How to speak Asian

The other day at the post office, an Asian man was at the counter talking to to an employee. His english was not good, but he sounded like he really needed some help. The employee was very polite and courteous, but she made a mistake I’ve seen many people make. She spoke louder and faster, as the miscommunication got heavier. This is a common mistake people make. They try to explain themselves, which requires more words, which only exasperate the problem.

As anyone who have ever had to deal with non-english speakers know, the easiest way to make someone understand you is to speak slower and use less words.

For example, if you’ve ever been to an asian supermarket and see two people who do not share a common language, like a Vietnamese woman and a Chinese woman, or an Asian woman speaking with a Hispanic employee, you’ll see that they use very few words with lots of gesturing. Often time just using keywords like “Chicken, Three”. It’s rather amazing actually.

It was uncomfortable watching the miscommunication escalate, partly because whenever a situation like this arises, I always get the feeling that everyone in the room expects me to speak up and translate for the “Asian”. Because I am “Asian”. But as anyone who have hung around us Asians know, there are dozens of ways for you to speak “Asian”. And unless you are wearing a bottle of fishsauce on your head, or carrying a bowl of pho in your purse, you most likely don’t speak my kind of “Asian”.

Eventually the employee gave up talking to the customer because the conversation was getting no where. She told him to wait and disappeared to the back.

At this point, my wife and I had a conversation about how sorry we felt for the non-english speaking customer because we see a bit of ourselves and especially our parents in them. We then try to guess what nationality he really was. I thought he looked Japanese. She didn’t even venture a guess because she could not tell. But like I said earlier, lacking a bottle of fishsauce on his head, I did not think he was Vietnamese.

When the employee reappeared from the back, she was not alone. She had, with good intention, brought back with her another employee. An “Asian” employee. I must note that earlier, before she left for the back, she had not asked the customer what language he spoke. She must have just assumed he spoke “Asian”.

Don’t get me wrong. I have dealt with this specific employee at the post office before, and I think she’s a very nice lady. She wanted to be helpful, and she did the most helpful thing she could think of. It was a nice gesture, but “Asian” is not a language.

This time it worked out. Both “Asians” spoke Mandarin. Which I only know because the Asian-employee asked the Asian-customer, in english, “Do you speak Mandarin?”.