Day 141: I will not assimilate

Day 141: I will not assimilate

Monday, May 22, 2017

“We’re always open and up front with each other and we have a great relationship for it, and that’s something I really value. That said, I would like to clear the air with you about something. When you relayed to me what Michael* said last week, I’m sure you understood the risks?”


Michael is a brilliant man, you see. He’s brilliant, gifted, inspiring, capable of helping countless thousands; but he can’t have that image without my help. And in the political and deeply competitive world he inhabits, the fact that I was taking notes in Chinese worried him greatly: for all he knew, I could have been writing something disparaging about him right under his nose. He communicated that concern to my colleague, who relayed it to me and suggested that I should refrain from taking notes in Chinese in future.

But there was another part of me that recognised a much simpler possibility: he doesn’t like me because I am Chinese.

Hence this conversation.

I continued, “It’s just that if he isn’t accusing me of some form of impropriety, then it’s difficult to escape the appearance that he is victimising me for being Chinese.”

After all, what difference would it make if I’d taken notes in short-hand, morse code, Japanese, or anything else he doesn’t understand? In fact, there’s no way he could’ve understood a word of my short-hand from a similar meeting several weeks earlier.

I gave her a glimpse of my reality. “I don’t expect you to know this, but incidents like this are a fact of life for me. It happens a lot. I actually experienced much worse than this a little over a week ago.”

I let it sink in.

“It would be easy, at a certain level, for me to sit on this side of the fence with you and choose to accept the broader and likely context that he’s paranoid and that we’ve got a job to get on with… But a less pragmatic person wouldn’t see that. There is a part of me that wonders where his suspicions come from. Is he prejudiced against Chinese people? Does he even trust me, much less want me to keep doing what I do?”

It ruined my weekend just thinking about it.

A younger version of me would have chosen not to initiate this conversation. I would have stayed quiet and did what was necessary to get by. I would have assimilated and not written in Chinese again.

But that can’t be the example I set for my children. That can’t be what I tell them to do when it’s their turn to face the prejudice and bigotry in this country. I am the one who must find a better way for them.

To her credit, my colleague understood as well as I did the precariousness of our situation. She listened, she was empathetic, she did not question the rationality of my interpretation of events.

“Is there anything I could have done differently?”, she asked.

“I did consider that,” I said, “and I don’t know that there is. The problem is with him. We’re the ones who have to deal with it. But as long as you and I have this understanding with each other, I don’t have to worry about being second-guessed by you.”

And that’s really what it comes down to, isn’t it? Being second-guessed, having the worst assumed of us? Perhaps instead of assuming the worst in others, we should aspire to have a greater awareness of the worst in ourselves?

Many years ago, a night of gaming and drinking became a heated philosophical discussion (I have no idea how that happened) when a journalist said to me, “You think you’re superior to me just because you speak more than one language.”

Deliberately trolling him, I responded “But isn’t it true?”

The ensuing argument isn’t worth recalling. But the truth is, multilingual speakers don’t think on any fundamental level that they are better than monolingual speakers. At least, I wouldn’t think so. It is the last thing on our minds. When the skill serves its purpose, when it comes in handy and saves the day, the predominant feeling is “this is awesome.”

Yet this disparity in skill is often cited as an example of “reverse racism” or “reverse discrimination”, because people who only speak one language are made to feel uncomfortable next to multilingual speakers. The thinking follows that minorities should apologise for being multilingual; that someone like me should apologise for making someone feel inferior.

This is a terrible misconception. Why would one begrudged another person for doing well? That just sounds like jealousy to me. Petty, tiny, jealousy.


*not his real name


5 thoughts on “Day 141: I will not assimilate

  1. I’ve never understood jelously. When others are good/better at things it just inspires me to develop further. Great posts, great thoughts- thanks for sharing!

  2. Jealousy through and through! Truth be told, I’m a little jealous too, I’d love to be fluent in more than one language, and I recognise that there is absolutely nothing stopping me apart from my own laziness. I know a little French, Spanish and some very basic German, but nothing I’d call fluent, and yes, it would definitely make me a better person for being able to communicate freely with a wider community of people. So good for you, keep doing what you’re doing, and don’t let the ignorant knuckle heads bring you down!

  3. You know there’s so much in this… and apologies if I’m not particularly coherent but it’s getting a bit late at night.

    I’ll start with the easy bit 🙂 – the jealousy regarding multilingualism. I think you’d find that this holds true for any skill you might have, including as basic ones as being good at using a computer (I’m not talking about IT personnel!). I mean it’s not necessarily to do with being a minority.

    The more difficult bit is about prejudice… and please don’t misunderstand me as I don’t question your experience. But if I told you that I as a white person experienced racism from coloured people, would you be surprised? There are people who believe that every white person is racist (and I’m sure they met some racists but that’s no excuse). Actually I genuinely don’t give a **** whether you’re black, brown or purple, or whether you’re homosexual or wear spotty underpants or that you can’t sing for toffee. And I object to people treating me badly on account of my colour or my foreign accent or the size of my nose. And yes, it does stick in the throat but you know what? F*** the racist bastards of whatever colour. The worst thing you can do is to develop siege mentality. Remember that they are in the minority and in the end, reason will prevail. (Well, I think you’ve got to believe in mankind’s ability to improve.)

    • Thanks Arwen. It doesn’t surprise me at all that you would have experienced discrimination from ethnic minorities, and in an ideal world it shouldn’t happen either.

      The problem is that if you ever engage with such people, the conversation inevitably reaches a point where someone says “well your people started it first” – essentially making you responsible for the sins of your forebears. And that’s not fair at all, particularly if you’re open and willing to learn and do the right thing.

      If we are to move forward, we should obviously recognise our past mistakes, but we also have to let go of these generational grudges.

      • Shockingly I’m still awake to read your reply straight away… 🙂

        My favourite Spanish writer once said (I’ll spare you the Spanish original):

        “Arguing with stupid people requires that we sink to their level and there they are unbeatable.”


        On a more positive note, my favourite French writer once wrote:

        “He who is different from me does not impoverish me – he enriches me. Our unity is constituted in something higher than ourselves – in Man… For no man seeks to hear his own echo, or to find his reflection in the glass.”

        Have a good day!

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