I Just Want Asian Grandmas to Like Me

Or at least stop looking at me like I am a great disappointment

Jessica Lim
Human Parts

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Local asian market
Clarene Lalata | Unsplash

It is official: Asian grandmas hate me.

Actually, my grandma thankfully loves me. Have you heard of the common stereotype that Asian families are exceptionally hard on their children? I’m lucky enough to say that my parents and my grandma were always very accepting of my decisions, and very supportive of my successes and failures.

But I moved from Canada to Hong Kong a week ago. Now I finally know what everyone is talking about.

I am ethnically Chinese, so at first glance, I look like I belong here. However, the minute I open my mouth, it becomes very clear that I don’t. My Mandarin is barely passable. I can stumble through ordering food, asking for directions, and basic conversations, but that is about it. I spoke English (or French) throughout my entire life, so this is all brand new to me.

I am ethnically Chinese, so at first glance, I look like I belong here. However, the minute I open my mouth, it becomes very clear that I don’t.

To the outside world, though, those pesky details do not matter. Since I cannot speak Mandarin or Cantonese, and I don’t know much about my heritage, to every Asian grandma, I am a disgrace to the Chinese community.

Does it not matter that I was born in Canada?

I have a white male friend, who also grew up in Canada. Throughout his life, he’s learned some Mandarin and can now speak decently well.

Don’t get me wrong, I am very impressed. It is very humbling. But that’s beside the point.

Let me tell you something: All the Chinese grandmas LOVE him. They think he’s the sweetest thing ever. I know that all the grandmas selling buns at the morning markets in Taiwan think every butchered Chinese word out of his mouth is adorable. And I know all the grandpas are telling their grandkids about the basketball game they played with this precious white boy who spoke some Mandarin.

Meanwhile, they only ever look at me with unmistakable disappointment. I get the stink eye whenever I open my mouth. Every time I butcher a pronunciation, don’t know a word for some menu item, or ask whether a bun is vegetarian in my broken Mandarin, I see them looking at me in shame. The disapproval dripping off their voices is palpable.

They only ever look at me with unmistakable disappointment. I get the stink eye whenever I open my mouth.

My friend and I may have had similar upbringings, but that doesn’t matter. The way we are treated is vastly different just because I look ethnically Asian and he doesn’t. He is “making attempts to better understand the culture.” I am a “disappointment for not knowing my culture in the first place.”

Does anyone care that looks might be deceiving?

I went on a date a few weeks ago with a British ex-pat living in Hong Kong.

I have to say, there have been few times in my life where I felt more humbled than when this British man kicked my ass in Mandarin.

We were ordering at this restaurant and he asked me if I could read Chinese characters. He proceeded to give me an English menu while keeping his own Chinese version. I stumbled my way through ordering a watermelon smoothie. He ordered dinner for both of us.

The lady working at the store was legitimately swooning. We overheard her make a joke to her coworker about how the “white boy’s Mandarin was better than mine.” She laughed when she realized we both overheard the comment and then doubled down on the praise.

I’m glad that someone’s ego got pumped on that date, cause mine sure as hell did not.

Objectively, his Mandarin should have been better than mine. He has lived in Hong Kong since he was 10. He worked in Taiwan for two years. Asia has been his home practically his entire life. Meanwhile. I got here all of two weeks ago.

But looks can be deceiving. And many times, looks are all that matters. After all, even I was embarrassed that his Mandarin was better than mine, and I knew both our upbringings.

But looks can be deceiving. And many times, looks are all that matters.

I guess it’s hard to blame anyone else for thinking that I should know something just because of my ethnic appearance. But that doesn’t mean it sucks any less.

Dear Western World, Asia has more than one culture

A couple of my other Caucasian friends were recently traveling around Japan together. They were stopped on multiple occasions by vloggers who wanted to feature them in a series of “foreigners try cheap and expensive sushi.”

I was in Japan two weeks earlier. No one stopped me. Everyone spoke to me in Japanese and seemed confused when I didn’t know how to do something or had never eaten something before.

