If I got one pound for each time that someone said “xièxie” to me, I would have enough money to travel around China. There I would try the food in all 34 provinces and regions as well as learn to say in as many dialects as possible that I am not Chinese. Well, I am not sure if the language learning would help, but I really hope people would stop stereotyping me. I’ve received my fair share of xièxie”, and I am actually not Chinese.
I was born and raised in Vietnam by a Vietnamese mother and a Vietnamese father. My father and I are so much alike that there is hardly any room for scepticism. My passport says I am a Vietnamese citizen and in my heart, I am proud to be one.
I don’t like it when people just presumed that I was Chinese without any fact-checking. It is not that I am going around, speaking Chinese to people, and confusing them. I don’t speak Chinese, and I speak English with an accent that is not remotely similar to the stereotype of Chinglish, joking aside. All the same, many would just “xièxie” me.
The other day, I was standing by the beer aisle at a supermarket and considering whether I should break up a pack of six bottles or not. A helpful staff approached me and offered help. In plain English, he told me that it was possible to break a full pack if I only wanted one. We talked on for a minute then he helped me take down two bottles. I thanked him in Dutch (dank je well). In reply, he said: “xièxie”. Here we go: I am on Modern Family again.
Before you accuse me of doing the same thing that I am ranting about, let me give the conversation more of a context. We were in Amsterdam and inside a Dutch supermarket, not an M&S or a Chinese equivalent (which I can’t tell you a name because I am not Chinese). All staff speaks Dutch at the counter when you pay unless you struggle to understand them then they kindly switch to English. Thus, Dutch is the norm and Chinese is not, yet somehow he thought it’s appropriate to speak Chinese to me.
Did he think that I look Chinese? I have dark brown eyes and jet-black hair, which are the features more commonly found among Asians than Europeans. But they don’t make me Chinese. By the look, I can even pass for being a Filipino or someone from North Korea and fail for being a Vietnamese at the same time. I look more like my friend, Asel’ Kadrykhanova, from Kazakhstan than a Vietnamese colleague whose hometown is 100-km away from mine.
So, I am spelling it out: there is no one typical look for being Asian, being Chinese or even being Vietnamese. Do you know how big China is? I looked it up. It’s 3,700,000 square miles, only 200,000 square miles smaller than the whole Europe continent. Mandarin and Cantonese are the two widely spoken languages, but there are arguably about 200 dialects. I just found out yesterday that even Cantonese speakers don’t say “xièxie” though they understand it perfectly fine.
And do you know how big Asia is? Here is a hint: it’s bigger than China.
In the case of Vietnam, we are a pretty small country if you compare us with China. Regardless, we have 54 ethnic groups who sprawl all over a land roughly one thousand miles from the northern border with China to the southern coast line . Even us Vietnamese don’t all look the same.
I know an Italian guy who lived and worked in Vietnam for years. He spoke Vietnamese fluently and called himself half Vietnamese. So that is the identity he chooses, not the one he was born with. You probably know one or two people like him too, I reckon. The world that we are living in is getting more and more diverse because boundaries are being taken down one by one. It is easier than ever to choose where you want to live and who you want to be.
I want to tell you a bit more about myself: I am Vietnamese as you already know, and my partner comes from England. We like to move around, but currently we live in Amsterdam. Let’s say we settle in this beautiful lowland and have a baby girl. Who will she be: Vietnamese, English or Dutch? When she grows up, she might fall in love with China because of a Chinese boy or some delicious Chinese food, who knows. If one day, she decides to call herself Chinese, I would have to be ok with it. I don’t know how much Chinese an English-Vietnamese mixed race girl would look to you but you definitely could say “xièxie” to her then. I wouldn’t be offended because that would be her choice.
People choose their identity. Some stay with what they were given by their parents while many others would adopt different identities throughout their life. Whatever it is, it’s their choice to be made. Perhaps I do have a Chinese look if there was such a thing, but that is not at all the identity I choose and want to be associated with. Let me speak out first before you try to tell my story on my behalf.
If you want to thank me for anything, here is a list of options. You can use the universal language: a friendly smile. You can also speak to me in your mother tongue. I am sure I can tell a genuine “thank-you” in Arabic or Portuguese even though I don’t speak those languages. Besides, English is always good whichever accents you have. If you determine to thank me in my mother tongue, could you mind asking about my origin first? The word “xièxie” is probably much more widely—known than the word “cam on” (which is “thanks” in Vietnamese). So if you only know the former, but not the latter, it is ok. There is no need to push. It would be sweet to hear “cam on”, but a smile would do the job perfectly well.
Now I have spoken out, please stop saying “xièxie” to me or any stranger who you think might have a Chinese look, again if such a thing even existed.