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Mixed Feelings about Race, Language, and People

Sigh. This post is like a huge garage dump for all my conflicted thoughts on several interrelated matters. I revised the title like 3 times already because I kept delving into other topics from the one topic I wanted to write about.

Sometimes it feels like the gap in the generational and cultural differences between my parents and me just gets wider the older I become. This is especially true as I am continuing to grow into how I interact with people and places in this world that is unlike the experiences my parents have or have had. I think everyone has things they will never see eye-to-eye with their parents on. I know I do, and I have tried to put myself in their shoes when they’ve asked me stuff I just find so totally irrelevant or inappropriate.

I want to be clear that the opinions I’ve given in this post are not intended to bash my own parents. I don’t think they are bad people but they are flawed just like I am. No one is perfect in their manner and speech. My own expressed opinions may not be entirely “correct” either.

The discomfort I feel in association with a particular question I get from my parents (more often from my dad than my mom, actually) is pretty much very immediate after the question has been asked. Then I get anxious and afraid to give an honest response while simultaneously getting upset that I am having a fearful reaction over something that, to another person, is no reason to get so worked up about. What follows is usually a quietly simmering frustration that rises up in me like, Why is this so important? Why do you even need to know, anyway? I would like to speak those unspoken inquiries at my parents but I’ve never done that.

I’m stuck feeling like my sensitivity and paranoia can get the better of me, particularly when my anxiety literally takes a front seat every time, and that I’m overreacting. But I also feel a little justified in my annoyance and the idea that maybe it’s not only myself but my parents who have skewed views. Or, I perceive it’s skewed because I can’t relate to their perspectives at all.

One of the first questions my dad asks me frequently no matter where I went is the racial background of the people I was around. To say he has a fixation with race would be too harsh of a judgment that I can’t be 100% accurately reflects him. I think a better elaboration is he finds the question fine to bring up as a casual subject matter and/or a conversation starter.

The negative connotation I have with this question stems from my perception of how much my parents still keep to their cultural bubble despite living in the U.S. for more than 30 years. I understand why immigrants do that; it is easy to gravitate to familiar things and people in a country that is unfamiliar to them. So their exposure to a multitude of different cultures and people has not been very diverse, and the exposure they have had, it’s sometimes given way to prejudice or unflattering remarks about a racial group based on any bad experiences they’ve had with a person within that specific race.

My dad has had more exposure than my mom, for sure. He has worked previous jobs where his coworkers were people of different races and he was often the only Asian person there at all. Outside of his workplace, I’ve seen that he can really be an extrovert in some instances of interacting with people outside his race. For example, one time in a clothing store he found a coat he thought would be perfect for a friend’s mother. He ended up asking a woman (who looked to be about the same dress size) to try on the coat so he could gauge if it was a good fit. Then again, in a past situation where his supervisor invited him over to watch sports on television, my dad did not go. I remember him expressing sentiments about how uncomfortable it would’ve been as he had never been around his supervisor’s Caucasian friends before and his English wasn’t fluent like theirs.

Perhaps in some situations it’s just he doesn’t have any issue with approaching people in general, and the fact I am noticing how he acts with people of other races is making me biased in my own assumptions about how he sees people of other races. This could also be a contributing factor to why I continually feel hypersensitive when he asks me “the racial question” and believe he has a negative reason for asking it.

Just yesterday I went into a neighborhood several subway stops away to register in-person for a vocational training opportunity. The place is populated with a Jewish Orthodox community but I didn’t go there expecting to only see Jewish people there, especially since the area I ended up walking home from after I was done with the school stuff overlapped into another neighborhood with a different racial make-up. Even in the neighborhood I live in, the demographic can be “super Chinese” depending on which streets and avenues a person is walking through but it’s never going to be 100% of any race.

Anyway, when my dad did ask me, “Were the people there Jewish?”, I felt kinda exasperated like, Here we go again with this. In the line of work he does now, many of his clients are Jewish people. It could be he was partially asking out of curiosity because of that. He followed up with other questions such as, “Were the employees there Jewish?” I said no, and he prompted me, “Were they Chinese?” I said no again and replied somewhat impatiently that they spoke English, in the hopes he would get the hint that whatever race they were was completely besides the point of why I went there in the first place.

Do I hold it against my parents for never assimilating? Well, I used to. It was easy to have that ideal when I was younger but nowadays it’s not so black and white. I can’t imagine how scary and unpredictable it was for them to come to a country where everything is unknown. I still feel touchy and uncomfortable by their views, though, and how they tend to categorize non-Chinese people and everyone else who isn’t their race. They do that just from the words they use to refer to someone of a specific race.

