When I was around five, I was in a grocery store with my mom when a man also browsing the produce section stopped, squinted his eyes, and half-screamed "NI HAO" at me. I could tell from his accent that he probably didn't speak Mandarin and I thought it was funny, because I didn't either.
Five-year-old me giggled and walked away.
I'm a lot less amused when that happens to me now.
"Ni hao" is a Mandarin greeting that roughly translates to, "How are you?" and sort of takes the place of "Hello." It's easy enough to remember that even people who don't speak the language still know—I guess it's like "merci," or "gracias." But unlike merci or gracias, "ni hao" has developed a sinister association in my head because I have it abruptly thrown at me by strangers who clearly do not speak Mandarin. Besides being annoying (why are you talking to me, anyway?), throwing "ni hao" at random Asians, especially in a Western setting, is rude, presumptuous, and automatically marks you as kind of culturally dumb. This isn't just something that happens to me, by the way—every Asian friend I've asked has experienced this at least once.
Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with Mandarin or people who actually speak it. But I've never been approached by someone who actually speaks Mandarin with "ni hao," only by assholes who clearly don't—and I can't wrap my head around why they do it.
I'd understand if this happened to me somewhere where Mandarin is an official language, but every single time, it's been in the streets of a North American or European city. Is it so novel to see an Asian person in the flesh for some people that they desperately wrack their brains, think, "Fuck it dog, life's a risk," and blurt out the first Asian-language phrase they can think of? Do they think that I'll be impressed by their poorly pronounced two syllables in language spoken fluently by millions of other people? What makes you think I can't speak English?
One time, I was heading from the student paper office to the subway when a woman came up to me and said the dreaded words. I kept walking, but she followed me across campus, repeatedly saying, "Ni hao," as if I hadn't heard her the first time. I've had people say it to me as I was getting out of a train and they were getting in, a situation where there's no chance of a conservation starting in any language. The worst is when I'm out with other Asian girls and a guy comes up to us, says it, then stands there looking like he expects an award.
The way I see it, there are two possible outcomes to a non-Mandarin speaker saying "ni hao" to someone who looks East Asian, and neither is a good one:
1) The person speaks Mandarin and responds in Mandarin, at which point you're fucked because you know nothing more than a simple greeting.
2) The person doesn't speak Mandarin and now it's weird because you've just said something to them in a language they don't understand.
Saying "ni hao" to anyone who looks vaguely East Asian is a great way to show off your ignorance. East Asians, like any other group defined by geography, are a mixed bunch—our ancestors may all come from the same continent, but we're made up of a diverse number of countries, cultures, and languages. Tagalog, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Malay, and dozens of other languages native to Asian countries and regions have no overlap with Mandarin. Hell, the dozens of languages and dialects that fall under "Chinese" don't necessarily overlap with Mandarin, so even if you do manage to pick out a Chinese person, there's still no guarantee they speak it (for example, my family's native tongues are Hakka, Hainanese, and Cantonese). It's sort of like going up to a random white person and saying, "Ça va?," "Wie geht's?," or "Hoe gaat het?"—sort of weird, sort of confusing, and sort of frustrating for the person the greeting is directed at.
I've had non-Asian friends tell me I'm being too sensitive about it, because what if someone was just trying to be friendly, or learning Mandarin and wanted to practice? If someone wanted to be friendly, they can just say "Hi," which shows they're not taking a wild guess at my background, implying I don't belong by greeting me differently from everyone else (some Asians are actually born and raised in Canada, surprise!) and other unfriendly things that come with throwing "ni hao" at a random Asian person. And if someone wants to practice a language, they can sign up for a class.
So please, all the random ni hao-ers of the world, explain to me why you do it. Why do you think it's cool to come up to me, or any other East Asian, and say something that automatically marks you as a presumptuous jerk? What joy or satisfaction does harassing strangers bring you? I'd love to know. And I'd love it even more, though it's not the most pressing issue in the world, if you'd just cut it the hell out.
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