The Woke Person’s Guide to Offending Asians

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 –

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.

Why I’m Quitting

This is a re-blog from my main website – that I feel may be of interest to those who follow me here =>

Coverage by SBS World News –

I get asked all the time why I don’t operate at more markets or do more events and festivals. This is the first time I’m speaking about this in public. My online videos, TV appearances and travel are not so much exercises in vanity as they were a conscious decision made 2 ½ years ago to recalibrate my brand away from physical food production and towards the digital sphere.

This is the reason why I’ve been scaling back.

Ever since Noah was discharged from the ICU over 2 years ago, I’ve brought him with me to all my markets and festivals. And from Day 1, I have been subjected to attempts to have him removed from these settings. Sometimes it’s members of the public expressing their disapproval, other times it is market organisers outright banning him (eg. at Hyde Park Night Noodle Markets last year).

I like to think of this as a clash of cultures. A large segment of the Australian public feels strongly about the separation of work and family. They think I’m shortchanging Noah by bringing him along to work. They think I should be spending quality time with him at home, or paying a nanny $25 per hour to look after him offsite. Sometimes the issue of workplace safety is brought up as the reason, even though Noah is not kept within the confines of my stall where the cooking is done, but rather in a portable cot outside its perimeter.

The organisers of the Orange Grove Farmers’ Market have ALWAYS been supportive of Noah’s presence at this event and for that, I will forever be grateful. This is the reason, in fact, why OGM is one of only 2 markets at which I still operate. (Unfortunately when I posted about my imminent withdrawal from OGM yesterday, there was some backlash against the organisers from well-meaning supporters of my business; I need to clarify the problem is not with OGM’s management and I will continue to support the market long after I leave.)

I received a phonecall yesterday – a heads-up, if you will, that a member of the public has been petitioning to have Noah removed from OGM over the last month. They’ve not approached me about it – I don’t know who they are – but rather the stallholders (some of whom I consider friends) around me.

Apparently they’ve gained some traction and their next step is to lodge an official complaint. I’m guessing that Child Protective Services will be notified about my activities. For this reason, I’ve decided to quit OGM after fourteen years of trading at this market. If this were a one-off I would probably have resisted, but as mentioned above, this is a process of attrition that has been taking place over the last 2.5 years since Noah left the hospital.

Remember the FB photo of the little Filipino kid who was doing his homework by the light of the McDonald’s next to his mom’s hawker stall? I think the Australian public sees Noah that way, and feels he should be removed from such hardship. Contrary to some of the online outrage that Noah is being discriminated against because of his disability, I think this person thinks they’re looking out for him BECAUSE of it. I don’t really know I guess; like I said, they’ve never approached me about it.

You know what’s ironic about the situation? The Filipino kid’s reality isn’t far removed at all from my own upbringing back in the day in Malaysia – my parents started out as street food vendors and we grew up around the family business. For the record my entire family is made up of high-achieving, productive members of society who bear no scars from having had to hang out with mom and dad at work 7 days a week. Some of our best dinner table stories revolve around our Odeon cinema canteen (dad’s stall) exploits.

Noah’s favourite day of the week is Saturday at OGM. Often when I pull up at the market he starts giggling with delight as he realises where we are. He loves interacting with the customers. He loves walking around the market. My staff and I take turns to break up his day with visits to the miniature ponies and the jumping castle and to say hello to the other stallholders.

Baby Noah is going to miss OGM.

My biggest concern now is for my staff and how I can replace their income through a different gig that does not bring us under this scrutiny.

As for me, after 14 years of 4am starts, I’m kind  of looking forward to sleeping in on Saturdays.

Baby Noah at the markets

Baby Noah at the markets

Midnight Shadows at Istana Billah (Billah Castle)

Early last year I, along with my long-time collaborator Robb Demarest, was invited by Malaysia’s NTV7 to guest star in 5 episodes of their paranormal reality TV show, Seekers. Here is the trailer for the show as aired on NTV7 –

As is the case with any TV production, for a variety of reasons a lot of our experiences and the evidence we gathered never made it into the final cut, and I hope to cover them in future posts.

In the meantime, here is an article I wrote about one of the places we investigated for the show, called Istana Billah. This was originally published in my Digital Magazine, Truly Malaysian but I’m sharing it here due to the inordinate amount of interest in my previous writings about ghosts & the paranormal 🙂


Istana Billah

Istana Billah

Midnight Shadows at Istana Billah
I’ve done more than my fair share of travelling, and many times while in a non-English speaking country I’m expected to speak the local language – French, Japanese, whatever the case may be. In Malaysia, if there’s any doubt about your background, they speak to you in English. Watch any movie in Malaysia and you’ll find not just subtitles, but subtitles in several languages. Maybe our multi-cultural makeup, coupled with our colonial past, have made us very adaptable and linguistically tolerant?