When they talk about a Caucasian person, it’s “lao wai” (literally the word for “foreigner” in Mandarin). The odd thing about “lao wai” is it is commonly accepted that the words describe someone who is Caucasian when the word doesn’t actually specify racial origin.

Culturally for them, “lao wai” is probably normal to use in conversation, and as I wrote in an earlier paragraph, my parents stick to their cultural bubble. I want to believe it’s just as likely they don’t even have the awareness that how they refer to someone or something as “foreign” can sound negative, but it also matters how someone perceives the phrase “lao wai”. I obviously see it with a negative connotation because I don’t like how the phrase seems to point out the “lao wai” has physical and cultural distinctions, almost like the person is being immediately written off by the speaker because of those differences.

Race seems to important to my parents and I don’t know why. It’s never “Oh, that person was awful”, but it has to be, “Oh, that Russian person was awful.” And then there is my dad’s sometimes know-it-all attitude when he talks about certain neighborhoods or people’s backgrounds.

For a while one of my female cousins was dating a Korean man and they were getting serious but the guy hadn’t brought her over to see his parents yet. My dad said on more than one occasion that “Koreans don’t like Chinese people and that’s probably why he doesn’t have the guts to let her see his parents.” It’s terrible how he generalized a whole racial group based on his own personal bias. I get that people tend to have looser tongues in private and they may say things they might not truly mean. His own logic about Koreans not liking Chinese people was debunked anyway. At one of his old jobs in New York a long time ago, his boss was a Korean woman who made him lunch one day. Whenever my dad recounts this story, he recalls how surprised he felt that someone was that nice to him.

My mom is a lot more wary than my dad. She prefers to avoid danger of any kind if she can help it. It may be she was shaped by her upbringing and past experiences. The little I know about her time growing up in Cambodia, she was surrounded by family and they are all really close-knit today. She survived the Cambodian War, too, and she basically had to start over in the U.S. with almost nothing. I do think that influenced her distrust of strangers but to a larger degree than necessary. She worked a long time at a bank that serviced mostly low-income Cantonese Chinese-speaking people in Chinatown. She was really good at her job though since most customers didn’t speak English, she didn’t need to either. I suppose that is a reality for a lot of people who primarily use another language that is not English at their job.

I sense there is a correlation between race and language which impacts my mom’s behavior towards non-Chinese people. She has a higher level of education in English (up to high school) than my dad but she didn’t improve beyond her school years. So in some regards she and my dad have relied on me and my brother for help with things that are beyond their speaking capacities. The topic of parents being dependent on their children, sometimes to a degree where it’s more about their comfort of letting other people deal with everything instead, could be a whole ’nother post I might write one day.

My mom is more shy about approaching people. While she can be loud and talkative around her group of friends, I suspect she’s more timid around other people when she has to utilize English because she isn’t sure how to strike up deeper conversation. My dad is kinda different from her. He speaks English brokenly but is not in the least bit shy about going to a random person to ask for directions. He can be a jokester with people and easily starts conversations by saying something funny.

I can relate to my mom’s behavior, except I am more comfortable and fluent in English. I get by with speaking Mandarin around my parents although at times it feels like an obligation I’ll always have. They can’t help that their main language is not English and I know I can’t ever master Mandarin completely. Which is why how my mom may feel if someone tries to talk to her in English beyond basic pleasantries is how I feel when a Chinese person tries to do the same with me in Mandarin. Worse for me is what appear to be some cultural expectation or norm that just because I look Chinese, strangers expect I am fine with being spoken to in Mandarin or Cantonese without even asking me first. I had one Chinese coworker at a former job do that seconds after she met me.

I have never felt at home around my own race either. I have no idea if I would feel any differently had I been raised in a more homogeneous country like China or Taiwan. In school, I looked down on students who appeared to be a bit clannish, in that they stuck within their race speaking Mandarin or Chinese with other Chinese students and the only time they seemed to use English (with some difficulty) was during class. To me that type of behavior gave the impression they were disinterested in improving their English and/or making friends who weren’t Chinese.

Then there was another “type” I saw often; students of Chinese descent who spoke fluent English, and depending on the person, they were either equally fluent or conversational in their native tongue. I regarded this positively because it seemed like they had the best of both worlds; being able to befriend people who were bilingual like them but also having non-Chinese friends who were culturally similar to them, whether in personal interests or hobbies.

I was never part of either “group”. I can barely make friends at the age I am now in adulthood, lol. My belief is a person’s character matters most, not their race. It’s a concept I’ve grown into but am still deeply self-conscious about mainly because I feel I haven’t had enough confidence to explore those opportunities without feeling like my immediate family are judging me for it.

