Tuesday, 10 May 2011


Years ago, when I was a graduate student fresh back from a year in Japan, one of my housemates pointed out an acquaintance at a party. "You'll be able to talk to Calvin," she said. "He's Japanese."

I wondered about Calvin's name, which certainly didn't sound Japanese. Maybe he'd given up trying to get Americans to pronounce his real name and picked one they could manage. Maybe he'd chosen Calvin because he was an admirer of Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes. If so, he was worth getting to know. "Calvin doesn't sound like a Japanese name," I said, watching Calvin pop the top of a beer can. "Are you sure he's Japanese?"

My housemate nodded. "Positive."

Whatever Calvin was, he was definitely good looking, and he didn't look stuck up either. So a few minutes later, I worked up the nerve to talk to him. "Melissa tells me you're Japanese," I said hesitantly. Now that I was standing next to him, I saw that Calvin dressed more like an American. No Japanese person would have been caught dead in jeans with frayed knees, or beat-up trainers with holes in the toes. And for that matter, the heels of his trainers weren't run down. A lot of Japanese kids wear down the heels of their shoes, changing out of them so often.

Calvin made a face. "Yeah? Funny she should say that, because I'm actually American." He took a long drink of beer and looked me in the eye. "Chinese-American. Third generation."

I did what I could to apologize, then hunted down Melissa.

"For your information," I fumed, "Calvin is American, not Japanese. And he's not even of Japanese descent, he's Chinese-American."

I was seething. I'd just embarrassed myself and it was all her fault. And she'd made me blot my copybook with Calvin, who'd been even better looking up close.

Melissa, however, wasn't the least bit embarrassed or apologetic about her gaffe. "Chinese, Japanese, whatever," she said with provoking nonchalance.

I let her have it with both barrels. "You can't just say whatever," I almost cried. "The Japanese and Chinese speak totally different languages. They eat different food, and their cultures are vastly different. And for God's sake, Calvin's a native speaker of English! You can't just blithely call somebody Japanese when he's not and say whatever when you find out you're wrong!"

"You act like it's such a big deal," Melissa said.

"It is a big deal," I told her. "Would you want somebody saying they'd heard you were English?" Melissa was, in fact, of Welsh extraction.

"You act like you know everything about Orientals," she countered.

I sucked my breath in. "You know, the preferred term is now Asian," I told her.

Melissa sipped her beer. "Whatever," she said again.

I gave up and walked away. Correcting ignorance is one thing, but correcting willful ignorance is a tough call. Especially when you're angry, a little tipsy, and wearing your party clothes.

But what Melissa said really stung. I hate being called a know-it-all because in my heart of hearts, I really do want to know everything. What I should have said, though, was You act like it's okay to be ignorant. Because that was just what she had done, and it was wrong.

I should qualify that. In many ways, we're all ignorant -- to begin with. It's okay to be ignorant, and I should know; the older I get, the more overwhelmed I am by the colossal extent of my own ignorance. No matter how much I learn, there will always be a mountain of things I don't know: languages I can't speak, music I can't read, crafts I can't do, concepts I can't grasp. I try hard to be culturally sensitive, but I've confused Ukrainians with Russians, Australians with New Zealanders, and Indians with Pakistanis. But for all that it's okay to be ignorant, that doesn't mean it's right to stay that way. Still, I've got one thing going for me that Melissa didn't: I really want to learn. And when I'm caught out, however embarrassing it is, I've learned to own up to it.

That may be why it drives me wild to find people like Melissa who are blissfully, unashamedly ignorant. Especially nowadays when we have radio, television, the internet, Wikipedia. When, in America, we are blessed with free libraries, cheap books, and a multi-cultural society which includes all sorts of people who can, if we are willing to learn, share so much about themselves and their cultures.

After seventeen years in Japan and many years of teaching a variety of Asian students, I've lost track of how many times I've heard people confuse Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, you name it; if it's Asian, it's all one big muddle in many people's minds. Moreover, whenever I point out -- politely, of course -- that the restaurant we're going to is actually Korean, not Chinese, or that Mr. Tran is Vietnamese, not Korean, or that foot binding was not practiced in Japan, but in China, the responses I've gotten have largely been the same as Melissa's whatever. The same people who think Chinese and Japanese can be treated interchangeably, that Koreans and Vietnamese are pretty much the same because, after all, weren't their countries divided up after wars? - might wince to hear a ship referred to as a boat, the objective confused with the subjective, an Irishman described as an Englishman, Budweiser mixed up with Coors.

