Ni Hao, Konnichiwa

On racial catcalling and identity

It began as soon as I moved into my subleased apartment in Paris’ 15th arrondissement and hit the streets to explore the city that would be my home for the next year, but also occurred regularly when I visited other European countries, and finally reached an appalling peak in frequency when I set foot in Morocco. I would be walking (wandering, more like, because I lack any sense of direction), minding my own business, when I heard two little syllables that were sometimes enough to ruin the entire afternoon.

"Ni hao."

To give you some context, it's never intended to be friendly. Rather, the type of people who exhibit this behavior are always guys - the youngish, immature sort who idly hang out in doorways and parks and probably catcall any girl in tight jeans or short dresses who has the misfortune of passing them by. (Although I've also been ni hao-ed - the rate of occurrence merits its own verb - by guys zooming past in cars and on scooters). For me, getting catcalled and ni hao-ed are sort of one and the same. I mean, really, it's not for my benefit, is it? It's more to bolster his confidence, reinforcing the age-old notion that a woman’s body is not her own but rather something to be judged, ridiculed and looked at by men. (For further reading on why catcalling is wrong I suggest this Thought Catalog article).

But I digress. If there's one generalization I can make about assertions of male bigotry, it's that they never fail to fail to impress. Getting ni hao-ed is just one of a handful of microaggressions I’ve experienced as an Asian American, but ranks amongst the most aggravating. Why? Don’t objectify me, bro. Just don’t.

So this is what I mean by a racial catcall: those greetings (“Ni hao!”; “Konnichiwa!”; “Gangnam style!” replete with the dance; I’ve heard it all) that hit like a verbal spitball, passing through the ear and getting lodged in the brain somewhere between the place that sparks the primal urge to turn around and go, “Say that again to my face, motherfucker,” and the higher order neurons that know it’s best not to engage, encourage or prolong the encounter.

Locals who attempt to engage in actual conversation aren't necessarily much better.

"Where are you from?"

"The United States."

"No, where are you from?"

"Seattle."

Dr. Cristina Yang may have been one of the star residents at Seattle Grace Hospital, but most foreigners still find this an unsatisfactory answer. So the exchange that follows bears a striking resemblance to this hilariously accurate video by David Neptune and Ken Tanaka. (Except that I generally don't flip the question on the asker, or at least not so aggressively).

It's not that I'm ashamed or embarrassed to talk about my family history, but what bothers me is that a Caucasian who says she's American would not be pressed for further details. Nor would an African American, I'm guessing. To people outside the US, it's as though we exist in a world of black and white without room for anything else in between. So as diverse as we are in reality, to others there seems to be a very specific image of what an "American" really looks like.

I've toyed with the idea of inventing a new back story for myself - that I was raised by wolves in the wilderness, for example, or that a half-giant on a flying motorbike dropped my infant self onto my parents' doorstep one night and I possess formidable magic powers. It would certainly be a hell of a lot more interesting for me than merely repeating the boring old truth.

But even my hometown, the liberal utopia of the Emerald City, is not without racial stereotypes and preconceptions. My mother, a third-generation Chinese American and history professor, has admitted to having a number of students over the years who marvel at how well she speaks English. Well, duh, it’s her native language.

Part of why I travel is to experience and try to understand other cultures, but it's encounters like these that make me feel unwelcome and, at times, unwanted. I don't want bad memories to pollute the overall impression that I have of a place, but it's hard - the negative has the unpleasant tendency to cloud the overall picture.

In the course of my three-week stint in Morocco, I came to realize that some Moroccans actually do speak Japanese (which is slightly ironic, because I’m half JA and I don’t), but there is a big difference between a shopkeeper or restauranteur trying to make a customer feel more at ease by speaking her (presumed) native language, and a lewd, leery guy lurking in the shadows. One makes you feel noticed in a positive way, as though being welcomed; the other makes you feel dirty.

You'd think that in an increasingly globalized society we would be getting used to the idea that people move more freely than ever and have personal histories that reject traditional narratives of immigration. But I, myself, am still a victim to such assumptions. Several times I've mistakenly assumed that my Spanish-speaking hosts were from Spain when they actually hail from Central or South America.

In the meantime, though, I suppose that the best we can do is take it in stride with a sense of humor. On my (Korean American) friend's Euro trip a few summers ago she was once approached by an elderly white gentleman who candidly professed his appreciation for Chinese girls.

"That's nice," she replied.

"Why don't you go to China and find one."

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