Made in China: Get with the program

I feel like all of us have at least one person in our immediate or extended family who needs to “get with the program.”  What I mean by this is there most likely is someone you know, usually an elderly person, who doesn’t understand the social climate in terms of what is the right etiquette to converse with someone, especially people of color, without sounding ignorant.

Yesterday, I had an elderly gentleman mosey into my office and asked if I was indigenous since yesterday marked Indigenous People’s Day. I replied “no” and then he proceeded to ask me where I came from pointing out I had a “darker complexion.” He then proceeded to ask me about my Asian parents which I told him I didn’t have since I’m adopted.

Once I told him I was from China, he went on a tangent telling me experiences he’s had with other Chinese people and how the Covid-19 pandemic affected him and his family. I was curious to see where he was going with the conversation because I’m sure my race had absolutely nothing to do with suddenly speaking about the pandemic. 

I find it odd when strangers all of a sudden make unsolicited comments about the Chinese people they’ve met, but for someone to randomly share the struggles they’ve had regarding the pandemic I thought was a very interesting subject to bring up.

If you think about it if I asked about his age and then proceeded to tell him about all of the old people in my life do you think he’d find that interesting?

However, this encounter made me ask the question “why do these experiences mostly happen with older people?” Is it because they were raised in an era in which the norm was to talk to people of color with subtle microaggression? Or is it because they were raised in a world where segregation and discrimination were abundant?

Whatever the reason may be, I don’t think your age should be an excuse for why you cannot educate yourself on our social climate and the use of verbiage by people today. If not for educating yourself, you may be motivated by fear of sounding ignorant. 

I like to think that I try to be an educator when it comes to receiving comments like this. As someone who looks fully Chinese, but comes from a very white family, I take advantage of the opportunity to tell those who may lack awareness. 

I personally do not think this man had ill intentions, however, as someone who really doesn’t identify with Chinese culture, it is quite strange for someone to talk to you in-depth about something you have no association with.

Teaching an old dog new tricks isn’t so hard; it is those who don’t wish to learn that contribute to these awkward encounters.

Write to Julia Barton at

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