So, for what it's worth, Chinese and Japanese are not the same; Koreans and Vietnamese are not the same; Cambodians and Filipinos are not the same. All of these people, their languages, food, and culture, are vibrantly, fascinatingly different, and the generally preferred term for all of them is now Asian.

But most of all, while it's perfectly okay to be ignorant, it's never okay to stay that way.



Chocolatesa said...

Wow, this got me all riled up too. I HATE it when people call anyone Asian Chinese. My ex used to drive me crazy with that, he had the same attitude, we'd go eat at a Thai restaurant and he'd call it Chinese! I remember arguing with him about that, and him saying "oh, so you can tell the difference between them all??" I replied "maybe not, but at least I call them ASIAN, not CHINESE!!!!!"

Chocolatesa said...

Oh and I can't remember how many times people think I'm half Swiss when I've told them I'm half Swedish.

Aledys Ver said...

I agree with you - one thing is to ignore lots of things another to not care at all...
Your anecdote reminded me of a line in a film (American) when an Asian person is asked to describe a criminal who was white and he said, "well, white, you know, you people all look the same to us." :D

Carole said...

Sometimes soapboxes are meant to be stood on and you picked an excellent one. It does surprise me the amount of people who just don't care about learning more than they already know. And get offended if they are ever updated, corrected, or even gently reprimanded.

Postman said...

You can't mix up Budweiser with Coors. That is very, very insensitive.

But seriously, it bugs me whenever people confuse Japanese and Korean. Happens a lot. I pride myself on (recently) learning to differentiate between the Korean, Chinese and Japanese languages. Some of the people I talk to can't even find these places on a map...

Anonymous said...

I've met a few Melissas in my life. They are aggravating. Yes, none of us know it all, but it would be nice for people to be sensitive and willing to learn.

angryparsnip said...

@Postman... Love that your avatar is from "One Piece" !

I so agree with your frustration. I don't understand people who revel in their ignorance and have no desire to change.

If I can get on my soapbox...
anyone who used the word "whatever" should be ashamed, it is usually used as a condescending put-down. I despise that word with a passion.

cheers, parsnip

Kim Ayres said...

Oh Mary! You Canadians are all the same...

sewa mobil said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.

Chocolatesa said...

Lolll @ Kim!

Mary Witzl said...

Chocolatesa -- Good! I'm always thrilled to know that the things that irritate me irritate others too. Otherwise I'd worry about myself -- and this would be a waste of a good rant.

The interesting thing is that Asians can't really tell for sure who is what either. There's a good website out there called 'All Look Same' with lots of pictures of various Asians. I pride myself on being able to tell pretty well who is what, but my score was barely average.

In Japan, EVERY foreigner was, perforce, an American. This irritated many people, especially Germans, on the rare occasions they met up with antagonistic people in a place like the Hiroshima Peace Park who wanted to give them a hard time about "what your country did during the war." Understandably, they felt rather overwhelmed trying to address that.

Aledys -- When I lived in Southern Japan, a friend from the States came to visit me. She was buxom, several inches shorter than me, with dark, short hair in ringlets and large blue eyes; we couldn't have looked more different. But on campus, people kept calling her Mary and when we were together, everybody wanted to know if we were twins. It really cracked us up.

Carole -- I've got a portable soapbox I keep with me at all times. It takes very little to get me to set it up, stand on it, and hold forth. I'm a know-it-all, but I really do like learning new things. When (not 'if') I get things wrong, please tell me! It's so much better than remaining ignorant -- which is as bad as walking around all day with tomato sauce on your face.

Postman -- Ha! Actually, I can't tell one beer from another and am just as likely to enjoy a £3 bottle of wine as one that costs £30 (not that I've had much experience with the latter). Are there really people who know the difference between Bud and Coors? I'm assured there are, but I have my doubts.

I don't care so much about people mixing up Asians -- Asians do this all time too -- but when they act like it doesn't matter, that irritates me. And when somebody confuses a Chinese-American with, say, a Japanese person, then doesn't think it's a big deal, that really takes the cake.

