No More Nǐ Hǎos Please

BY LIM JIN LI
Nov 08, 2010
*Special to asia!

Is it racism or just plain ignorance that’s behind the pseudo-Asian-language nonsense being spouted on the streets of London?

While I usually count myself blessed to be able to live, play and generally study in the marvellous city that is London, there are times and things that frequently annoy me. Obviously up there in the hall of fame are the strikes that the nice people who work in the London Underground, or Royal Mail, or ___(insert public service)___ tend to go on.

Another, and possibly more grievous, annoyance are the random acts of stupidity tinged with perhaps a little racism, or maybe just plain ignorance, that I encounter on the streets of London.

I’m sure any person of East Asian descent will know what I’m talking about when I say that I am fairly confident that the drunk stumbling around the streets of Covent Garden is not trying to give me a friendly ‘hello’ when he screams ‘你好!’ (nǐ hǎo) - or some semblance of it – in my face.

I am just as confident that the chav who smirks as he mumbles some pseudo-Oriental language (‘chink chong cheng!’ ‘chop suey chop suey!’ ‘moo shoo you?’) is not really interested in a conversation about the different Asian languages.

These are not new phenomena I suppose; they take place in almost every major city in the Western world that has a sizeable Asian populace; and the flip side is of course (as I discovered on a trip to China once) that the tall black man who goes to China is met with similar inanities and comparisons to LeBron James.

You could say that these are harmless, and most of the time, you would probably be right. Sticks and stones, as they say, and by the by, I just ignore the ‘mabuhay!’ directed at me as I walk back from the supermarket.

 

112 Photo credit: Rob Carlson

 

What’s so annoying then?

It’s the fact that I have subconsciously come to identify any non-Chinese person who says ‘nǐ hǎo’ to me in an unexpected setting, as someone trying to be rude, or racist, or drunk, or just being plain annoying.

That is obviously not fair, and any reasonable person can see that. But I can’t help it. My mind, it seems, has begun to automatically classify such cases in the ‘ignore’ folder. Just the other day, I was at the British Library to register for a Reader’s Pass so that I can access the archives of the old Colonial and War Office in order to (better) write my final year dissertation.

That process of registration required a mini-interview of sorts with a member of staff. So my name was called and I walked toward the desk to have a chat with a staff member, and as I was digging around in my pocket for some identification, I heard a ‘nǐ hǎo’ and my instinctive reaction was along the lines of ‘here too?! What in the 9 levels of Dante’s hell is going on?’ In less literate, and more colourful (aside: there are some intensely magnificent expressions in the Chinese dialect of Hokkien) mental terms I assure you.

I looked up and, to my surprise, there was this kindly, academic-looking (yes, he had a tweed jacket), old man who smiled and asked me, ‘is that how to say it properly then, lad?’

We proceeded to have a delightful conversation about the different ways to say hello in the various Chinese dialects, and the Sinologist that he was, he was absolutely thrilled to meet someone who could teach him a thing or two about Hokkien (or Minnan hua). The conversation was in fact so enthralling that I hardly noticed him clicking on his mouse to take my picture, and consequently my Reader’s Pass has a distinctly dreadful picture of my face. But that is not the point.

As I left his office, I found myself getting annoyed with myself for thinking that such a nice, intellectual old man could have been trying to wind me up. That is the sad reality I suspect; that in the end, it is really the little things that we encounter in everyday life that add up into some sort of subconscious meta-filter in our minds and someone genuinely interested in the Chinese language ends up in the wrong folder.

I tell myself that I should be more careful not to stereotype so easily,   and not to leap to conclusions,  and that I suppose is my responsibility  as a  rational human being.

I tell myself that I should be more careful not to stereotype so easily, and not to leap to conclusions, and that I suppose is my responsibility as a rational human being. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to stop the pseudo-Asian-language nonsense being spouted on the streets of London, or for that matter, from every tall black man in China being classified as an NBA player. That’s how it is, it seems, and more’s the pity.

Lim Jin Li is (among other things) a post-graduate student in History at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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