I am not saying I want to hit up a bar and meet new people; that is so not my scene for hangouts. For a period of time I did try to meet people through meetup.com in various group events I was attended. Some of those people became acquaintances or friends, but only for a bit before it all fell at the wayside for one reason or another. For one thing, I never liked how my dad always wanted to ask me about who I hung out with at those meetups. I used to know a friend who went to meetups too and his parents were the same way, except he would divert their questions by pointedly telling them he was socializing with people and that’s all he was willing to share with them.

Partially I feel I would be more comfortable getting out there if I didn’t still live at home so I could have more space for myself and put some distance between me and my parents. Like, I am already a really private person. I don’t need people to know everything about my whereabouts in a whole day, and unfortunately living with family makes it so I can’t go as I please without informing them first. Hopefully the school thing will lead to employment and I can work towards something.

There’s the end of my ranting/raving. If you’re still reading this, I’d love to hear any thoughts you have about anything I wrote about here.

11 thoughts on “Mixed Feelings about Race, Language, and People

  1. Your parents and my parents are quite similar, and I felt you really tried to see things from their perspective. I guess (and like my parents) they would rather not assimilate unless they really have to – and even then it’s probably assimilate momentarily like try to speak English to someone, get help and then go back into your cultural bubble. There’s something comfortable about being part if a tribe. Then again, that can lead to ignorance.

    We are similar in that we don’t seek out people through going out on the town. Even going to meetups like say, a writing, group, I’ve tried and found it hard to connect with others. I don’t know what it is. Maybe I’m too reserved for most people’s liking, or maybe I’m just a really introverted personality.

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  2. It seems like your parents don’t feel “at home” here in the US, and that is sad to me. But I know plenty such people.
    The younger population that I know normally speaks perfect English, but broken x,y,z. Like you – I think it’s great when they work on speaking both well.
    I’m not defending your parents, but I will say that they might be right in some of their stereotypes. They do have more experience than you.
    But I totally understand thinking how irrelevant parents’ questions are.
    Yes, I am very much pro leaving the nest. It might not be for everyone. Some might return quickly, but some will grow and flourish.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you would be right that my parents don’t feel at home in the U.S. I implied in my post that my mom came because she lost everything in Cambodia, while my dad came simply to find work and it was only because he met my mom and eventually married her that he stayed. I get the sense for my mom the move to a new country was necessary but my dad has expressed many times before that he doesn’t like the U.S. and would rather go back permanently to his home country (Taiwan). Yet I also see he is a little torn. He goes back to Taiwan yearly for vacation but every time it’s time for him to go, he has said he doesn’t wish to since he has to leave his family behind.

      Working on speaking both is honestly tough work. If my parents didn’t adhere to Mandarin, I think my ability to speak it would be even less adequate. In a way, the challenge is sometimes trying to work around the language barrier to communicate with them in their language. It’s not always successful. I can look stuff up in a dictionary if I know attempting to explain a phrase to them is only going to work if I say it in Mandarin. Other times it’s very awkward because I just don’t have the learned capacity to speak the language in more complex sentences so I can explain certain things to them to a limited degree.

      The stereotypes thing is tricky. I do think some stereotypes have a bit of truth to them but it’s difficult when it goes from “oh that person of that race was so rude to me” to “all people of that race are so rude.”

      I would love to leave the nest. Living at home can make a person too comfortable and used to having other people help him/her and for some people, living alone can force the person to learn how to take care of him/herself. To an extent at home, I’ve tried to take the initative in doing more things on my own to exert my independence and show to my parents that, yes, I can handle myself. I can never do 100% of everything though, and that’s one of the cons of sharing space with my parents because partially they are so used to fussing over or doing stuff for their kids, even if they know their kids are grown and can do it themselves.

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  3. I think that kind of thing is probably common across multiple cultures. When I was younger I had a number of friends who were born in Canada, but their parents were born in English. To their parents it was very important what race/culture people were from. I knew that as a white person, I was a “gora”. My friends would refer to other Indian people as “apne”, which literally means “ours”. As an outsider looking on it’s quite fascinating, but I can imagine it would get very frustrating to live with.

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    1. It’s interesting to hear about your experience with the race/cultural aspect as I had no prior knowledge about the terms other languages use. It can be frustrating to live with, yeah… I know people might say I don’t have to “choose” between the two worlds I feel I am caught between. And sometimes it can be great to be influenced and knowledgeable about culture from both. Other times, it’s distressing when I see parts of the culture I very much don’t agree with and wish there wasn’t that divide/separation (aka everything I discussed in my post lol).

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  4. I can relate to this post a lot!

    I guess I could say that my parents’ Dutch is as good/bad as my Croatian. So whenever I am in Croatia, I understand how they must feel in Holland. Uncomfortable!

    But then I hear my mum trying to translate a Croatian joke into Dutch and I just cringe!

