When you miss the dining hall hours, delivery apps are there for you. Scrolling through sandwiches, burritos and pizzas, I decided to go for dumplings today. Everything was fine until I received the plastic bag from the delivery man, who then put his hands together and said “xiexie.”
First, I’m Korean, not Chinese. Just because I’m Asian and I ordered dumplings doesn’t make me Chinese. And second, putting hands together while bowing is an outdated Asian stereotype that not all of us do. Such experiences are actually not quite new to us. When an Italian vendor did the exact same thing to me last summer, I corrected him: “Thank you, but I’m not Chinese. I’m Korean.” When a French guest at a museum passed me a Chinese floor guide, I thought it wasn't even worth reacting. These instances can be considered as microaggressions, and here’s why.
Misidentifying non-Chinese Asians as Chinese is more than just an insensitivity. It contains a context of reducing each diverse and distinctive Asian culture into one, which in this case is China. It is the selective indifference toward non-Western cultures displayed without any consciousness. Most white Americans – and even people like me – are able to distinguish and specify Western cultures, but they tend to lump all Asian cultures into one category. In their perception, Western cultures are recognized on the national level, such as French or Italian, while the rest at the continental level, Asian.
Such tendencies are well reflected in my experiences in the Western world. In the media, it is not hard to find Asian characters with random stereotypes adopted from everywhere in Asian countries. An Australian comedian dressed in Kimono to parody the trademark North Korean news anchor is the epitome of this. At a design critique, no one pointed out what was wrong about the cover of a Japanese folk tale with Chinese porcelain patterns. Such examples of false mix-ups reflect their selective indifference to distinct Asian cultures. This is not a matter of knowledge or intelligence, but a matter of lacking the willingness to show respect and acknowledge differences among Asian cultures. I do not intend to disdain those who fail to distinguish between different cultures. However, displaying selective ignorance toward certain cultures does reflect how they regard Asians in Western society.
The diversity within us deserves recognition. Our cultures deserve as distinctive attention as the Western ones. Just because someone orders pizza, doesn't mean that person is Italian or speaks Italian. If that sounds like a nonsense, so is saying “xiexie” to a Korean.