As an Asian travelling in Asia, I often found myself in two very strange situations:
1. The locals of the country would think that I could speak the local language because I would look like a local too. Like dark enough to be an Asian that lived within the South Eastern tropics but also with facial features that could make me an Asian from further North. It’s just one of those things – like an Asian chameleon I guess. Low key Marvel could hit me up for a comic deal…
2. When I meet fellow travelers on the road, they would always greet me with pleasant surprise when they find out that I’m Australian. But there’d always be a deeper intrigue that often translates to – ‘but where are you really from?’ And depending on the person, this exchange can range from fairly normal to really, really awkward.
And while I was travelling up Mt. Koya in Japan, the latter exchange happened, and yes, it was the awkward type.
So after taking two trains and a super steep cable car ride, we (Christina and I) finally arrived at Mt. Koya station. From here, we needed to catch a bus to the monastery where we were going to spend the night. Exhausted and weighed down by our giant bags, we breathed a sigh of relief when the soft cushioned bus seats welcomed our aching bodies. Chucking our bags on the empty seat on my left, we settled in for the bus ride ahead.
Quick sidebar: how amazing is it when you’re on a bus, plane or some other form of public transport and the seat next to you is empty. It’s like winning the lottery of life, extra space, no need for small talk, everything you could ask for.
But yeah – I didn’t win the lottery that day, because as the bus was beginning to pull away a lady came running and managed to hop on just in time. And as she maneuvered her way to the back of the bus (where we, the cool kids, were sitting), I knew my lottery moment was going to be short-lived.
She shot me an apologetic look, and I moved the bags, because people gotta sit ya know.
‘Sorry!’ – she exclaimed in her strong American accent.
‘No worries!’ – I said in reply. Like a no worries with a smiley emoji.
‘OMG YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?!?!?’
Now in a moment such as this I have two options:
- Pretend that I actually don’t speak English to avoid further awkwardness – like that time I was in South Africa and all the locals kept asking me to speak Japanese and I just spoke some Japanese phrases because it was easier to do that then explain my whole nationality situation thing.OR
- Reply yes and explain my whole nationality situation thing.
I opted for the latter.
Now you must be thinking, but Ryan your tone for the entire piece till this point reveals a deep frustration with people asking about race and nationality. And you wouldn’t be wrong, because moments when American women exclaim ‘OMG YOU CAN SPEAK ENGLISH’ on a fairly silent bus trip can get pretty uncomfortable.
But another lesson I’ve learnt from those moments is that as humans, we are way too obsessed with labels. We want to differentiate ourselves from others, we want to be individuals, but hate when other people want to become part of that conversation. We don’t want others to box us, because that’s when our identity feels out of our control. We know who we are, we don’t need anyone else to question it, or tell us about it.
However, in defending our labels, distinctions and borders, we reemphasize our differences as distinguishing features rather than a point of unity and harmony.
See, people are driven by intrigue and curiosity – and although sometimes it may come across the wrong way, like ‘OMG YOU CAN SPEAK ENGLISH’ – we have a responsibility to connect and educate each other.
And instead of getting uncomfortable and offended, I’ve begun to see the inquisitiveness in others, the desire to know more, to learn. Which is why even though initial interactions may sometimes be awks af, being able to move past it is where true human progress can be made.
From simple social conversation right up to the political sphere, instead of assuming the worst in people – changing mindsets and seeing the best in people, is the only way truly empathetic and compassionate dialogue can take place.
So yeah, I speak English.
English is the national language in Singapore – and also in Australia.
Ryan Cheng is the founder of The 88, and is passionate about telling stories surrounding travel, culture and identity.
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