    Now, on top of Dutch and Croatian, I conduct all the trainings in English. But my colleagues expect me to speak Danish, which I do only a little bit. But I do feel like my brain is about to crash.

    The main thing I get from your post is that it’s time for to leave your parents’ nest and start living your own life.
    Have you actually looked into jobs as a translator ?

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    1. The language difference is an adjustment that is challenging to make. Some people are good at multiple languages. That’s cool you can speak more than two kinds though I can imagine having to speak Danish during work can be a hassle.

      Yes, it would be nice to fly away from the nest! If the training works out for me and I graduate, it’s kind of like an informal hiring because they’ll try to place me with work afterward. It’s a 4 week program so I’ll see how I do. I am nervous, of course, since it’s a job field that if I were still a young and freshfaced 18 or 20 year old, I probably would have not picked this since I was so unsure of myself. And I am desperate to not screw up again if I think of the last time I was in vocational school and I chose wrong. It’s unfortunate that back then in my earlier years I was simply scared all the time of thinking about my future possibilities so I could never fully make up my mind about what to pursue. I remember even having trouble imagining what kind of job I could see myself having. I was basically in school in a fog, not really being able to project or have a clear idea of where getting so and so degree would actually lead me to.

      I haven’t looked into jobs as a translator. My skill in my native tongue (Mandarin) has gotten less good in recent years and even more so with my reading and writing skills. Frequently I have to use a dictionary on my phone to look up common words if I forgot how to write them, and that’s mainly only for when I reply to my dad via text since he can’t read English beyond basics.

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  5. I, too, envy people who can speak both English and their family’s language fluently. I mean, my Korean isn’t bad and, on some days, can be good, but I have a hard time communicating with adults, especially in a workplace or regarding things like banks or other formal processes. Some people are really good at that and even modern slang.
    I also get frustrated when people are close-minded to other cultures or different people. It may have been a defense mechanism and/or a way to boost their ego in a strange environment, but it helps nobody… It’s natural to be a bit hesitant when facing such a different culture or group of people, but to just corral everyone into a general stereotype and find importance in the specifics… pointless!
    Being Asian-American or any other “other” comes with many complexities and generation gaps. I truly get so curious sometimes about how our children or the generation that our children would be in would view us and whether we would likewise seem close-minded in our advanced age and slow to accept change or progress. Like the whole AI thing! Ok, this is a tangent, but falling in love with an AI or futuristic robot?! There are stories like that these days and I have a hard time really accepting it, you know?!?! Watch our kids be like “MOM IT’S TOTALLY NATURAL AND LOVE IS LOVE DIDN’T YOU BELIEVE IN THAT?” And I’d just be like “well yeah but… they aren’t human…??” and they’ll be like “WHAT DICTATES WHAT IS HUMAN OR NOT–STOP OTHERING AIS” or something and… *goes off into another world of deep, random thoughts*

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    1. To be bilingual and have equal fluency in both languages is super hard! My parents like to boast to other people they know that I can speak Mandarin and also read and write Chinese, but that doesn’t mean I am as fluent in the language as English. I am embarrassed when they make me sound better than the reality of my Mandarin skills.

      I feel the same with having language difficulty when talking to adults about more complex things in my native tongue. I would rather have someone help me with a bank transaction in English because certain things I would just not know how to say in Mandarin.

      Yeah, the general stereotypes only hurt people. It’s terrible how they get spun to give the impression certain stereotypical behavior or characteristics are true for every single person in that racial group.

      I guess I technically count as a second generation since my parents were the first generation of my family to come to the U.S. I’ve heard it’s common for second gen kids to turn away from their parents’ culture because they don’t want to be caught between two worlds and as a result their kids in the third gen don’t grow up with that conflict but are more far removed from their cultural roots which makes them more open to exploring and reclaiming their ancestral roots, in a way.

      I didn’t know there are people falling in love with AIs today. That is a tough topic. I mean, I suppose people can do whatever with their lives although it’s hard not to want to judge since a robot can be human-like but can it really give consent if the only reason it can make logical decisions is because someone programmed it to be able to do that?

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      1. Yes, it’s harder communicating complex thoughts and emotions to parents for sure. I always get confused with the 1st gen and 2nd gen because some people consider 1st gen to be the ones who were raised and grew up in the country first. I think both theories make sense.

        I don’t think people are falling in love with them rn but it’s one of those possibilities for the future. It’s like those sci-fi movies in the past that almost predicted where we are today. That idea about consent is definitely interesting! Soon there will be AI rights and the like.
        I can see that about the generations. I do always think about how my household would be more Americanized. I would always want my children to have a firm handling of Korean and Korean culture, but it would be different for sure from how I was raised.

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