Whenever anyone starts off a question like this, my immediate response is to blush. Because it usually prefaces a question that will make me feel awkward, embarrassed, annoyed, or a combination of all three. The elderly lady in a frumpy coat and harry potter-esque glasses continued her question, “Are you Chinese?” Color me unsurprised. When old white ladies approach me in the middle of the bread aisle at Trader Joe’s, it is usually to ask me where I’m from. Another hint: I also spotted her when I walked in the sliding doors, loitering near the entrance with religious pamphlet in hand next to her preacher most likely.
I replied with my standard: “Ethnically, yes, but I was born here in Kentucky.” When perfect English came out of my mouth, I registered her fleeting expression of surprise. She replied, “Oh that’s wonderful. I am learning Chinese and was hoping I could practice with you.” First of all, who skulks around Trader Joe’s stalking unsuspecting Chinese to find a free language partner? No one (should), that’s who. To her great disappointment, I informed her that not only do I speak perfect English, but it is also my only fluent language. I know, I know, I am the twinkiest of twinkies. Not learning Chinese is without a doubt my biggest regret in life (and one that I hope to rectify one day). But anyways, I wasn’t about to stand around and chat it up; for Pete’s sake I have a neuro exam on Monday… I was only in there to grab supplies for my inevitable hermit weekend of studying. Ain’t nobody got time to practice Chinese with you.
But homegirl couldn’t take a hint. She went on to explain to me what a darn shame it was that I wasn’t fluent in Chinese, because — get this — “you make so much more money if you’re fluent in Chinese these days.” Fo’ real, gurl? You’re going to lecture me about learning Chinese because it would be advantageous in a career? To all the non-ABC’s (American-born Chinese) out there who are learning Chinese, know that the greatest “shame” of not speaking Mandarin for some of us twinkies is not about another accomplishment on a resume. It is the fact that I have been and will continue to lack an integral part of my, my parents’, and my grandparents’ heritage. Language is interwoven with a culture and its history, and that gaping hole in my proverbial race card is something I will forever feel an emptiness. There was so much I wanted to say to her. That the reason my parents never taught me was so that I wouldn’t be bullied more than I already would be (in my small birth town in eastern Appalachia). That her idea of a “darn shame” is vastly different from the actual shame that I feel when my I try to talk to my grandparents who are separated from me by oceans both geographically and linguistically.
But I didn’t. I had bigger fish to fry, and peanut butter to buy. Maybe I should have taken the time to speak with her. But at that moment in time, all I wanted was to get home and get back to my neuro notes and anki cards. And also erase the thought of a white lady lecturing me that I needed to learn Chinese. True as it may be, it stings a little, ya feel? I quickly dropped a loaf of challah in my basket and said I really had to run. That didn’t stop her from calling out after me, “By the way, you have such lovely hair!” Ah… there it is.