I was walking down the street this morning to get a nice cup of coffee in an environment that’s more vibrant than my room, when I saw a man giving direction to a group of young men who left in hurry. The friendly looking man was wearing a flash orange uniform with his presumably cleaning materials in the cart he was pulling. When I was almost walking past him, he looked at me and said ni hao with his hands politely folded. His smile and polite gesture pleased me, and yet I said “Oh I’m not Chinese.” He didn’t seem to understand English, though. After a moment, I started thinking why I had to say that. I could have greeted him nicely because I kind of felt pleasant with his gesture somehow. I know that it can be often called racism in some context when people just assume who you are based on the look or inaccurate interpretation of the look. Saying ‘ni hao’ instead of ‘goede morgen’ when he obviously could do it can sound a bit wrong. Still, I hated that I had to say who I’m not or who I am at the genuinely-felt greeting.
It’s a definitely different experience from Kigali and Lilongwe. Often, very often indeed, people will shout ‘ni hao’ or ‘China’ at me when I’m just walking. This never felt pleasant. I believe the reason is that it’s first of all not greeting and second, they do it for their own entertainment not for my pleasure. That’s why it feels more like a mockery than anything else.
There was another instance in an international bar/space in my university. I was getting a coffee myself (or doing something at the bar, don’t remember) and a man standing next to me asked if I was from China. I corrected him that I was from South Korea and he apologised. My friend who was then witnessing this conversation said it was bad. But I didn’t feel bad and in fact I thought it was glad that he was being friendly. Although, how it feels may also depend on one’s experience in relation to their national identity. For instance, if I get mistaken as Chinese once a month for 30 years when I was in fact raised as a Belgian, the way I would associate this mistakes will make a huge difference.
I still think about how I could have greeted back to him with ‘good morning.’ I could’ve taken his smile and polite hands which really don’t require much words, instead of thinking about what’s right or wrong even though in situations it could be wrong.