So you’re bursting with curiosity but in this day and age, you’re afraid to ask because it could be insulting and you don’t want to be branded as accidentally racist. Or perhaps you don’t know who to ask but you’re pretty sure it’s not the Asian stranger on the street and you don’t have an Asian friend in your circle of friends to ask.
Let me be that friend for you.
FAQ #1 — Where are you from?
Me? I’m born and raised in Canada. My parents also live in Canada. Actually, I also have grandparents living here in Canada. Oh, you want to get into my great-grandparents now … actually, I’m not sure if they were in Hong Kong or China but apparently my great-grandmother was carried off by the Japanese in one of the wars.
Ah yes, I’m Chinese. That’s the answer you were hoping I’d give right at the start, eh?
You have to understand that there is a difference between where we are from and what our ethnicity is. And while we often know what you’re trying to ask, we’ll also normally give you the run around to make a point (albeit rather passive aggressively, I’ll admit).
If you’re talking to someone who actually was born in the same country as their ethnicity, then great — that actually is where they’re from.
But for someone who was born and raised in Canada, what other answer could you possibly expect me to give truthfully?
I wasn’t born in Hong Kong or China. Every time I go back, I’m a tourist with barely passable Chinese. I regularly get made fun of by street market vendors for not recognizing the “exotic” fruits, I’m sweating like a pig in the humid environment because I’m not there long enough to acclimatize, and I get called out for not being able to read Chinese. Does this sound like a place that I can honestly say I’m from? I contribute to the illiterate population there!
My last comment on this — no matter what you do, don’t ask, “But where are you really from?” as a follow up question if you’re being given the run around. Back yourself up and rephrase to ask what someone’s ethnicity is.
FAQ #2 — How do you tell what kind of Asian someone is?
It’s not easy to recognize subtle differences in facial features to identify if someone is Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc. And no, us Asians also cannot always identify what another Asian is either.
When I traveled through Thailand, they asked if I was Thai. When I traveled through Cambodia, they asked if I was Cambodian. When I traveled through Vietnam, they asked if I was Vietnamese. And every time when I went into my local rural Tim Horton’s, they asked me if I was Filipino.
My point being that it’s hard to guess correctly.
If you are too shy to ask what their ethnicity is but you’re too curious to let it drop, there are a few clues.
- Last name — I’m not going to list common last names broken down per ethnicity here since you can Google that yourself. The longer, cool sounding last names are typically Japanese, and the Spanish sounding last names are typically Filipino. Last names are far from fool proof though as there are many overlapping Asian last names. Lee/Li/Ly could be Korean, Chinese or Vietnamese.
- Statistics — China’s population accounts for 18% of the world’s population, plus another 60 million or so people of Chinese descent that don’t live in China. So roughly , one in five people (not Asians, people!) in the world are Chinese. If you’re going to blindly guess with nothing else to go off of, Chinese is statistically your best guess.
- Language — To be honest, we cheat when we play this “guess who” game. Nothing like a casual bit of eavesdropping to fast track things.
- Facial features — … good luck …
FAQ #3 — Why are Asians so good at math?
I could give you the linguistic / scientific answer tied to how the Chinese language’s number system provides an inherent advantage over the English language because 11 in Chinese is “10+1”, 12 is “10+2", 13 is “10+3”, etc. Therefore, it is both more logical and faster in one’s mind than the English eleven, twelve, thirteen, etc.
Then I’ll throw things for a loop by saying I was top of my class in math and I do my numbers in English.
My personal opinion of this is that kids will be good at whatever their parents make them practice and focus on.
Given that I do my numbers in English, that means I had no linguistic advantage over my classmates. What did give me an edge though was the extra hours my parents spent drilling the multiplication tables into me, the Kumon math exercises that I had to do nightly, and the mantra of “you must be good at math and science to be successful in life”.
Given that I stopped practicing math and am no longer good at it, that means that it’s not an inherent skill just because I’m Asian. It’s a learned and practiced skill.
FAQ #4 — Why are Asians so stingy?
Stereotype alert. Especially given the emergence of Crazy Rich Asians into popular culture. But sure, I’ll take a stab at answering this.
It’s part of the culture and history, and it’s pounded into us young.
Don’t spend what you don’t have. Save for the future. Debt is bad. Pay off your mortgage as fast as possible. Look for the good deals. Don’t buy anything that’s not on sale. Don’t spend any more than you have to. Don’t get ripped off. You never know what can happen in the future.
