IS IT RACIST WHEN SOMEONE SAYS ‘NI HAO’ TO YOU?

I saw this post on the British Born Chinese UK Facebook page yesterday and felt compelled to talk about it.

The article reported that Sarah Tiong, a Masterchef Australia contestant, called out a radio station, Triple M Sunraysia, after the presenter greeted her in Chinese. The host greeted her by saying “ni hao ma” (‘how are you?’ in Mandarin) before adding “Oh wait, would it be ‘lei ho ma?’ anyway” (the same greeting in Cantonese, a different Chinese dialect).

Sarah said that the unaired interview left her feeling “uncomfortable and shocked. This is racism. What an insensitive tone-deaf thing to say.”

As someone who was born and raised in Sydney, she stated that, “It is rude and privileged to assume I understand that Asian language, just because I appear of that descent.”

Although Sarah had explained on Instagram why it was racist, a lot of people didn’t seem to understand. Some thought that the issue was that the host had used the wrong language as her family is Malaysian.

However, that isn’t the problem.

Racism is defined as: ‘prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.’ 

To me, there is no question that this is racism.

An Australian woman on Australian Masterchef on an Australian radio station where the predominant language is English (I’m sure ‘hello’ was the greeting used for her White Australian counterparts) was made to feel uncomfortable and othered purely by her ethnicity.

For those of you who have been living under a rock, there are millions of East Asians who have been born and raised outside of Asia – some of which only speak English or are much more confident in speaking it fluently, myself included.

Although the presenter may have meant well and felt that greeting someone in their ancestral language would be a polite gesture, it does not make their actions any less racist.

It needs to be understood that even though ‘ni hao’ wasn’t meant to be used in a disrespectful way and they didn’t use a racial slur that was meant maliciously, it’s a microaggression and an unconscious form of casual racism that has made someone feel ‘other’ based purely on their appearance and ethnicity.

As Jinghua Qian eloquently says in her Huffington Post article: “Greeting a person of colour in a foreign language when both of you speak English is a way of making pointed comment about their race. The implication is that English isn’t yours and that you will never be just Australian.”

This video explains it brilliantly:

“I’m actually trying to be nice by making this Chinese person feel welcome.”

“Well, thanks. But no thanks.”

I also believe that using the term ‘snowflake’ (as mentioned in the Facebook caption) to describe someone that has been hurt from being treated differently to others based purely on their ethnicity to be highly problematic, especially from fellow Chinese individuals who have been brought up in predominantly White, English-speaking countries.

Unfortunately, amongst some of the understanding comments on this thread, there are some who seem to have completely missed the point and lack empathy. A few examples:

  • It’s an indication that the person feels prejudice towards that language or ethnicity.
  • Do you feel offended when we say ‘hello’?
  • What if you go Japan and everybody talks Japanese to you, do you feel offended as well?
  • Snowflakes, my Mum says Good Morning (in broken English) every day to white people. is she a racist?
  • If the intention is not to be racist, there shouldn’t be an issue.

If you’re Asian and have experienced this situation before and don’t find it offensive or racist, that’s your opinion which you’re entitled to.

However, it doesn’t invalidate the hurt and discomfort that someone else has experienced because we’re all different and react to situations differently.

It doesn’t mean that White people can’t ever say ‘ni hao’ to Chinese people – it’s all about context. For example, I always make an effort to learn how to say the basics like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in the local language when I travel anywhere so it would be great and show that you’ve made an effort to learn the language if you travel to China.

However, if you’re meeting someone from an ethnic minority for the first time in a predominantly English-speaking country, speak to them in English. There is a very high chance that they will speak English too. If they’re struggling in English and you happened to be able to speak their language, by all means, go ahead!

In general, speaking on behalf of myself and a lot of my friends, we don’t want to feel othered or for you to guess our ethnicity – it does not make us think that you’re really considerate and cultured, it makes us feel uncomfortable and that you’re a bit of a twat.

Here are a few of my British/Canadian-Chinese friends’ thoughts on the topic:

  • I’m not a fan of people saying ni hao when they see me. I think most mean well but it’s really ignorant and annoying. Plus, there’s so many types of Asians but everyone gets assumed as Chinese. I actually think it’s good that these articles come up because it starts a convo which is the first step at least; before no one even talked about it.
  • Yeah I do find it offensive. Some just associate asians with ni hao and think they’re dead clever.
  • My initial reaction is “fuck off” not so much because I think they’re racist but more because I think they’re ignorant in presuming I am a) Chinese and b) I speak Mandarin. I often say it back to them derisively and walk off or if they are a part of the group, my estimation as to the type of person they are rapidly goes downhill. The worst is when they then follow it up with a greeting in various other ‘Asian languages’ further homogenising my identity.
  • It’s defo not on par with “chinky” but I wouldn’t dream of going up to a random Caucasian in the UK and saying “Bonjour” or “Guten Tag”.
  • The article’s use of dichotomy is interesting. If someone was offended by it, I wouldn’t call them a snowflake. There’s nothing wrong with finding it offensive.
  • I hate it when people say ni hao to me. I think that is racist as ppl are making an assumption about you based on your look. My Vietnamese friend was the same and she hates it too!
  • What’s wrong with hello? Most ppl mean well but we need to educate ppl to stop doing it. So I always say back quickly “I speak English”. I never say ni hao back.
  • While it’s not straight up obvious racism it’s still a form of it.
  • I hope with everything that’s happening now, the conversations opening up about racism will change things for the better. Racism should not be tolerated by any race at all.

As Angela Davis said:

Ps. Check out this brilliant article by Jin Hyun entitled: Dear white people, stop saying ‘Ni Hao’ to every East Asian student you see. Also, this video that I’m sure a lot of people can relate to shows you just how ridiculous it is when you ask someone where they’re really from:

xxx

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