How many ways do you know how to say “How are you?”
I know someone who can say it in, I don’t know, 30 languages? Impressive, no?
When I hosted him for a week as an overseas guest, the first thing he would say to any service staff we encountered was “How are you?” in their native language.
A Chinese yum cha waitress was chuffed, a Vietnamese waitress rolled her eyes and stifled a sneer, and a Burmese restaurateur asked him a question in return, only to be met with a blank look because “How are you?” were literally the only Burmese words he knew.
He thought he was being woke and I thought he was being an annoying show-off. It was a long week.
Before you think I’m unnecessarily harsh or that I think everybody should stop trying to learn foreign languages, let me come back to this further down the piece, because I want to first talk about the reactions to what, on the surface, seems to be a benevolent, culturally-aware gesture.
The reason is that these three different responses are broadly representative of the comments I see online whenever public exercises in cultural wokeness go awry, as in these instances –
- The New York Times shares a video of Singaporean Chicken Curry which bears exactly zero resemblance to chicken curry as Singaporeans know it (https://www.8days.sg/eatanddrink/newsandreviews/uncle-roger-new-york-times-singaporean-chicken-curry-15499278)
- Sydney City Council commissions Chinese New Year displays to help revive Chinatown’s lagging fortunes and the artist decides to go with blue and white-themed decorations – colours associated with illness and death in Chinese culture (https://www.sbs.com.au/chinese/english/like-a-funeral-anger-over-colours-used-to-mark-lunar-new-year-in-sydney-s-chinatown)
- The University of Toronto celebrates Chinese New Year by giving out Ang Paus (red packets with money which your parents and elders hand out to unmarried kids during the festival) except they contain “Hell Money” – what the Chinese burn as offerings at funerals (according to a post on Facebook, this also happened in a primary school here in Australia) (https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/02/04/u-of-t-apologizes-after-giving-hell-money-to-students-for-lunar-new-year.html?)
So, to the woke bureaucrat, this is what you can expect as far as social media reactions next time you stuff up –
Response A – the defenders
You know the John Lydgate quote – “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”?
This is the group of people you can please all of the time – they’re happy to remind their fellow Asians that if you’d spent more than a day in China/Korea/Japan/Singapore/Malaysia etc. you’d know that Asians are massive racists who would never dream of going the extra mile for foreigners in their midst let alone learn “hello” in your language/cook rubbish and pass it off as your cuisine/give you hell money for ang pau/hang funereal lanterns to celebrate your most auspicious festival etc.
They’re basically saying like it or leave, which is kind of like an own goal-version of the “Go back to China” taunts more than a few of us have encountered as immigrants (fun fact – I’ve never been to China).
Response B – the haters
These are the people who think you purposefully planted hell money in the ang paus to offend us (even I was surprised by the number of comments along those lines), that you want to curse Chinatown with unlucky colours, that you’re not allowed to celebrate Lunar New Year or wear cheong sams if you’re not Asian; they see racism and micro-aggression where none is intended, and, basically, they hate your guts.
Response C – the questioners
Finally, these are the people who are willing to ask the question – “What was your intent?” Were your efforts well-meaning albeit misguided, in which case we’ll cut you some slack? Or were they obvious examples of tokenism, ie. superficial and more about self-aggrandizement than trying to build real bridges? That’s where I, and probably most of my fellow Asians, are placed. This means that if you’re willing to work that little bit harder we’ll be cheering for you from the sidelines.
And by the way, stop hiding behind diversity Asian hires to protect yourself – I can think of at least 2 Australian freelance journalist friends – Leanne Kitchen and Lara Dunston – who I bet could cook a chicken curry blindfolded, that’s infinitely closer to the Singaporean version than what the Taiwanese reporter produced for The New York Times.
So back to “How are you?” – will I chew your head off if you say “Ni hao ma/Apa khabar” to me? It depends on your intent. Do you mean to show off, or do you mean it as an icebreaker? It may be tricky for some to parse the difference, but having lived overseas for nearly 38 years, my radar is probably a bit more tuned in to do so.
As a general rule of thumb, don’t walk up to me and say “Ni hao ma” without first speaking to me in English, even if it’s just to ask where I’m from originally. I could write an entire separate article on this but I don’t want this to get too long. Suffice it to say, as someone with a degree in languages from Sydney University (before the whole “food” thing and “IT” thing I used to study languages), if you’re trying to impress me with your multilingual capabilities, it’s going to take a lot more than “How are you?” to do so.