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