“You’re Filipino!” my patient remarked as soon as I walked in the room.
“No, actually I’m not. I do kind of look like it though, don’t I?” I acknowledged with a smile.
“You’re not?” The patient paused only for a moment before looking me in the eye and stating with certainty, “Then you’re Mexican!”
I could only stifle laughter at that point.
I could tell a myriad of stories about people and patients commenting on my race. What my professors didn’t tell me was that somehow, when I received my nursing license, all my patients gained a license, too: license to ask whatever they wanted in the most blunt form possible.
One time a couple asked if I was Mexican or Asian. I replied that I was Asian, and their eyes grew wide. “Ohhhh,” one of them exclaimed. The other said, “I thought so! It’s just…the voice threw me off. The accent confused me. Because to my ears…at least from what I was hearing…" She stumbled through her sentence, "There was no accent!”
Other times various Caucasian patients have tried to speak foreign languages to me, like Japanese and Tagalog, even after I told them I was Chinese. And then there’s the patient who, when I told him my race, said, “I was wondering! I knew you weren’t Texan.” He quickly realized his faux pas and recovered with, “I mean, you are Texan…. We’re all Texan!”
Just for the record: I’m Chinese. I was born in the States. I don’t have an accent because English is my first language. I don’t speak Chinese at all, aside from being able to order dim sum. I do speak some Spanish and a bit of Khmer (Cambodian).
I bring up these stories not simply because they're humorous but also because they matter to me. I am not offended by these comments; in fact, most of the time I find them hilarious. Yet it seems people become downright awkward when asking about race. Sometimes they are rude and insensitive, but mostly they are simply unsure of how to be tactful while acknowledging a difference in skin color.
Thus this post: an outlet for anecdotes as well as some practical suggestions to help navigate what can be an awkward exchange when you need to resolve the secret debate in your family of whether that girl is Korean or Chinese.
Suggestion #1: Please don’t ask, “So…what are you?”
The answer to that is “a human being, just like you.” I don’t know what else to say about this one…
Suggestion #2: Please don’t ask, “Where are you from?”
I used to get stressed when people asked this. I would analyze the situation, them, their cultural background, our conversation and relationship up until that point - all in a couple seconds - before deciding whether to answer, “Houston” or “My family is from China.”
Because if I chose the wrong reply, one of us looked like an idiot. Either I did because they actually wanted to know my hometown, or they did because then they had to find another way to ask my race. Or they followed up with the cringe-worthy, “No, where are you from?”
Now I always answer, “Houston.” I don’t feel like an idiot with that answer because the truth is, that’s where I’m from, and that’s what they asked.
Suggestion #3: Think twice before asking, “What kind of Asian are you?”
What kind of White are you? Not sure different countries can be considered “kinds” of Asia (like “kinds” of candy or clothes or something?). To be fair, depending on context and tone, this can be a tactful way of asking more about someone’s background.
Suggestion #4: Try using more direct words instead of vague questions that leave me wondering what you really want to know.
I prefer when people ask me questions with the words “race,” “ethnicity,” “cultural heritage,” or any of those combined with “background” (ie, racial/ethnic background).
For example, a couple people with whom I work have asked about my race in straight-forward and non-awkward ways. In fact, the day after I drafted this, I heard someone at work come up behind me and say my name.
“Yes?” I replied.
“What nationality are you?”
“Chinese,” I replied. Thus the mystery was solved and the break-room debate resolved, all in a matter of seconds. No awkwardness involved.
Suggestion #5: Recognize any faux pas, and acknowledge them in conversation.
The patient who said, “I knew you weren’t Texan,” wasn’t trying to be rude. In fact, he was one of the most culturally sensitive patients for whom I’ve cared. Perhaps what showed his sensitivity most was recognizing his mistake and attempting to fix it.
Of course, these five suggestions are my preferences, and I don't have a lower view of anyone who asks me, "What are you?" However, hopefully this post offers some help in avoiding awkward situations and unintentional microaggression.
I receive questions about my race so frequently that I used to say if no one commented on my race or age at work, it’d be a landmark day. Recently that landmark day came - but instead of those classic questions, someone asked me something else: "How much do you weigh?"
So, bottom line, even if you don't remember a single suggestion from this Chinese-American, Spanish-speaking Texan:
Be direct, and be honest, but try not to ask me about my weight!