i think it's fair to say that anyone who isn't white and living in the US has experienced some form of it. from well-meaning people, from non-well-meaning people and in all sorts of situations...
having come to the US at the age of six, i am completely fluent in english. in fact, i have better english than most native-born Americans. i also grew up in california, where being asian isn't an odd thing anymore, there are so many others like you. of course, that wasn't always the case. in fact, i probably caught the tail end of when it was weird to be asian.
in elementary school, people didn't know what korea was, and i was the other asian kid. so of course, the chinese boy and i were going to marry when we grow up, right? and k-i-s-s-i-n-g in a tree and all that other stupid childhood nonsense. i still have a hard time forgetting the oh-so-favorite "go back to your own country" lines thrown at me, my parents, or my friends' parents whenever someone didn't get their way. or generally being treated like you're less of a person because you don't have fluent english yet or because you have an accent. with those kinds of pressures, you learn to speak perfect english really quickly -- it was a matter of survival. in fact, i didn't start feeling relaxed about that until college, which was when my characteristic mixing of words and inability to quickly identify objects in english came creeping in.
and never mind all the mistakes you make because you don't know what's what. back to school was a nightmare -- what the hell is an index divider? there are erasable pens? i thought the whole point was that they weren't erasable... how come you only have black? i need blue. and brads? report covers... how come there are so many different kinds? what are these registration forms for? where do they go? what do you do with this fundraising money you've received? etc etc etc. and don't forget being cast as the little china doll in your school play.
i still don't have a good handle on idioms and popular culture. traditional american customs and traditions remain a mystery to me and i can make social gaffs without even realizing it. thankfully, i have very kind friends that will teach me these things instead of judging me for my mistakes. i know that not everyone is that fortunate.
(i don't really want to go into the experiences my parents had to deal with here. all i can say is that it's pretty humiliating to have graduate school level educations in korea and to be treated like you're mentally lacking by even the most obnoxious and stupid people just because english isn't your native tongue.)
being asian in california got a lot better later. when my family first moved to PV, there weren''t that many asians, but they made up a good 10% of the student body. that percentage was even higher in middle school. then in high school..... a whopping 50% or so. then i went to uc berkeley, which was actually a decrease to 40%. now, all my friends are basically mixed couples or have mixed couple friends, and ethnicity really doesn't even come up as an issue.
in a way, it's weird for me to be in an area that isn't as diverse as the environs i am now used to. if i go to korea or korean churches, there are too many asians and i feel funny. if i go to whitetown USA, i feel odd and singled out.
anyway, what i'm trying to say, in my own rambly-because-i'm-still-angry kind of way, is that i haven't experienced that much racism (relative to others) and also haven't experienced it in a really long while.
so it's like cold, hot, fire, icewater dumped on your head when it hits you right in the kisser.
i've been having a frustrating back and forth with New Century Tours, a group which puts together tours for students. my sister's 8th grade trip is going to DC, NYC and other places and the school apparently selected this company for those services. and it sounds like a cool trip where you get to see a lot of neat things.
but here's the thing.... they have all these things that are "very clearly stated" on their forms where you have to opt OUT of a $150 refund guarantee program. if you take the also "clearly stated" easy payment plan where you pay in installments, it costs you another $15 on top of the normal charges. furthermore, you have to opt out of these things by the first payment or there is no going back. never mind that automatically adding an optional service and making people purchase it if they don't realize they need to opt out is a pretty shady practice to begin with. when i pointed out that my parents are immigrants and that these things weren't clear to them, the office manager then claimed that that half their students are immigrants and they've written their things clearly for everyone. they also said that you can't please parents... if you don't have the refund program, they feel upset when they cancel and can't their money back (10% of their students cancel, apparently) or they feel upset when they're charged for this program.
i'm betting that more than 10% of their customers are upset about being unwittingly signed up for the refund program, and that a great majority of the people who are signed up for this without their knowledge are immigrants, non-native speakers and careless native speakers.