In Japan, a friend of mine once taught a whole class of kids who couldn't find Taiwan, Korea, or the Philippines on the map. Remember: Idiots Without Borders!

Medeia -- Yes: 'sensitive and willing to learn' -- that's exactly what I love seeing in people. I'm terribly ignorant when it comes to things like math and physics, but if someone gives me the chance to learn without patronizing me, I'll take it and run with it.

Parsnip -- (I love it that you know what Postman's avatar is -- I didn't have a clue.)

Please do join me on my soapbox! Politics aside, one of the things that I hated about GWB was how he seemed almost proud of having been a mediocre student, of not knowing many things he should have known, especially as the leader of the free world.

As for 'whatever', I couldn't agree more. When people use that word, they've given up. They just lack the verbal skills or energy to defend their spurious argument -- or bow out gracefully.

Kim -- ;o) At least Canadians and Americans SOUND alike and look alike. It's a more forgivable mix up.

Sewa -- You are most welcome. Thank you for commenting.

Chocolatesa -- Kim knows he can't hurt my feelings by calling me a Canadian. ;o)

Robin said...

Here, here! Melissa almost sounds like she was trying to be annoying. The "whatever" is just the icing on the cake. Could she be my long lost daughter? Her last name wasn't Altman, was it?

I still think about my trip to China as the coolest trip of my life. It was so interesting. The culture was fascinating.

Vijaya said...

I didn't become sensitive to this until I had a Chinese, Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanse friends.

Many people think I'm Mexican. I don't mind. Half the world (probably more) has brown skin and black hair and people don't think beyond that.

Confession: when I first came to this country, I thought all the blonds looked very similar. It took some time before I could tell blonds apart.

I wonder whether penguins feel offended since they all look the same to me :)

Girl Friday said...

I hate it when people say things like this. As you say, it's one thing to be ignorant - we all are at some point - it's another to choose to remain so.

My father is English. My non-English mother moved to England in her twenties. But my mother is white, so no one's ever asked me "So where are you really from?" It's a ridiculous prejudice that others should have to put up with that.

Angela Ackerman said...


This is right up there with redneck-y attitudes. Drives me crazy, and I can only imagine how it would be for you, seeing as you have immersed yourself into so many cultures.

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Anonymous said...

Yes. I am ignorant of many things but I'm not proud of it, and always want to learn. I get really frustrated at that "proud to be stupid" attitude which is, of course, found world-wide, not just in america, but seems to me at least, as an american, particularly prevalent here.

Marcia said...

Your last line sums it up perfectly.

We're all ignorant about some things, and since we can't learn everything, we'll stay ignorant about some things. What I see in her "whatever" comment is that it's not just ignorant, it's bigoted and uncaring. When I don't know something, I hope I can say, "Sorry, I have to admit ignorance here," and even if the facts turn out to be something I can never keep straight, at least not insult the person with the implication that it doesn't matter.

Mary Witzl said...

Girl Friday -- I know half a dozen people in the U.K. with one or more non-white parent. They've all been asked where they're originally from; the same thing happens in America too. But I'm always heartened to know that there are people who are as irritated by it as I am.

Angela -- (Ooh, I love it when people agree with me! ;o)

The problem with living in different countries is that although you'll never be seen as a native of those countries, you do get your back up at every slur or misguided comment made about them.

Elizabeth -- I wish this sort of complacent ignorance wasn't so common! We don't have to be ashamed of ignorance or puffed up with pride just because we know things. All we have to do is keep an open mind and a sincere desire to learn. Yet some find this an impossible challenge.

Marcia -- I had a professor who, when people asked him questions he couldn't answer, immediately said, "I'm afraid I don't know. I'll find that out you" (which he always did). I'd had so many waffling, BS-ing professors by this point that I was filled with respect for him. He didn't waste our time with a roundabout answer to cover his ignorance and he didn't lie -- and he always found the answer for us. To this day, when people say, "Gee, I didn't know that," or "I'll have to plead ignorance here," I feel like giving them a high five. Ignorance isn't the problem -- apathy is!

Pat said...

