubt to a lot of “nice but insensitive” people.

    I don’t know about others, but I would be very interested in hearing more of your thoughts in future posts about what it is like to be a Korean-American in the US. Especially, what do you wish that white folks knew or took into account when they interact with or think about Koreans?

  2. Hey, thanks for the comment Kevin.
    I don’t think there really is a correct way to ask for someone’s heritage. But, for me, I like to be asked up front, because when the question, “where are you from” is asked, I automatically think it’s to see what i am. And really, a lot of insensitiveness i receive, is partly my fault. I’m a jerk too. as in case of the post. what goes around comes around. =)

    I have a lot to say about Korean-Americans, particularly the Korean church in the United States.

    But one thing I think everyone can work on is that I’m an American too.
    Many forget that we’re all immigrants to this land, that’s what makes this country very special.
    But I’m a bonafide American Citizen. Some don’t see it like that.

    And i think, we as minorities need to teach them, because people just don’t know.
    ANd it doesn’t help when I choose to act like a jerk.

    WAS I THERE??? was this the time i was eating at tysons with you and rahel and this couple came up to say hi??? i remember they kinda beat around the bush too. hahahaha.
    MERRY CHRISTMAS. how’s the retreat? i didn’t get to go this year. -_- did you get anything from santa? tehehehe.
    miss ya lots,

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