If You’re Talking About Me, I Don’t Want To Know

*We interrupt London recaps and training banter so that I can have an Expat Moment.  I don’t have too many of these, but I’ve experienced a weird situation several times recently, and it’s been bugging me, so I’d like to get it off my chest.

First, a little background: There is a Singlish term used out here to refer to a Caucasian: ang moh.  The literal translation of the Mandarin is “red hair”, although the phrase is now used to refer to any Caucasians, regardless of hair color.  [Some of the first Caucasians in this part of the world were merchant sailors – many were Dutch – some Dutch people have red hair.]  I’ve heard the term described as a “racial epithet” – and while I won’t pretend to understand every nuance or subtlety in its meaning, I can assure the Americans reading that “ang moh” is nowhere near as powerful and charged a word as some racial epithets in the US.

For example, I will refer to myself as an ang moh in conversation with locals, and use the term as an adjective to describe my “ang moh hair”, or an “ang moh habit”.  So although I don’t usually hear friends or family refer to me this way (which makes sense, since they, you know, call me by my name), “ang moh” is not a taboo term.

Singapore, here’s the thing: This is just a friendly reminder that I, and I’m sure many other ang mohs in Singapore (even those who didn’t marry into a Singaporean family), know the phrase.  I can even pick it out in a flood of Mandarin, “xxxxxxANG MOHxxxxxxx,” – plain as day.  So when I’m out by myself at Sheng Siong, or the kopitiam, or on the MRT platform in Bedok (all places where there’s a high probability that I’m the only Caucasian around), and you and I have a casual interaction – then you turn to your friend and say something in Mandarin that includes the words “ang moh” – I can pick that out as clearly as if you said my name.  And in this context, I’m pretty sure that you are talking about me, and/or Caucasians in general.

And honestly?  I walk away feeling kind of icky.  It turns out that I don’t like being the subject of a discussion being held right under my nose, in a language I don’t really know, and loudly enough for others nearby to hear (in a language many of them understand).

I’m not sure what I was doing that was so notable.  Yesterday, I was paying for my groceries, exchanging receipts with the cashier.  As I gathered my bags to go, the person behind me in line said, “(Something) ANG MOH (lots more Mandarin I couldn’t understand),” then she and the cashier laughed and looked at me.  I didn’t find my soda water, yogurt, and watermelon to be so hilarious…

And today, in the MRT station?  When I stepped out of the bathroom stall?  I’d just finished a workout with a client – so first I peed, then I changed into a dry, better-smelling shirt for the ride home on the subway.  This seemed, you know, courteous.  But wrangling off a sweaty shirt and sports bra, and into dry replacements in a small stall, took a minute or two.  So as I stepped out and and an auntie barged in past me, calling to her friend in the next stall, “ANG MOH (something something something in Mandarin),” what came after didn’t leave much to my imagination.  Auntie, I am sorry if my extra minute caused you discomfort or inconvenience.

Am I being too sensitive?  Probably.  Am I unaccustomed to being the “foreigner”?  Perhaps.  But the idea of being discussed – and knowing I’m being discussed – right under my nose, annoys me.  I’ve been trying to figure out what, exactly, bothers me.   I have no doubt that people talk about me behind my back.  But I like who I am, and feel pretty comfortable in my own skin, thanks to some tough lessons learned during middle/high school.  Instead, I think that what bothers me is the fact that these folks don’t consider that I might have some idea of what they are saying.

So I suppose my request is this: If you want to talk about me in Mandarin (or any other language), maybe you could you refer to me as “that sweaty girl in the red shirt” or “the woman in the purple dress”?  There’s a much greater chance I won’t know that you’re talking about me.  Although…on second thought…I intend to learn enough Mandarin that I know those phrases, too.  So maybe instead, just lower your voice?  Or wait until I walk away?  At least then, I won’t know what’s happening.  Thanks.

And in the meantime, I’m going to have KMN teach me something I can say in these situations.  Probably along the lines of, “Excuse me, but I do speak some Mandarin.”  That should give the person pause.  🙂

[I should note that this is a lesson for us all, myself included.  In the 21st century, lots of people speak lots of different languages.  Be careful what assumptions you make.  My husband is more good-natured about this kind of thing than I am, but it’s pretty ignorant of an American to tell him, “Wow.  Your English is REALLY good!”  Especially when the person who made the comment has no idea where KMN grew up.]

Put yourself in my position: A foreigner living in a country where it is absolutely obvious that you are not native.  What do you do when you know someone is talking about you in a language you don’t really speak?

A. Shut up and walk away
B. Respond in English
C. Learn and use a snappy Mandarin response
D. None of the above.  Instead, I would ___________________________________.

 

32 thoughts on “If You’re Talking About Me, I Don’t Want To Know

  1. Mark

    Hi Holly!

    This made me laugh a little, because when I end up getting the gist of what people are saying about me (us) in Europe, it’s usually that they are surprised that an American can actually be considerate, respectful of their culture, quiet, and not the “ugly American” they thought we all are. That and the fact that there are rude people all over the world, and sometimes we hear what they say about us in English as well, but mostly we don’t, leaves me to say let them say what they want, and assume the best.

