IAN.Y.S.M. Entry 004 – Does she speak English?

29 Mar

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Let’s face it: stereotypes will always exist. It’s human. And, while often carrying a negative connotation, most stereotypes do reflect a degree of truth – and if we’re honest with ourselves, we all rely on them sometimes. It’s our nature to have the need to simplify things – this isn’t always borne from ignorance or hostility, it can be just a matter of convenience in terms of how we interact with each other efficiently.

Stereotypes become dangerous when we accept them as universal truths, or as an interpretation of how things are “most” of the time – and even more so, when it impacts how we treat or interact with people we’re unfamiliar with. Do we judge them by their race? Color? Place of origin? Socioeconomic status? Accent? Hairstyle? Clothing? I could go on and on.

So, if I apply stereotypical thinking to everything I can observe about a person without ever speaking to them or getting to know them, how accurate would my assumptions be? How well am I describing who this person really is? Creating a person from a collection of stereotypes is fine for comedies, or comedians. But relying on stereotypes as your main way of understanding someone that you don’t know is simply ignorant.

Let’s get to the heart of this: Western/American guy. Asian woman from abroad.

Maybe she is a mail-order bride. Maybe he picked her out of a catalogue, or plucked her from the rice paddies.

Maybe she’s escaping a life if poverty. Maybe she’s after the green card and naturalization – and plans to import her rice paddy family too!

Maybe she’s an opportunist; a gold digger.

Maybe he is being used. There’s a long list of family members back home getting sick!

Maybe…

Maybe he’s a misogynist. The Western Women are too independent-minded for him, and he needs a submissive woman who will attend to his needs, desires, and follow his orders. (Anyone who knows Cecille is surely laughing at this point!)

Maybe, he’s a loser. There must be something wrong with him if he can’t even find a woman in his own country. It feels good to be getting all of these out of the way! Can anyone think of any more? If so, have at it in the comments!

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So it’s with these aforementioned stereotypes that we come to the inspiration for my post. This past Monday morning at work, I was at a meeting which is held monthly for all of the Managers at the Non-Profit Agency I’m employed at. At the start of these meetings, the facilitator (an Administrator who is also my boss) encourages the Managers to take a few brief minutes to speak in turn about anything they’d like: this is actually on the meeting agenda as “What I feel like saying…”

Typically, people will share either big life events, or simply anecdotes about their weekend activities. It had been a couple of months since I’ve been able to attend one of these meetings, so when it was my turn, I announced that since the last meeting, I’d become engaged.

Everyone in the room clapped. It was…well, cute. One of the other Managers asked me if I’ll be visiting my fiancée again soon, and I replied that yes, I will be traveling back to Thailand in May. To which she replied: “So does she speak English?”

I wasn’t especially surprised, but a bit annoyed to be asked in such a blatant way in that forum. But instead of switching to full-on defensive mode, I took it in stride and approached it as a “teachable” moment to explain that Cecille was fluent in English… She works in Thailand but is originally from the Philippines, and that English is the predominant language in the country. Everyone learned it in grade school. (In fact, Cecille learned it even earlier, as her mother is an English teacher.). Anyway, it would have been more tactful of her to ask me this question without the company of all of the other Managers in our meeting, but whatever…

I’d like to think that she was well-intentioned overall, or that maybe she assumed my fiancée is Thai and thus less likely to know English than a Filipina. While there are many Thais who speak perfect English too, it’s not ingrained in their culture like it is in the Philippines. I can’t help but to wonder if she would have asked me the same question had I said I’d be traveling to the Philippines.

If I’m especially cynical, I can also infer other meanings from this question:

First, that I would be able to marry someone that I couldn’t even communicate with. I could not. This may be an OK arrangement for some people, but not for me. Second, her question could be a reflection of the stereotype of Western Man/Asian Woman from abroad. (note – I add the phrase “from abroad” here because there are many American Asian women to which this stereotype doesn’t seem to apply). Knowing my fiancée is from Asia and further assuming the possibility that she can’t speak English seems to type-cast me as a potential bride-shopper, swooping in to rescue the hot but helpless rice paddy girl regardless of the fact that we don’t know how to talk to each other. That’s ok, because I’m the type of man who likes my women clueless and quiet… Obviously not.

Am I reaching here? Have I lost the ability to be objective and thus am overly sensitive to what people may assume?

All in all, does it even matter what people think? Yes and no.

No, it doesn’t matter because Cecille is my match regardless of what people may assume. Before I met Cecille (in person) I was attracted to her for her personality, her intelligence, her wit, and her charm. In fact, that’s what kept me talking to her so often in those first few weeks. The things that drew me to her then (and much more now) have little to do with her race, nationality, or where she is from. Yes, I knew she was Filipina, but more importantly, we later came to realize that we share similar values and dreams. Ultimately, during the two weeks I spent traveling with her, I fell in love.

I don’t have much previous experience with Asian culture or people – I’ve never had a close Asian friend before, let alone a girlfriend. That being said, the process of intermingling our two cultures and the resulting variety is one that I’m looking forward to.

Yet in a more general, and less personal way: Yes. It does matter what people think insomuch as it’s always a positive thing to challenge ignorance, to prove negative stereotypes wrong.

Cecille grew up on a farm. In fact, both sides of her family owned rice paddies. She would tell me stories of her life growing up in the countryside. She would often tease me that I did indeed pick a girl out of a rice paddy. But Cecille was also Editor in Chief of her college newspaper while concurrently the Vice President of the parliamentary debate club (which used English as the medium). She went to graduate school after her RN. For my future wife to have a solid resume is impressive – but more importantly, I would settle for nothing less than for my wife and I to truly connect and clearly communicate with each other – essential for any successful marriage.

In the end, I don’t look down on men who do the “mail-order bride” thing, or the women who marry them. To each their own, but it isn’t for me. The only reason for me to marry is when I have found someone that I truly love and cherish. But then again, this article isn’t meant to criticize other people’s preferences in choosing life partners. Rather, this is about the reliance on stereotypes to form opinions about people. And voicing such opinions publicly, especially in an inappropriate venue, rather than realizing you don’t really know anything and just keeping your misinformed judgment to yourself. Be careful with that, everyone.

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