Earlier this week, I was in Chinatown as I often am, meandering through the square as I debated which noodle shop would fulfill my craving. When I lived in Hong Kong, I had practiced the “art” of eating alone; I would force myself to go dine solo to get over the fear of a) what other people might think (spoiler: nobody cares) and b) of being alone (spoiler: it’s actually kind of fun).
It had been a while since I’d eaten out alone, so I was actually really looking forward to tucking in and allowing my mouth fully concentrate on eating, with zero interruptions for talking. Unfortunately, I was stopped by an obnoxious instrusion right before I got to the restaurant.
“NI-HAO,” a non-Asian man said tauntingly, with a weird, mocking wave.
My natural instinct to grin to a fellow human turned quickly into a tight-lipped smile; I broke eye contact and hurried ahead to my destination. I was no longer excited to eat, but rather already felt a bad taste in my mouth – all it took was a five-second interaction. The moment I sat down at the restaurant, I texted a friend: “Some asshole just waved to me and said nihao.”
As she expressed her horror at my little story, I began to try and process how I felt. I wished I’d stopped him and asked why he thought it was okay to do what he did. I wished I fully understood why it hurt; was it because he thought I didn’t speak English? Because it felt like he mocked my race, my culture? Judged me based on how I looked? Made me feel different, like I didn’t belong?
I even wondered if I was being sensitive. “He’s just ignorant,” I thought, “It’s just some idiot who seriously lacks exposure to diversity. It doesn’t matter.” But that didn’t feel right; I remembered a recent conversation with friends, where they were discussing a clear increase in the number of insensitive racial interactions they’d had since the election. One mentioned a visceral reaction to retort, start an altercation; this spoke volumes to me: these interactions, no matter how small they may seem…they hurt.
They hurt because they make you feel like you somehow don’t belong, as if being different is somehow bad. Like many immigrant children, I still remember how my classmates thought my lunches were “weird”; the comments ranged from harmless (“What’s that?”) to rude (“Ew, that looks gross!”) but consistently made me feel one way: different. Sadly, the tone of these little interactions taught me that “different” was actually “bad.” To this day, when I’m heating up a lunch that might elicit too many questions, I hide away in another room to eat it – even though my coworkers are awesome, a traumatized part of me still fears having to deal with feeling “different.”
Despite what we teach our kids, that different isn’t bad, the truth of the matter is that it’s not that easy. Sometimes, it’s as clear as day: an ignorant passerby who makes you feel deindividualized. But other times, it’s much more subtle, and you question whether you’re just imagining it: a subtle change of tone. A flash of incredulity. A glimpse of judgment. We say that different is good, that every person is free to be unique – but I’m not quite sure that we truly live that. I know that I frequently fail to be aware of my subconscious judgments, recognizing that I may feel like a victim but am also likely a perpetrator.
This isn’t the first “Ni-hao” I’ve received, nor will it be the last. And while I want better for the future, I’ve accepted that fact for now. In fact, I’m learning to appreciate that experiences like this remind me to pause, to think, to remember how it makes me feel. My ideal world is not one in which no one feels different, but one in which every one feels fully embraced for their differences. And one of the ways we can continue learning to do that is to slowly but surely increase our empathy; to remember what it feels like to be “different”; to recognize the negative emotions triggered; to know that we can do better for others around us.
As for ourselves? Now that I’m done practicing eating out alone, I’m going to start practicing feeling “different.” I want to be true to myself, unafraid to raise eyebrows, ready to flaunt that which makes me unique, so that I know I’m being honest the next time I tell someone that it’s really, truly, absolutely okay to be different.