when i was arguing with her further, she asked me to send her the email of my first complaint about being enrolled in this program. i'd sent it with my mom's email, which takes on more meaning later. after some clarifications on other things, she asked if i sent her the email. i said i did. and then she says "i can't read chinese."
yes, because i'd be stupid enough to send her something in a language that she can't read. and clearly, in her mind, this just lumps me in with other unreasonable immigrants who find issue with their company's policies which are "clearly stated" for everyone and the "registrant's responsibility to know what they are signing up for." and yes, because if i'm asian, i must be chinese.
i had to explain to her that the email's in english (thinking, you haven't even bothered to look at your subject line, have you?). and that name on the "from" line isn't chinese, it's korean.
this kind of response just brings back so many memories. even recent ones, where people keep trying to talk to me in chinese - "ni hao" "sheh sheh" just because i'm asian. i feel mixed about the people that try to talk chinese to me... i think it's good that they're trying to learn about another culture, and i'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt and kudos for doing that, and try not to be offended by the ignorance that assumes that any east asian is chinese.
this lady even had the gall to say that if my parents are immigrants and frequently have a hard time understanding forms, why couldn't they take it to someone else to explain it to them or call the company directly? perhaps she thinks that is a helpful suggestion, but couldn't they have also made their forms more clear? i haven't seen the original application form, but certainly on the online form, there aren't any indicators that this refund program is optional, or costs extra. and having to ask someone else about something as rudimentary as an application form, doesn't this kind of defeat the idea of her "clearly stated" forms? clearly, she doesn't understand that if you're an immigrant, you are dealing with significant language barriers. that a phone call may be an intimidating thing. and actually, given her exchanges me, a fluent english speaker, she would have overwhelmed my parents or been insulting to them as she was with me.
i've grown up having to challenge numerous situations of shady business practices that "should be clear" and "easy to correct" which are clearly disadvantageous to non-native speakers. they border on scams (and definitely feel like scams) but are guised under the cloak of legality.
i'm not saying that my parents didn't make mistakes. in fact, this is something that could have been easily dealt with if my sister (who was born and raised here) had bothered to read the stupid form. but given that this was certainly not a novel complaint, and chances are, a lot of these complaints would have come from immigrant or non-native speakers, the office manager had absolutely no inclination to see this as a problem.
also, their customer service is lousy. she actually said that she can't be on the phone this long (less than 30 minutes). and she didn't want to look up the third payment slip because the email was sent too late already (which was enough proof for her to not look further), so it would be too much effort to look for the third payment slip because they'd have to find the physical payment form. she also tried to say that i may be thankful for this refund program later. man, if this were my kid, i'd use their stupid refund program and pull my money out of their business altogether.
and on top of the lousy customer service (where i had to repeat myself and correct her incorrect assumptions for what i was trying to say numerous times) she was being racist, whether she knew it or not. maybe not in a blatant "go back to your country" way, but "i can't read chinese" spoken in a reflexive, accusatory way before she bothers to look a the subject line of the email isn't that much better. i can't help wondering if she would have been kinder, more sympathetic, apologetic or helpful if i'd had a white last name. the depressing thing is, as office manager, she's the boss to many people in this company. this company, and many others, are willing to complacently ignore language barriers and reap financial benefits from exploiting the difficulties immigrants have in deciphering legal documents.
for people my like parents and probably many other immigrants, they treat this kind of thing as part of the experience of living in america. they try to not focus on the injustice of it because it leaves them feeling voiceless and powerless in a country that they've made their new home.
i like this country, i really do. but at times like these, i really hate the people in it. the situations that are created can be angering, demoralizing and humiliating. at times like these, (for a moment) i wish i'd gone to law school to fight the injustices faced by immigrants in a country that is largely unsympathetic to them and willing to take advantage of their disadvantages. but i know i would have been unhappy and hated more people if i'd done that, and that moment passes.