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      Being an Asian American is sometimes confusing in Asia

      By Kara Schroeder | China Daily | Updated: 2021-08-24 08:19
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      I have a confession. I've lived in China since 2013 and I don't speak Mandarin, Cantonese or any other dialect. I was born in South Korea and adopted by a US couple when I was about 11 months old. I don't speak Korean either. Many locals of different Asian countries find this confusing. I find it frustrating.

      Having an Asian face with a German surname and an English mother tongue gets me into drawn-out conversations almost daily. "So your husband is German?""But you look Chinese." "Why don't you speak Chinese?" "Learning Chinese should be easy for you." "You don't speak Korean?" "Why didn't your parents teach you Korean?" Since the day I arrived in Asia I've been asked, in almost accusatory tones, so many versions of these questions along with looks of confusion and even disdain.

      Living in China for almost eight years, I admit that I have a lot of excuses for not learning the language. I know it's terrible; I haven't had time. I haven't needed to, I've been working for foreign companies whose target markets are foreigners, it's too difficult. I've even used my age as an excuse, even though a study by MIT neuroscientists and psychologists led by Amy Finn has proven that theory to be false. I actually feel guilty, even as I verbally express my excuses when asked why I haven't even learned how to say "I want to order chicken". But there are other reasons for my lack of motivation, besides pure laziness.

      I have great respect for anyone who has the drive and capacity to learn languages other than their native one. I'm constantly impressed by my Chinese friends who make great efforts to learn and speak English, especially when I am residing in their country and haven't made a real attempt to speak their language. The sentiment in America of "if you can't speak English, get out of the country "seems utterly ridiculous to me. Learning other languages is just not that easy, for some people. I am happy to be patient with anyone who makes the effort to speak English with me in a country that's not mine.

      No matter how much respect I might have for others who are multilingual, however, the disbelief that I am not becomes frustrating for me. Having lived in and traveled extensively to other Asian countries, I sometimes get the feeling that locals have a belief that learning an Asian language should be easier for me because I am of Asian ethnicity. I have a Chinese friend who consistently tells me to learn Chinese, even though I rarely ask for help translating. She once said it should be easy for me. I asked, "Do you think learning an Asian language is easier for me than for others because I'm Asian?" She replied, "Well…"

      This doesn't just happen in China. When I've traveled to Japan, South Korea, Laos, and even Thailand, people have made attempts to speak to me in their native language. In China, if I tell people I was born in Korea, they attempt to say a few words to me in Korean, which is impressive. But I then have to explain that my parents are solely English-speakers because there is confusion as to why I am Korean but cannot speak it. This is usually followed by, "Why can't you speak Korean?" And I'm again giving an explanation. It's a constant conversation any time I meet anyone new, whether it's an Asian person or European or Australian.

      It's completely understandable that people would look at my face and assume that I speak the country's native language. I often feel bad for becoming impatient when having to explain my background over and over again, because I realize it's not the fault of the person who is asking the questions. But this is another reason for my hesitancy to learn an Asian language. Knowing a few short phrases of Mandarin, as soon as they come out of my mouth, a full one-sided conversation begins and my eyes widen like a deer stuck in headlights and I shake my head while yelling, ting bu dong ("cannot understand")! That's when the translation app comes out and I then have to explain my background by typing it. I experienced the same challenges in Japan and South Korea. It's a relief to speak to other Asian Americans, Canadians and British people, who experience the same situations. However, it's quite rare to run into others who can relate.

      I do have intentions of learning more Mandarin. And I have. A little bit. I'm still working on it. But having an Asian face and blood is not going to get me to fluency in any Asian language any faster.

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