There are many Melissas around and I myself have been guilty at times, but my ignorance is never wilful.
No danger of anyone of my era confusing Chinese and Japanese. We were brain washed into believing one was a monster and the other a goodie.
The only hope for anyone of a certain age is to be willing to learn the difference between the acceptable and the
unacceptable terms. It's not easy but thank goodness most of us regard the D of E's gaffe
(little slitty eyes) with abhorrence.
BTW did you say Melissa was Welsh?

Mary Witzl said...

Pat -- I've read WWII literature vilifying the Japanese and praising the Chinese. After the war, suddenly the Japanese were our pals and the Chinese were wicked Communists. Government propaganda encourages us to hate everybody in the countries we're at war with.

I'm sure you're well aware that in America, we have plenty D of Es, though perhaps ours aren't quite as posh.

Melissa was mainly Welsh and Irish, two groups that get a lot of stick. I know she wouldn't have enjoyed anybody referring to her as English, but she wasn't going to admit that to me!

Vijaya said...

Mary, Blogger is acting weird and eating my comments ... gah.

You know, I will confess that when I first came to this country, I couldn't tell blonds apart. And it's not until I had friends who were Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean that I began to appreciate their culture and food. We're all so unique ...

Now tell me, do you think penguins will be insulted because I can't tell them apart?

Connie said...

Thanks so much for this very thoughtful post. My father is Burmese, my mother is Chinese, I was born in Burma but moved to California when I was less than a year old so in most respects, I'm pretty much American. Growing up Asian-American isn't always easy, and as I've come to realize in the last year when I was traveling all over Asia, this sort of racial lumping isn't just an American, or even a Western phenomenon. It happens in Asia too!

The locals in pretty much every country I visited thought I was a local and would try to speak to me in Thai, Vietnamese, Khmer, Nepalese, Mandarin and Cantonese (okay, I can technically speak Mandarin and Cantonese but not fluently like a native).

It's totally an interesting topic that a lot of people, including, unfortunately expats and travelers rarely address. I started my own blog series called "Banana Split" ("Banana" is the non-politically correct term used for people of Asian decent that grew up in Western countries: we're yellow on the outside but white on the inside) to talk more about the subject. Maybe you and your readers might find it interesting: www.connvoyage.blogspot.com under the label "banana split".

In any case, thank you for the post and your thoughtful sharing of your experience!

Chocolatesa said...

Oh, the last comment reminded me of how I've thought many times that you or your kids would be considered TCKs (Third Culture Kids), I'm sure you'll be able to relate to the people on that website! http://tckid.com/

Mary Witzl said...

Vijaya -- Blogger must have eaten your first comment; I'm certain I read it!

There are blondes I can't tell apart myself, and I grew up among blondes. In fact, lots of people who have doubles; sometimes they have doubles of the same race, in which case it's tough to tell them apart. And yes, you feel as though you're racially insensitive when you mix them up. (But if you ever did, I'll bet you didn't haughtily insist that it didn't matter -- right?)

Penguins, on the other hand, really DO look alike. I'll bet they get each other mixed up all the time.

Connie -- Thank you for visiting, and for writing that thoughtful comment.

I've heard the term 'banana' before and 'banana split' too; my kids and I figure we're eggs. I lived in Japan for seventeen years and was only once mistaken for a Japanese person, by an elderly woman at the station, who was blind. When I went to live in Holland, I felt so strange not being able to understand Dutch when I was clearly expected to. In my first week in the Netherlands, I must have been approached in Dutch a dozen times. I could write a book about how weird it is to feel like one thing and look like another; I'll bet you could too!

Chocolatesa -- The other day, my daughter said to me a bit wistfully, "We're not really from any country, are we?" I had to admit she was right. It's very much a mixed bag, being all mixed up. I will definitely check out that website when I have the chance -- thank you.

Uma Krishnaswami said...

Loved this post and your conclusion. There's no excuse for taking pride in ignorance!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Some Americans sometimes appear to be proud of their ignorance; during the last presidential election, the conservatives called Liberal candidates "elitists"... like that is a bad thing!!??

More ugly than that, it seems the ignorant in our society believes everyone wearing a turban to be Muslim. Members of the Sikh religion have been harassed as being "Arabs".

The worst was a Delta airlines pilot who refused to allow two Imams dressed in religious garb to fly on a commercial aircraft. It proves that pilots don't have to be intelligent to fly an aircraft, they just need to know how to follow instructions. I hope they fired the jerk.