What Are You?
Little boy: "Are you Chinese?"
Woman: "No, I'm half Korean and half English."
Little boy: "What are you having for dinner tonight?"
Woman: "We're having steak, potatoes and corn."
Little boy: "Why aren't you having Chinese food?"
This story comes from a half-Korean/half-English colleague. And yes, it really happened.
She was in cottage country, north of Toronto, so the novelty for this kid of seeing someone of mixed race is understandable.
The boy's approach is certainly direct: "What's the deal?" He's unaware of social "rules" dictating that you don't ask a person you don't know about his or her ethnic background. There's no indication this child is asking with the intention to judge; more likely he just wants to satiate his curiosity.
I had a similar experience with my girlfriend in China. Locals would often watch us ... to the point of staring at my girlfriend, whose blond hair certainly stood out. She was an unusual sight for a lot of the people of Beijing. We understood what was going on, so we weren't offended. Besides, we were the ones visiting a culture where obviously watching a stranger is not considered rude.
Now put a Canadian adult in the place of the curious.
Too "polite" to inquire, we often watch from afar in the hopes we won't be spotted.
But this behaviour isn't limited to when we see someone of a different ethnic background. It seeps into every aspect of our daily lives, happening whenever we encounter the unfamiliar or something we don't understand.
Because we believe we shouldn't seek out more information about this "unknown" element, we often tend to go with the easier option: Draw our own conclusions.
It's funny that so many of us continue to do this on a regular basis considering how unsuccessful our track records have been.
Some of the most negative emotions – fear, anxiety, hatred – all come from our lack of understanding. Whether it's a person of a different culture, a new political position or even a food we've never seen, we often resort to apprehension and, too often, eventual rejection.
Surely this behaviour is far ruder than inquiring about the unfamiliar. Yet we often resist asking questions. Why? Is it because we're worried we'll sound foolish? Dumb or uneducated? And, of course, in admitting that we don't understand something, we reveal a vulnerability.
But surely exposing our occasional ignorance is worth all the risks – especially when you consider the alternative: a lack of understanding that breeds ill will, paranoia, scorn and, often, pure hatred. All because we didn't bother to ask.
On a chair lift in the 1980's I was asked by seatmate, a woman, how old I was. I said eight. Then I asked how old she was. She laughed and said,"You're not supposed to ask a woman that." And then she told me how old she was.