Fellow Americans Living Abroad: PLEASE Think Before You Speak... Please?

Singing "We are Siamese, if  you please" is wrong on SO MANY LEVELS.
Publish date:
February 19, 2016
living abroad, chinese, that's racist!, Asian Americans, Hong Kong, Cultural Sensitivity

Let me just say up front that I do not endeavor to be one of those Americans or westerners living abroad who thinks that the foreign country I've chosen to call home for a time needs my protection.

In Japan I saw a lot of non-Japanese residents, mostly (but not exclusively) westerners, who after a few months of life in Japan decided that they needed to "protect" Japan from the "horrible westerners" who did everything wrong. This is to say that a lot of tourists and even residents did and said some truly moronic things, but most of the time I found that the Japanese were quite adept and skilled at putting idiots in their place. There's taking responsibility for your own actions, speaking up when someone is being awful, and there's adopting a "savior complex."

Personally, I often find that complex more insulting than it is is helpful.

In Hong Kong, I have a harder time figuring out when to keep my mouth shut. Hong Kong still doesn't need my protection, it's perfectly capable, but sometimes I can't help but speak up when my fellow westerners say things that astonish me. In the bad way.

I was in a store buying crackers the other day. For those of you who care (because I would), they were pepper and garlic gluten free crackers that don't taste gluten free. AMAZING. Anyway, as the cashier was ringing me up, a westerner woman (from her accent, I suspected her to be American) moved up to the register next to me and the following exchange took place. It's so ridiculous it sounds made-up, but sadly it's not.

Westerner Woman: (to the Chinese cashier) I want to use this COU-PON. Do you understand?

Cashier: (in clear English) Yes, may I see it?

WW: I want to use it to buy THIS BREAD. Do you understand? THIS. BREAD. (She holds up the bread like a naughty kitten.)

Cashier: Yes, I understand Miss, but this coupon is not for use in the bakery.

WW: But I want to use it for THIS BREAD. DO. YOU. UNDER. STAND? Apply THIS COU-PON to THIS BREAD. It's valid.

Cashier: Yes, Miss, but you see (points to the coupon fine print) it is not for use in the bak—

WW: (exhaling loudly, rolling her eyes) Do you have a manager? Do you understand me? A MANAGER?

Cashier: Yes Miss. One moment please. (walks away)

The Westerner Woman stood shifting her weight looking pissy. She caught me staring at her. I couldn't resist. In her eyes, I was just some Chinese lady who "didn't understand."

"Hello! You know I got that same coupon and yeah, you can't use it on bread. She understood. We all did."

She stared at me. Computed for a moment, then said to me — I shit you not — "Can you talk to them for me?"

We just stared at each other, heads cocked, like parrots confused by a mirror.

The manager then appeared and in perfect English took over the situation. "I think you're fine," I chirped, and walked away.

For every smart, sensitive, fluent Cantonese-speaking world traveler like Mr. Cantonese USA in my building (who by the way I've made an effort to chat up, and yep, he's pretty cool, but I think he moved away!), there are westerners who don't seem to comprehend that English isn't some secret, mystical language that is exclusive to those with white skin. So many people here understand and/or speak English. And frankly, if someone does not, how is that problematic in Hong Kong?

I'm also troubled by the fact that I encounter many American expats who have no qualms treating the local Chinese as somehow "less than;" talking down to them, making no attempt to communicate on their terms. Not everyone is going to learn Cantonese, I know that, but I am baffled by the anger, frustration, ridicule directed toward Chinese people who don't speak English.

I met an American guy a while back. He was a friend of a friend from back home in the US, and had been living in Hong Kong for a year. He seemed like a nice enough guy, generous, funny, weird. Then I took a cab ride with him.

Some of you may remember that cab rides in Hong Kong make me nervous. Not because of the driving, but because of communication. Most cab drivers either only speak Cantonese, or can only speak a little bit of English. Fair enough, right?

American Dude and I caught a cab to go to a restaurant across town. Getting into the cab, American Dude LOUDLY barked the name of the restaurant in English to the cab driver. The cab driver responded in Cantonese, that he didn't understand. I told American Dude that. He barked at the cab driver again, louder, slower, still in English.

You know that feeling when you're like, "OH MY HOLY SHIT I'M SHARING A CAB WITH A DOUCHEBAG"?

I intervened, apologized, and tried to break down the name of the restaurant in Cantonese, also trying to explain the area we were headed and street name. American Dude helped by saying the name again in English.

Finally, we got everything settled and were on our way. I was sweating.

But American Dude wasn't done.

Speaking too loudly for a small space he said, "You'd think they'd know what I was talking about? It's a pretty well known restaurant. You know, sometimes Hong Kong cab drivers are just lazy."

UHHH. My mouth fell open and I just looked at the cab driver stoically steering the cab.

"I tell you, the Chinese can be really rude when they don't want to do something."

"STOP TALKING," I said to American Dude. He laughed. "You know, he can understand you." American Dude shrugged it off.

I wondered if the cab could just absorb me right then and there, and I could become a talking car and the cab driver and I could have adventures running over assholes in Hong Kong. Maybe I'd learn to fly.

When we got to the restaurant, I insisted on paying the fare so I could tip the cab driver (not the norm in Hong Kong) and so I could also attempt an apology in Cantonese. The cab driver looked annoyed, but was kind enough to attempt a smile and tell me not to trouble myself over it.

Needless to say, dinner was disgusting because I was dining with a talking butthead (think about that visual), and I ducked out early to take the subway home. Alone. Never again, American Dude.

Hands down the most "I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU'RE NOT A CARTOON" moment came last week when my husband and I treated ourselves to a massage.

A Thai massage place, the small shop was run by four women — all Chinese. They all spoke limited English, but with my Cantonese and their good-natured humor, we got by just fine.

Everything was delightful. My husband and I were being stretched and kneaded into bliss behind a curtain, when I heard the front door open and a deep voice bellow, "Tell me about foot massages. Are you better than that other place downstairs? That's where I usually go. Why aren't they open? Hey! I'm talking to you!"


The unmistakably American voice continued to badger the woman out front about foot massages. I heard her say that she didn't know about the place downstairs, but that they offered foot massages here.

"Okay. Give me one of those. Now."

The woman explained that he'd have to wait 15 minutes as all the other massage therapists were with clients at the moment.

"15 minutes! You don't look all that busy to me."

Regardless, I heard him plop down in a chair to wait. I had almost gone back to my happy place when I heard:

"'We are Siam-ese if you please. We are Siam-ese if you don't please.' You know that song?"

I heard the woman respond politely, that she did not. The man laughed what can only be described as a "Beavis" of Beavis and Butthead laugh, and started singing again.

"'We are Siam-ese if you please...' You really don't know that song? It's from The King & I. It's a really famous Asian song."

My eyes flew open on the massage table.


FYI that song is from Disney's Lady and the Tramp. It's "The Siamese Cat Song".

My husband's and my massage ended a few minutes later and we exited our little curtained room. Passing the white, American man getting his nasty, vampire toenails clipped by two women, he stared at my husband and me. I couldn't help but stare back.

As we paid and left, I heard the man humming "We are Siamese..." again. With the front door closing behind us, I couldn't stand it anymore and threw over my shoulder, "THEY'RE CHINESE, AND IT'S DISNEY'S 'LADY AND THE TRAMP'."