    I have to admit, I do blend in a little better in Europe, and have been quessed as a Greek, Spanish, Italian, English….and my favorite once I speak English, Canadian. Ahhh, the world is a funny place…

    Mark

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Interestingly, I’m most often identified as British (there are lots more Brits here than Americans here – also more French and Germans than Americans). Apparently, lots of Singaporeans have trouble differentiating the two accents (?). So I don’t think I’m shaking the “ugly American” stereotype – which also isn’t as prevalent here as it is in Europe.

      Truly, they’re most likely remarking about something mundane (or perhaps complaining about how long I took in the bathroom stall) – and I shouldn’t care. And the men in my life (KMN, my Dad, you) all seem to advocate for this approach. I am working to channel you all. And, OK, maybe learn a an off-hand comment to make in Mandarin, too. 😉

      Reply
  2. Nicole Pulcino

    I was on the bus our last weekend in Boston and a group of three people came on speaking Italian. When I hear Italian being spoken I try to listen in, not to eavesdrop but to see how much I can still understand a decade later. I understood enough after the ‘Americani’ and the laughter to know some, perhaps good-natured ribbing was being done (I say good-natured due to the tone of the conversation and topics). But it was annoying to hear them do so in front of the people they were teasing assuming no-one would understand (particularly since we were in Cambridge and Harvard Square, land of many languages). I dealt with it by saying ‘Scusi, ci vediamo’ as I exited the bus past them (excuse me, see you later). Perhaps Kee-Min can teach you how to say nice seeing you as you walk away in Mandarin.

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      I think I feel largely the way you do – mostly, it’s harmless – but it is a little inconsiderate. And “Nice seeing you” might be even better than “I do speak some Mandarin.” Just to keep everyone guessing… =)

      PS Say hi to that adorable pup of yours. 😉

      Reply
  3. Meg

    When I was in Thailand, I went the route of “Excuse me, are you talking about me?” when people I was working with were talking “xxx farang xxx” (Farang = guava, or white foreigner, depending on context). They were, of course, talking about extracting natural products from the leaves of a guava tree. Oops!

    Usually when I hear someone talk about me and I speak the language, I either listen (my German is good enough to understand more) or I smile and say something along the lines of “Hi, I speak a little ___ (language)” to them (in their language). Usually it stops, possibly because they find my bad pronunciation so amusing. 🙂 So I’d go with “Excuse me, I do speak some Mandarin.”

    Reply
  4. Amy

    Ah, the life of an expat. First, I have to say that I am so confused, though because ang moh sounds more SE Asian and it is not a word used in standard Mandarin. Hong Toufa 红头发 is red hair in the Mandarin I know.

    In China, it was Laowai (old foreigner) or Waiguoren (foreign country person) that I heard all the time walking down the street. Even down the same street where I had lived for nearly two years, the same people would actually call it out to me day after day. I would learn different responses and sometimes it embarrassed people when they thought they were caught talking about me, but for the most part, talking about people is just something that they do and they have no shame in it. I guess I learned to wear headphones and not listen to people and I just had to let it not bother me or else it would drive me nuts.

    And, for the record, my treadmill run was an awesome 6.5 miles and the calzones were fantastic!

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Hm. I know that “ang” is used for “red” in Singapore. [Red packets for Chinese New Year are called “ang bao”.] I’ve been told, frequently, that “moh” means hair, and I’m quite sure it’s Mandarin. But the truth is that Singapore is a real melting pot when it comes to languages, Bahasa Malayu and Hokkien, and maybe a bit of other things as well, all eeek their way into functional Singlish. So it’s possible that “moh” comes from a dialect. It’s complicated…

      Wow. Calling out to you every day is quite a lot more overt than what I describe and experience in Singapore. If I were you, I’d probably be wearing my headphones a lot more often.

      Reply
      1. Karen@ La Chanson de Ma Vie

        This is kinda what I do. I recently took a trip to the Alps and often came across people that talked about my husband and I after they heard us speaking English. Just because we’re speaking English doesn’t mean I don’t understand your asshole commentary in French. I usually look at them, listen, and smile and nod along with their conversation to show my understanding. Usually it stops.

        Reply
        1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

          Hi Karen! Thanks for stopping by – and your experience/input. Argh – your situation is even more annoying, I think – if you can actually understand what they are saying. At this point, I can be quite sure that I’m being talked about, but can only speculate about what’s being said. I think that’s good? Or not, I’m not really sure, actually.

          Anyway, I think next time you should turn to them and say something in French. 🙂

          Reply
  5. Kristen L

    That is frustrating — i think the suggestion of “I do speak some Mandarin” might work. Otherwise, keep teaching yourself to laugh it off…. people often like to talk and complain, no matter what its about.

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      That is definitely the truth. I have just been reminding myself that people talking about other people probably occurs in every culture and language. That helps (somewhat, sometimes….). 🙂

      Reply
  6. Allison

    I have a different response….turn around and kick ‘um in the shins! Although, that may get you into trouble.
    I don’t think you are being over sensitive. It would hurt my feelings and make me mad.