On a surface level, it makes sense. If the goal is to find tourists, Caucasians are a safer bet than Asians — even if Asia is a massive continent with multiple different countries. The content will sell better — especially if you’re selling to an audience that groups the entire continent of Asia as one big ethnic group.

Despite the fact that I’m only ethnically Chinese, I am a disappointment everywhere in Asia.

Kinda ridiculous don’t you think?

First of all, I’m from Canada. But even if I were from China, do you not realize how absurd it is to assume I would be an expert — or even well acquainted — with Japanese culture? You wouldn’t go to Norway and ask a Norwegian for lasagna recommendations, then give them the stink eye when they don’t have a recipe. You wouldn’t be confused if the Greek folk did not know how to make bratwurst.

Let me tell you something: Greece and Germany are closer than China and Japan — although no one seems to realize it.

I guess that’s what happens when most of the Western world sees Asia as “China with an island called Japan and a small area where they make K-pop.”

It’s a pretty fitting statement when you consider that despite the fact that I’m only ethnically Chinese, I am a disappointment everywhere in Asia.

Why don’t I get the benefit-of-the-doubt Caucasians get?

A few years ago, I was in Bali on a family vacation. Indonesia has a large Muslim population, so long loose conservative clothing is the norm.

I try to be respectful of local culture when I travel, but that particular day, we were heading to the beach. I was therefore wearing a spaghetti strap dress with a cutout when we stopped by a local market to get food.

A few minutes in, an older lady grabbed me by the shoulders and started screaming at me in Indonesian. Immediately, a girl around my age came by and then began to rapidly speak to her grandma in Indonesian. Moments later, the girl apologized to me, explaining that her grandma just thought I was very pretty and had a swimmer’s body.

Later on, a family friend of mine translated what transpired that day. The grandma thought I was a local, and thus was initially scolding me for showing my shoulders. He also told me that as we walked down the street, a few street vendors started laughing among one another because my dress had a midriff showing.

I guess I was inadvertently the market sideshow.

I guess Caucasians get the tourist pass privilege among the local grandmas that I just don’t get.

Now, I know I was wrong. I should not have worn beachwear to a local market. However, every Australian and every tourist that I saw walking down the streets in Bali was wearing beachwear even more revealing than I was, and I guarantee it was not Mulsim-culture friendly.

I deserved to be scolded, but it didn’t escape my notice that I was the only one who got yelled at. I guess Caucasians get the tourist pass privilege among the local grandmas that I just don’t get.

So how do I make Asian grandmas like me more?

I guess the simple answer is to get better at Mandarin and learn more about my heritage.

After all, I am self-aware enough to know that a lot of my anger regarding this disparity is probably driven by my own shame. I find it very embarrassing when Caucasians can speak better Mandarin or Cantonese than me. So maybe, that’s the solution: Work hard and one day, these Asian grandmas will be proud of me.

But here is the thing: I can work harder, and I will. But I don’t think I am actually the problem.

Maybe the issue is that everyone has this predisposed idea that all one billion asians have the same cultural upbringing.

I’ve worked hard already to know as much Mandarin as I do. It’s not like everyone around me spoke Chinese dialects and my ignorance was due to my laziness or inattentiveness. The language skills I’ve learned are a product of my environment, and the reality is that my environment was North America, not Asia.

Perhaps the core of the issue is that people assume how I was raised, what I should know, and how I should act, just because I look a certain way. Maybe the issue is that everyone — both Asians and non-Asians — has this predisposed idea that all one billion of us have the same cultural upbringing.

You don’t expect my Canadian friend to speak like a native, so why should you expect me to? My upbringing was much closer to that of my white Canadian friend than it would be to a Chinese girl born in Hong Kong. So maybe you should be basing your judgments on that instead.

Maybe these Asian grandmas shouldn’t be disappointed in me. Maybe they should be impressed.

They always say that the world would be a bit better if people just liked each other a bit more. Well, I agree. I think the world would be better if Asian Grandmas would start liking me. Because that means we are finally in a world where I am not just viewed as a carbon copy of the one billion other Asian girls in the world.

Instead, a girl who grew up in Canada, that Asian grandmas love.

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Jessica Lim
Human Parts

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing … or both | Reach out 👋 jessicalim813@gmail.com