The most awkward time to say, "Ni Hao"

racism Dec 16, 2019

Last year, I sat down for my 14 hour transit flight to Dubai and as I settled in, a middle aged Caucasian couple arrived in the seats next to me. As the man slid his way into his seat, he looked at me and with a big smile said, "Ni Hao!" and I replied "... wrong language" and we exchanged the longest 2 second silence in the world.

Of course, me being me, I saw that it was my duty as a woman of colour to laugh it off and say "haha don't worry, close enough!" and quickly appease the situation. He laughed nervously and I laughed awkwardly and then we rubbed elbows for the next 14 hours.


And as funny as this story is to look back on, what I am left with is disappointment. I’m disappointed that I betrayed myself to make someone else feel comfortable. To tease this out a little more,

  • I’m not offended by being mistaken for a Chinese person. The issue lies more in the fact that this man saw an Asian person and immediately thought to speak in Mandarin as if all Asians are from mainland China?? Yes there might be a billion people there so statistically, this was probably a good guess, however assuming that all Asians are Chinese is essentially saying that all Asians are the same. This is toxic because if we’re all the same then our stories, our lives are irrelevant and we are essentially silenced.

  • I appreciate that he was trying to be friendly and make contact. That’s probably the reason (oh and the 14 hour journey ahead) that I gave him an easy way out. However, being friendly doesn’t excuse anyone’s ignorance.

  • Often minorities are responsible for not only putting up with racism, but educating people about racism WHILE ensuring that we do it in a way that we don’t upset, offend or make anyone feel bad. This is what #whitefragility is all about. If we upset people as we call them out, we’re actually the ones that lose out in the end or at worst, we put ourselves in danger’s way. Appeasing is often the safest way out of an uncomfortable situation. This point actually needs a whole post of it’s own…

I’m sad to think that this is my natural move; to keep the peace by making sure ignorant people feel ok. However, here are some potential actions that I am trying to implement.

For my Asian Australian community:

  • In similar situations, firstly, check in with your surroundings and notice your immediate safety. I mean, are you with others, or have you been approached alone in the street at night?

  • Once ascertaining a foundational level of safety, recognise that this person is trying to make contact with you and that they’re not insulting you (hopefully). Perhaps this will help you to approach the situation with empathy.

  • Take one breath.

  • Respond with whatever you see appropriate, eg. “Ni Hao!”, “How did you know I speak Chinese?” “Wrong language” “G’day mate” “Excuse me?!” “I’m not Chinese” etc

  • But following this, notice your reaction. Not their reaction, but your reaction. What’s coming up for you? Are you moving into a slight trauma response (eg. fight, flight, freeze, fawn)?

  • Try really hard to wait for the other person to somehow appease the situation.

  • Allow for silences and try really really hard to sit them out.

  • Once the situation is over, turn to a trusted person and tell them. Don’t internalise the experience, regardless of how it made you feel, let someone know and often this looks like a quick laugh with a close friend.

If you’re Caucasian and you find yourself in this situation:

  • Firstly ask yourself, do they speak the language you’re about to speak to them in?

  • If you’ve blurted out a blunder, don’t get defensive.

  • Just say “sorry”.

    • And no, this doesn’t invite you to start a conversation about “where are you from” etc.

  • That’s all!

It’s a tricky area to navigate so I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Connect with our community.

You're not alone in navigating the intersections of race, culture and mental health. Find out more about our Shapes and Sounds Community, designed for and by Asian Australians.

Learn more