My friend and I laughed at it in hindsight, but at that moment of the insult, my Asian friend was outraged. M was an immigrant to the States decades ago. She became a US citizen, married a European immigrant who’s also a US citizen now. But this is really beside the point.
On their recent vacation trip to Europe, one afternoon, a British man suddenly and rudely shattered their otherwise relaxing meal in a bucolic German town. As the sun slanted and many patrons of the café put on their sunglasses, so did M. Immediately, this British man just cursed her for being an uppity bitch (actually in more colorful accented German than what I write here). Seconds after his outburst, he left the café, leaving M speechless. She only recovered in time to swear at his backside. Her ever calm and collected husband said, “Just let it go.” No, we feisty Asian women (or any feisty women) do not take such beatings lying down.
Seriously, the cursing man has a right to exercise his freedom of speech, and he has his right to be a jerk as well. However, while free to, since when are we legitimized to insult anyone we happen to dislike/hate just based on appearances? I know, I know, racial prejudice is around us still and abundant.
M’s story reminded me of another occasion, a couple of years ago at our capital city, Washington, D.C.
I waited for the bus to the Arboretum located on the outskirts of D.C. Upon stepping onto the bus, I was slightly taken aback. I was the only Asian in the full busload of African Americans. I couldn’t tell what people saw on my face; I couldn’t have known what my facial expression might be. I asked the driver about my intended bus stop and sat down. Someone sitting nearby told me that he would point out the stop for me when the time came. I greatly appreciated it. As the bus seemed to serve the African American working community, I remained the only Asian. It was the same on the way back to town.
I found the experience interesting. Had I acted suspicious of my environment, clutched my backpack closely, or looked vacantly ahead without engaging in any eye contact, kept my face frozen without any expressions, or registered apprehension, I wondered how my fellow citizens might have reacted? Most likely, they would have ignored me and I might not get any signal or indication to get off at the right stop. Had I been a white female? Had I been a white female behaving nervously or suspiciously?
“For every action, there is reaction.” The cliché is apt for the above stories, indeed invites the corollary “For every reaction, there is further counter-reaction.” Reactions based on appearances are without forethought. How many racially charged situations have come about simply because one person/group of people arbitrarily decides what the other’s humanity (or lack of) entails?
I have been living in the States for almost four decades, and have endured my share of discrimination. There is certainly discrimination in China and Taiwan and elsewhere; maybe not always based on race, nevertheless discrimination.
Americans do not have a monopoly on ethnocentricity or discrimination. What complicates these matters in today’s world is subtlety and uncertainty disguised and covered up by politically correct (PC) expressions. PC makes conversations difficult and understanding almost impossible. On the other hand, what my friend, M, encountered was blatant and infuriating, blatancy and fury, which could in other settings have lead to violence. On the fifth hand, how shall we proceed? I refuse to give up.
For starter, let’s discharge all those prescribed dialogues based on PC (political correctness). Honesty doesn’t have to be brutal. I have had people asking me if I would be offended by their uncertainty and confusion over whether I am a Chinese or a Japanese. Given the historical animosity between Japan and China, many Chinese are testy about such confusion. To me, how refreshing to be asked! I usually reply that I cannot tell the difference between a German from a Scott, until they speak. There are limitless ways in which we can have genuine exchanges about our lack of knowledge; we can actually learn as a result. Yes?
As Thanksgiving approaches, I am thankful for what my adopted home has given me, decades of learning, endless opportunities to explore, and an array of friends from all walks of life who have bestowed upon me their love and wisdom. Whenever I get impatient, testy, or self-righteous, I conjure up images of my friends and others whom I respect, to teach me and to calm me down. I don’t always succeed, but I have improved.
I wish you all a beautiful Thanksgiving and safe travels. Till 12/8,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.