September 27, 2016

Dear curious people: This is how I want you to ask about my race.

'What’s your ethnicity? Are you Korean? Cambodian? Sometimes it’s so hard to guess.'

  By Megan Schellong

This past summer, I worked in customer service.

While I absolutely loved my job and the interactions I had with people, there’s one conversation I’ll never forget.

As I was helping a woman with her items, she asked, "What’s your ethnicity? Are you Korean? Cambodian? Sometimes it’s so hard to guess."

Photo via iStock.

"Guess" – the word stuck to me like it was pasted with hard glue, now forming a solid mount on my chest that I couldn’t remove.

Appeasing her curiosity, I replied, "I’m Chinese" with a feigned smile. While I was reduced to an object of someone else’s fascination, the customer’s curiosity was sated.

During another instance, I was asked, "Is Megan your real name?"

I felt my heart sink when the words hit my ears.

The man continued, "I have Chinese students who come to America and change their name. Were you born with the name Megan?"

I thought, "Megan is the only name I’ve ever been known as. Of course my name is Megan."

Withholding the anger at this man’s assumptions, I replied, "Yes, sir, my real name is Megan," trying to dismiss the conversation. He eventually stopped asking me questions when he sensed I didn’t want to reply to him.

To confront me about my ethnicity, imagine putting yourself in my position.

On a first encounter with a new person, would it really be OK if someone asked, "Is that your real name?"

While I understand that some people might view these questions as a means of friendly conversation, they simply aren’t appropriate.

I enjoy discussions about ethnicity and identity, but there are better ways to approach me about my race.

Photo via iStock.

Here are some tried and true methods or phrases I’d love to hear you use:

1. "Hey, I have a friend who studied abroad in Asia, and I’m interested in traveling there. Could you tell me which country you’re from?"

By mentioning your friend or maybe even yourself as a person who has studied abroad, I’ll understand the context of your question. I’ll also have more respect for you because of the thought put into phrasing it.

2. "I recently learned this fact about Asian culture, and I think it’s awesome. Are you from China?"

Again, this question is considerate (to me) because you’re explaining why you’re asking the question beforehand. Oh, and bonus points that you even know that fact about culture.

3. "Hey, I was wondering if you could tell me how you identify yourself."

Oh my gosh. Yes. I love this question.

Here’s why: You’re opening up the discussion for me to tell you how I choose to identify myself. I’ll probably hug you then tell you, "I’m adopted and identify as a Caucasian person. However, I was born in China."

These are questions that are respectful and courteous. They don’t make me the object of your curiosity. They remind both of us that I’m a human.

Here’s the thing: I do want to talk about my identity. But the way you ask about it matters.

Some questions can come across as hurtful. But when you rephrase a question, you’ll have me hooked into the conversation right away. In fact, if I were asked any of the above questions, I’d probably give you a hug. I’d love to have a discussion about identities with you!

Please ask questions that are open-ended because they’ll give me an opportunity to share my cultural identity with you.

Even though I was adopted from China, I was not raised in traditional Chinese culture. I was raised right here in the United States by two European parents. So my reality and my identity are complicated. Give me the space to explain.

Now, who’s ready to chat?