When to Say 'Ni Hao' to a Stranger (Spoiler: Never)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013 / 8:05 PM

"I speak Mandarin, you know."

I looked up from the text message I'd been writing, unsure of how to respond. I hadn't been expecting a stranger I'd gotten into an elevator with to say that, especially as his first words to me.

"I'm sorry?" I asked, thinking I misheard him.

"I know Chinese," he said. "Ni hao."

He looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to respond back or smile or applaud--I don't know. I just stared. "I don't know Mandarin," I responded. The tone of my voice was dry and unemotional, and I wanted to be sure nothing of our interaction could be confused for any sort of delight. I was not delighted.

We unfortunately got off on the same floor, so he continued the conversation:

HIM: "So what kind of Asian are you?"
ME: "I'm Chinese, but I speak Cantonese."
HIM: "Oh. I don't know Cantonese. [pause] You should learn Mandarin. I can teach you--want to go out?"

One hundred points to Gryffindor if you guessed the answer to that question.

Angry Little Girls by Lela Lee
Three tips for those wishing to speak to an Asian female you do not know:

1. Don't greet her with "ni hao." It isn't cute, it isn't clever, it doesn't show her how worldly and suave you are. It makes you kind of a jerk: you're assuming, first, that she is Chinese--and no, not all Asians look alike. Second, you are acknowledging that you see her ethnicity before you see her as a human being. (It's the same as going up to a redhead and saying, "Top o' the mornin' to ya!" in a terrible Irish accent that you've learned to mimic from a Lucky Charms commercial.) It is a form of fetishizing her, treating her as an object you've defined before actually getting to know her as a person.

2. Don't suggest she learn a language she isn't familiar with. I suppose this goes for anybody who is talking to any stranger. There are plenty of Asian Americans who grew up only speaking English in their homes, and they don't need to explain to you--a stranger they've just met--why they don't speak an Asian dialect. Do I ask every Caucasian person why they don't speak Latin? Telling an Asian person to learn a dialect she doesn't know can be seen as patronizing. You do not need to instruct someone you've just met to go learn something.

(Side note: Once, I had someone get belligerent with me because I couldn't translate something in Korean for him. "Why didn't your parents teach you Korean?!" he yelled. Because my parents are Chinese, sir.)

3. Don't ever (ever, ever, ever) ask, "What kind of Asian are you?" Think about that question for a moment: by asking "what" in the context of "what are you," you're turning a "who" into a thing. "What kind of Asian" implies that the person you're interrogating is part of a grab bag of ethnicities. If you absolutely must ask a stranger about her ethnicity, why not just ask that? "Excuse me, what is your ethnic background?"

Bonus tip: cut the "Where are you from? No, no--where are you really from?" questions from your mental phrasebook. When you ask somebody that, you're that person into an "other." You've judged, by the way the person looks, that she must not be from this country. But there are plenty of Asians born in America, and when you ask, "Where are you from?" and we reply, "California" or "Connecticut" or "Ohio," don't push us to validate your assumption that we aren't American.

You Might Also Like


  1. Yes! Excellently expressed - it should be so obvious, and yet it's too often not. Gah. (Also, screw that guy, and all of his ilk.)

  2. My pastor showed that in church and I thought it was ironic that something like that had JUST happened to me that prior week. The sad thing was that I was one of two others in the church that related. Everyone else probably didn't believe situations like that really happened to people. It still amazes me that encounters like this happen to us, especially in diverse cities like Seattle and New York.