When the opportunity came up for Robb Demarest and I to guest host on Seekers, a local TV show that’s aired in Malay, there was some concern on Robb’s part about the language barrier.

“Don’t be silly”, I told him. “Everybody understands English, they’ll just subtitle your lines in the show, they do that all the time.”

And so it was that the entire production crew communicated with Robb in English. But they also talked to me in English. I put it down to their gracious hospitality – I haven’t lived in Malaysia for nearly 30 years after all, so it’d be fair to assume I’d lost most, if not all, of my Malay language ability.

Anyhow, our second case rolled around and we were investigating Istana Billah, an old castle in Perak that used to be the residence of Raja (King) Billah. The castle stands empty but is maintained by two lady caretakers who live onsite.  It has a tiny wooden mosque built within the area and the Chinese locals claimed to hear sounds coming from it at night. There are also reported sightings of an old lady in the mansion.

We were introduced to the history of the castle during the day, and suffice it to say I was pretty creeped out by some of the rooms in the building – one upstairs in particular had holes in the floor. Why?  Because that’s where they prepared bodies for burial; the holes were where water from cleaning the bodies would drain out.  Then there was another room that was locked up, but we were told it was where funeral ceremonies were conducted.  So many death-related activities under the one roof made for a very uncomfortable night ahead for someone like me with a morbid fear of dead bodies.

Now I’m a cook, not a paranormal investigator, so I had no experience at all going into my Seekers stint. But I’ve watched plenty of ghost hunting shows in my time and I didn’t want to fall into the stereotypical screaming crybaby role usually delegated to the female in the team. I had my Hakka pride to maintain, after all.

The castle, whilst not very big, was very dark on the inside, and extremely eerie at night. We started out investigating in groups, but in the middle of the night, the producer decided he wanted me, Jackie M, to stay alone in the castle whilst all the other investigators went back to base. GREAT.

I kept telling myself to keep my cool; the whole place was wired with CCTV cameras after all and everyone would be monitoring me from base camp. “Nothing’s going to happen”, I kept thinking.

Production crew on set at Istana Billah

Production crew on set at Istana Billah

So I sat in the pitch black hall with an infra-red camera to try and capture evidence of ghostly activity. I talked to whatever might be out there to see if it would make contact with me.  Maybe touch my hair or hand to show they were present in the room?  All things that I quietly hoped wouldn’t happen – certainly not when I was alone in a big empty building at night.

There’s a school of thought that paranormal activity happens to those who invite it into their lives. I dwelt on that as, against my better judgement, I continued to implore whatever entities were out there to make contact.

And then I saw it – a shadow near the main doorway about 30 feet away.  I froze for a second, thinking the light from the night sky outside must have played a trick on me.  Stay calm, I told myself.

It disappeared, but quickly appeared again, and this time I yelled out: “Hello?”

As though in response, a SECOND apparition showed up next to the first.

Again, “Hello?” Still silence. The two dark ghostly shadows stood at the doorway facing me, watching me.

Well, I figured this was an old Malay castle; it would probably make more sense for me to communicate in the local language to whatever ghosts were haunting this place.  So, for the first time on this trip, I spoke Malay. “Siapa tu?” (Who’s that?), I tentatively asked the shadowy figure.

Upstairs room in Istana Billah used for the preparation of dead bodies for burial.  The floorboards had holes in them, for blood to drip downstairs during the process.

Upstairs room in Istana Billah used for the preparation of dead bodies for burial. The floorboards had holes in them, for blood to drip downstairs during the process.

It worked. The ghostly response came back, “Ada tengok anjing?”

Alright, my Malay may be rusty after 30 years, but I think the ghosts just asked me if I’d seen any dogs.

“Anjing? Takde, saya tak nampak” (Er, dogs? No, I haven’t seen any).

And so it turned out the ghostly figures were not in fact ghosts, but the two elderly lady caretakers trying to tackle an ongoing stray dog problem.

The upshot of the encounter was that the production crew discovered that Jackie M actually speaks Malay, so thereafter there was no stopping them bantering with me in Bahasa. Not to mention the producer insisting in subsequent episodes that I did my EVP sessions in Malay.

Did I encounter any real paranormal activity in that or any of the other cases?  You’ll have to tune in to NTV7’s Seekers Season 9 to find out.

My co-presenters in Seekers Season 9 - from left - Syai, myself, Robb Demarest, Jufri Rayyan

My co-presenters in Seekers Season 9 – from left – Syai, myself, Robb Demarest, Jufri Rayyan