Over Memorial Day weekend, I was walking through the shops with my girlfriend, Elisa, when a sales associate at the kiosk we were passing by shouted at us, “ni hao!” Her anglicized pronunciation of the Mandarin greeting for “hello” drew out of me a reflexive and exasperated, “That comes off as a little racist,” as Elisa and I continued on our way. Throughout my life, I’ve had “ni hao” thrown at me by countless strangers who clearly do not speak Mandarin. They take one look at my physical features and presume that I must be Chinese, so therefore I can only speak Mandarin. They are incorrect.
Me at my preschool graduation ceremony in Toronto, Canada (1998).
I grew up a proud Canadian in the suburbs of Toronto, born to Chinese parents who emphasized multiculturalism and opportunity as the biggest reasons they immigrated to Canada. I’ve lived my entire life in the English-speaking Western hemisphere. Yes, I have an interest in the Chinese economy, dim sum is my favourite meal, and my physical features are that of an East Asian; but I can barely string together a sentence in Mandarin. This is one of the reasons why the unsolicited “ni hao”s that are hollered at me regularly irritate and bewilder me.
The other reason is that these strangers who don’t know me, yet who still insist on greeting me in Mandarin, symbolize a lack of racial understanding that is prevalent and, today, more dangerous than ever. Physical features are taken at face-value to match the stereotypes and dictate the way people act towards one another. And there are stereotypes that are far more dangerous than my East Asian facial features warranting a “ni hao” instead of a “hello”. A woman who works at Google is assumed to be in HR and rarely the software engineer. A Jewish businessman is viewed by a new client as greedy and dishonest. A hijab-wearing Muslim is flagged as a terror threat while passing through airport security. In this political climate where borders are being erected both figuratively and literally, inaction is the most dangerous reaction. The best weapon to combat the prevailing prejudice and discrimination is to speak out.
And so I’m speaking out.
Later, that Memorial Day, I reflected to Elisa how verbalizing my disapproving opinion to the sale associate left me feeling surprisingly content. This was the first time I had spoken up to a stranger on the matter. I always rationalized with one of the following that there’s no point of speaking up: (a) it’s not a battle worth fighting and a waste of time; (b) most people just don’t know any better and have no intent to harm; and/or (c) frankly, speaking out can be dangerous. But I have big dreams and expectations of a brighter future - from climate change mitigation to healthcare reform - and it’s not fair to put the burden on others to be actors of the change I want. Dialogue catalyzes change and so I need to be part of the dialogue.
One of my heroes, Malala Yousafzai, a fearless champion for girls’ education, ruminates in her autobiography I Am Malala what she would do if ever faced with the Taliban soldiers who were attempting to silence her activism:
“Maybe I’d take off my shoes and hit him, but then I’d think if I did that there would be no difference between me and a terrorist. It would be better to plead, ‘OK, shoot me, but first listen to me. What you are doing is wrong. I’m not against you personally, I just want every girl to go to school.”
It’s as important to listen as it is to speak.
Free speech is the cornerstone of our society, and with bipartisan tensions rising across the globe, many people have interpreted freedom of expression incorrectly as grounds to censor, accuse, and act on summary judgment. More than ever, people are taking aim to shoot before listening. This year alone, there has been an onset of this toxic propensity to silence anyone with differing views on college campuses such as the violent student protests that broke out at UC Berkeley against right-wing controversialists, Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos, that forced them to cancel their appearances; and at Evergreen State College where a white biology professor was harassed by students who accused him of being a racist, ironically because he decried a campus movement as being racially segregating. Academic institutions should be safe havens for discussions and sharing of views. But these days, contesting ideas often have the opposite effect of being more regressive than progressive.
On being greeted “ni hao”, Elisa who had witnessed my exchange with the sales associate and who also happens to look “like me” brought up a different point of view. She countered that the sales associate probably met many Mandarin-speaking shoppers who didn’t know a word of English and was trying to build rapport in their native language. Elisa was right that the mall we were at was a hotspot for Chinese tourists. Even though we were smack dab in English-speaking New York, what if I was the outlier? Was this sales associate just catering to the language preferences of the majority of her customers? Was I the hypocrite who had jumped to conclusions? At that moment, I realized that although I had no regrets in sharing my opinion with the sales associate, I didn’t stop to listen to her side of the story. I was guilty of exactly the problem I had identified - speaking out but failing to listen.
This is a reminder that we should be starting dialogues, debates, and discussions with everyone - friends, family, coworkers, and even strangers. Only then can we better understand the opinions of others, make the most informed decisions, and mobilize collectively towards positive change. All our voices matter in shaping progress.
Let’s start the conversation.