How many ways do you know how to say “How are you?”
I know someone who can say it in, I don’t know, 30 languages? Impressive, no?
When I hosted him for a week as an overseas guest, the first thing he would say to any service staff we encountered was “How are you?” in their native language.
A Chinese yum cha waitress was chuffed, a Vietnamese waitress rolled her eyes and stifled a sneer, and a Burmese restaurateur asked him a question in return, only to be met with a blank look because “How are you?” were literally the only Burmese words he knew.
He thought he was being woke and I thought he was being an annoying show-off. It was a long week.
Before you think I’m unnecessarily harsh or that I think everybody should stop trying to learn foreign languages, let me come back to this further down the piece, because I want to first talk about the reactions to what, on the surface, seems to be a benevolent, culturally-aware gesture.
The reason is that these three different responses are broadly representative of the comments I see online whenever public exercises in cultural wokeness go awry, as in these instances –
- The New York Times shares a video of Singaporean Chicken Curry which bears exactly zero resemblance to chicken curry as Singaporeans know it (https://www.8days.sg/eatanddrink/newsandreviews/uncle-roger-new-york-times-singaporean-chicken-curry-15499278)
- Sydney City Council commissions Chinese New Year displays to help revive Chinatown’s lagging fortunes and the artist decides to go with blue and white-themed decorations — colours associated with illness and death in Chinese culture (https://www.sbs.com.au/chinese/english/like-a-funeral-anger-over-colours-used-to-mark-lunar-new-year-in-sydney-s-chinatown)
- The University of Toronto celebrates Chinese New Year by giving out Ang Paus (red packets with money which your parents and elders hand out to unmarried kids during the festival) except they contain “Hell Money” — what the Chinese burn as offerings at funerals (according to a post on Facebook, this also happened in a primary school here in Australia) (https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/02/04/u-of-t-apologizes-after-giving-hell-money-to-students-for-lunar-new-year.html?)
So, to the woke bureaucrat, this is what you can expect as far as social media reactions next time you stuff up –