As I was counseled by the only other Korean expat I’ve met who’s been here for x amount of years, the whole you-must-be-Chinese-so-get-on-my-level thing never goes away. The funny part is that being mistaken for Chinese is a cross to bear for every single ever so slightly Asian looking person in America. (On one of my last days in the US, a 9-year-old of Filipino descent at Sunday school griped to me, “Everyone always thinks I’m Chinese.’)
As a child, it was annoying. It was vastly important for me to distinguish myself as NOT Chinese, simply because it was irritating to always be identified in a way that was so certifiably incorrect. It doesn’t bother me anymore, it’s not a big deal, you can’t expect them to know any better, blah blah, and it never really goes away. Before I left the US, strangers who heard I was going to China always assumed I was returning home to my family.
Now in China, and especially at work, my confusing Asianness is magnified.
I sit in on parent-teacher meetings, and the parents automatically assume I’m there to translate and start volubly expressing themselves to me.Parents at drop off and pick up fire questions at me, the students ask me tons of questions in Chinese. I say sorry-I’m-foreign (in English) so many times a day I probably say it in my sleep.(My vocab word of the day is wei laoshi, foreign teacher.)
I only just realized after four weeks that the security guard spoke English because he previously always spoke to me in Chinese.
Although my company pushes for immersive language learning, we have local teaching assistants in the lower level and younger classes who can translate if absolutely necessary.
My greatest teaching moment came today in a class of 7-9 year olds. It was hot, the door was closed. Suddenly, the children were greatly distressed. Their English is pretty good, but they weren’t able to explain the problem to me, and there was no TA.
Poo poo, one of them said.
No recognition from me.
Lots of talking in Chinese, they try to find the words.
It’s like…it’s like… one of them says, unable to finish the sentence.
Finally one of them stands up, gestures as if wind is blowing, around her butt, then holds her nose.
I open the door and let in a breeze.
Now there are rumblings of confusion, I can tell this time about me. How does she not know fart in Chinese?
One of them finds the English.
“Where are you from?”
I move on with the lesson.