This feeling of money scarcity is created early by your parents on your behalf and becomes this bubble that you continue to live in — whether it’s real or not. It can’t be shaken by comparing your salary to the national average income or by realizing that you’re in the xth earning percentile because it’s built into your core identity and values.
Must. Save. Money.
But how did this become part of the Asian culture and history?
Many of us have parents or grandparents that are immigrants. As immigrants, they left a lot behind, with their assets and wealth either left behind or seized by the Communist government.
Many immigrant stories are heart-breaking recollections of fleeing from home and arriving in a foreign country. Unable to speak the language, combating racial injustices and with no safety net to fall back on, many immigrants survived based off of sheer will power, hard work, and thriftiness.
Thrifty’s a nicer word than stingy, eh?
Add to that the historical uncertainty and economic upheavals associated with the Communism government and you have yourself a formula for a culture of frugality built on equal parts skepticism and self-reliance.
FAQ #5 — Do Asians eat dog or cat?
You don’t walk into a Chinese restaurant and read, “pork, chicken, beef, cat, dog” on the list of menu proteins.
Fido is man’s best friend. Cats are evil but they don’t deserve to be eaten either.
I’ve read comments on Asian recipes that say, “This recipe sounds delicious but I heard that Asians eat cat so I’m going to pass on this just to be safe”.
The recipe author clearly has far more patience than I do, and nicely responded with, “This is a recipe for sweet and sour chicken. Since you’re the one cooking, you can definitely make sure it’s not cat that you’re eating”.
I acknowledge that dog meat and cat meat can be found in China, and there is the controversial Yulin festival where allegedly tens of thousands of dogs are slaughtered and eaten, but this is not the norm!
The equivalent would be if someone said that burgers and fries sound delicious but they heard that white people eat cow testicles (aka prairie oysters — it’s a thing!) so they’re going to pass on all Western food because they don’t want to accidentally eat balls.
FAQ #6 — Can I use the word “Oriental”?
The word Oriental makes me feel a bit weird.
It’s not inherently demeaning or meant to be insulting nowadays, I don’t think. And it was definitely a commonly accepted term back in the day — “back in the day” referring to the days of systematic, wide spread government driven anti-Asian sentiments — so perhaps that’s justification for where the uncomfortable associations come from.
Technically it just means eastern. But it brings to mind the connotation of an exoticism that isn’t at home here in the Western world and caricatures of cartoon characters with exaggeratedly squinty eyes and traditional Chinese garments that haven’t been worn in centuries.
There’s definitely baggage and historical associations tied to that word.
In fact, there’s enough baggage and history tied to the word “Oriental” that President Obama signed bill H.R.4238 in 2016 to deem the word “Oriental” politically incorrect, along with the word “Negro”.
So while it’s not insulting per se to call someone Oriental, it definitely is an outdated term. That said, I take no offense if this word is used for rugs, recipes, furniture, or really anything other than people. Our world has bigger and better things to focus on than de-branding the word “Oriental”.
FAQ #7 — What is “yellow fever” and how do you feel about it?
“Yellow fever” is a slang term for people have a fetish for Asians — generally used to refer to white guys that are only interested in dating Asian girls.
Quite frankly, it’s rather insulting.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for mixed-race couples (halfies are beautiful) and whoo-hoo for not being seen as subpar in the dating world. But yellow fever isn’t really about that.
The issue about yellow fever is being seen for only the color of our skin.
That, paired with the stereotypes associated with not just being Asian, but being an Asian female, reduces us down to this 2D stereotypical cute, sweet anime school girl character. Layer on to this the “china doll” geisha aspect and you basically get “a lady in the street and a freak in the bed”. I can’t believe I’m quoting Usher to describe yellow fever but think about it — it works.
I don’t want to date someone who’s interested in me because they think I’m exotic or subservient. I don’t want to be with someone who’s more interested in my ethnicity than who I am. Nor do I want to be objectified into this caricature of a culture that I don’t even acknowledge that I’m from! (See what I did there — nicely cinched this one up with a reference back to FAQ #1!)
Conclusion — These are my opinions on these frequently asked questions and I do not expect the entire Asian population to agree with me on every point that I’ve made. But I know I’m not too far off the mark when it comes to the general consensus from CBCs (Canadian Born Chinese) and ABCs (American Born Chinese). Or in the world of Asian slang, bananas — yellow on the outside and white on the inside.
Hopefully this answers at least some of the questions that you might be afraid to ask. I write this article in the interest of not just continuing the ongoing conversations about race, but also to help break down cultural walls.