Had a fun encounter on the drive up to ConnectiCon 2013.
I think this guy may have learned to speak Chinese in Africa. China has many state owned enterprises extracting resorses in Africa, most of which have a policy of shipping in Chinese workers rather than hiring locals. So he may have spoken with expatriates frequently enough to have learned their language.
I had no idea. No surprise that China would be expanding everywhere it could, but it’s slightly dismaying to hear that they’re not hiring locals. Guess the money goes back to China.
It’s always tricky to approach someone who appears “other” and try to make a bridge between yourself and them via culture. On the one hand, you’re trying to approach someone on a level your intuition is suggesting they will not expect and that will be appreciated if they are, in fact, “other” – it will be a bit of familiarity for them in the midst of the “non-other” surroundings and culture. On the other hand, you really, REALLY can’t always intuit someone’s culture just by their appearance!
For my own example, I’m a student of many languages and customs from around the world, so I speak a bit of Spanish, Italian, Greek, French, Japanese, and Arabic. Now, normally I won’t just immediately approach someone who looks Hispanic by saying “¡Beunos dias! ¿Cómo estás?”. For all I know, they speak absolutely no Spanish!
However! Should I overhear them actually speaking Spanish, then I will consider saying a few polite things in Spanish to them, ask after their family (it being a very important Hispanic cultural value), et cetera. The vast majority of the time I’ve done this, typically with poor migrant workers surrounded by rich elitist white people, it has been obvious that they genuinely appreciated the gesture, halting and broken as my Spanish is.
Similarly, if I cross paths with a woman in a chador, niqab, burqa, khimār, or tudung, that is strong enough evidence to tell me that they’ll understand and appreciate a polite “as-salamu alaykum”, whether they’re Iranian or Malaysian, whether they speak Arabic fluently or not at all, simply because of the prevalence of the phrase in Islamic influenced parts of the world. (Although I’ve had to learn to distinguish between the previously mentioned garments and the similar looking Indian dupatta, to account for the Hindu influence there!)
Now, occasionally my intuition leads me astray. I once greeted a man in an airport wearing a Quebec flag pin on his jacket with “Bonjour”, and he blinked at me. “Sorry,” he said in that distinctly English Canadian way, “but I don’t speak French!” I laughed and apologized, explained my error, and he smiled and informed me that the pin was an old gift from his late Quebecois grandfather.
Personally? I’d like to see a world where more people try (with good and honest intent!) to reach out to people of other cultures, to make them feel welcomed and accepted, and to create new bridges of understanding between people and places.
But at the same time, I also understand the problematic nature of making assumptions based on appearance, and more importantly the abuses and injustices possible when people use cultural differences maliciously against other people. It’s a difficult thing to balance.