I was going through security at San Francisco airport this past weekend to board my flight back to LA. As part of the screening process, we have to hand over our boarding pass and a form of ID. I handed over my driver's license.
Like many Chinese Americans, I have Cat (my English name) as my first name and Meow Meow (my Chinese name) as my middle name. The TSA personnel saw my driver's license, didn't bother to call me Cat, rather he read out loud my Chinese name and my surname, and then said -- Ni Hao (Chinese for hello), Shieh Shieh (Chinese for thank you).
I was a bit taken aback. First, San Francisco has one of the largest Chinese American population in the US. Many Chinese Americans are fourth, fifth generation, and yet this TSA officer's first instinct is to treat me as a non-English speaking foreigner. I had similar experiences at LAX. After I go through border control, some immigration/customs officers would say Ni Hao to me. I mean, LA also has one of the largest Chinese-American communities.
At this day and age, it's really hard to tell who is Chinese American and who is a Chinese visitor. So I think the better thing for thse TSA officers is to just say hello and welcome, instead of making an American feel like she is an outsider!
Update: I did not chastise the TSA officer. I politely said hello back. I've never chastised any of the officers who said Ni Hao to me. I usually say hello back and move on. I know they are just trying to be nice. But seriously, after encountering this so many times now (including once in the hallway of a major law firm), I needed to vent my frustration a little bit... Meow, peace out!
It might be condescending and misguided, but those people are honestly trying to be nice. They figure you'll think it's cute that they they speak a little Chinese.
In response, you can be equally condescending and consider that they are blue collar workers who aren't as educated and enlightened as you are. For most of them, learning a few words of various languages to greet visitors at an international airport is as close as they're going to get to being a world traveller such as yourself.
Or you can just smile and say ni hao back. After all, you really do speak Chinese, and we live in a melting pot of languages. You should be encouraging people to learn words from your language, not chastising them to speak to you in English. It's not like this is happening to you in the workplace, it's just friendly banter in an airport.
Relax, laugh a little bit. A man who can laught is a powerful man. ^O^
Update - Yes, I said "Ni Hao" back, I did not chastise him at all, in fact I never chastised any of them ... I wasn't super pissed or anything... but I wrote this because I've encountered it so many times now, and I am like, ok, enough...
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