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Hehehe. It’s amazing, though, how suddenly being a minority changes your (or at least my) perspective. Things that I might have spoken up about in the US, I now keep my mouth shut about (sometimes). I’m much more aware of sticking out, and try very hard not to be the obnoxious, arrogant American – especially since there are certain American habits and traits that don’t elicit a very positive response from Asians, in general (for example, being too blunt or forward). Shin kicking would probably fall into that category. Either that, or they’d try to recruit me for the their futbol (soccer) team!

      Reply
  7. greengirlrunning

    I like Cecilia’s suggestion to start laughing with them! That’s what I tell my 9 yr old to do when kids tease him. Start laughing, but in a sort of over the top way, then stop abruptly 🙂

    I get it though… I’m half Japanese but did not grow up with any Japanese culture in my life, yet I’ve had so many people assume that “I must really like sushi” or that I speak Japanese. I’ve also had people assume I was my kids’ nanny. That was awesome. But, you know what they say about people who ASSume…! 😉

    Reply
  8. Logan @ Mountains and Miles

    This used to happen to me all the time when I lived in Tanzania for about a month. It was awful, mostly because I actually was one of maybe 5 white people in the entire town. I would walk down the street and people would just laugh and point. It was horrible. At the beginning I was very good spirited about it, but the entire experience was very trying and by the end, it really started to drain me. Normally I would just smile and nod.

    I can totally relate to the frustration. Any thoughts about taking some Mandarin classes? My friend lived in China for a few years and learned it…she tried to teach me once it was SO HARD.

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      I think the more “minor” you are, the harder it is – at least here, it’s not like seeing a white person is a huge spectacle. They (we?) are all over. However, I do tend to frequent the less “expat” areas, so I’m often the only ang moh in sight.

      I’m learning via Podcast right now – I haven’t yet looked for classes, but the Podcasts are cheap, and I can listen to them repeatedly, which is really important to help me learn pronunciation. Then, I practice a little with KMN and other willing friends. But eventually, I’ll probably need a class, or at least conversation partner. Some parts (like pronunciation, and the fact that it isn’t especially phonetic) are really hard. But some parts are easy: No verb conjugation! No use of the word “the”! Lots of gender-neutral words!

      Reply
  9. Jules

    Hmm, I’d probably ignore unless I knew for sure they were saying something bad, which in that case I would comment in English making it clear I understand what they are saying.

    Thing about Chinese peeps is that they just like commenting on people. I’m sure you know this – they have no probs with commenting on really personal things directly to someone’s face. I doubt therefore that they are saying anything malicious, more just saying things out of general boredom and just to have something to say? They’d probably say the same thing to you in English and not bother about the appropriateness of it (but that’s another topic).

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Lots of truth here. It’s funny – I think Chinese people are generally pretty formal and reserved, but yet they will openly and willingly talk about their health (or yours), or that state of your uterus, or your prospects for marriage, openly and obviously, without any shame or thought toward privacy. This has taken some reconsideration and skin-thickening on my part to get used to. 🙂

      Reply
  10. Meagan

    Ugh that would really bother me. But I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like when other people look at me for longer than the polite 2-3 seconds (anything more than that is staring if I don’t know you). If I were in your situation, I would learn a phrase from KMN to tell them you understand a bit of mandarin. I think it’s rude to talk about anyone when they are still in earshot (especially in another language, thinking the person they’re talking about won’t understand). But that may be a cultural thing. Maybe it’s normal in the Asian culture to comment about people?

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      As Jules points out (one comment up), people do tend to feel completely comfortable talking about personal things (theirs and yours), like health and medical exams. But I still don’t think they would say (in English), “Hey, it was a white girl in the bathroom! Why do you think she took so long? What do white people DO in there?” So (I could be wrong), but I think that they were talking ABOUT me in another language simply because they assumed I wouldn’t understand. Just so happens that I understand just enough to know I’m a topic of conversation – just not much else!

      Reply
  11. Debbie @ Deb Runs

    Have your husband teach you to say, Well, that was certainly rude.” Then you can say it, toss your head, and walk away! That would really give them reason to pause, unless of course they had just said, “That ANG MOH has beautiful eyes.” 😉

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Hehehe. When I was getting my hair cut the other day, the auntie with the next appointment started talking to my hairdresser about me, in Hokkien (Chinese dialect). I thought they might be talking about me, but wasn’t sure – until my hairdresser volunteered to translate, and said her next client asked what kind of dye I used in my hair, since it was so soft. [I have zero problem having a conversation through a translator; this happens pretty often and is totally OK with me.]

      But lots of people understand some English, even if they prefer another language. So my reply (which you will now mostly understand): “Wah…sorry auntie, ang moh hair just like dat, one.” 🙂

      Reply
  12. Sheila

    That’s a tough one! I think the best part about this whole thing was your response – “I think I’m going to learn enough Mandarin to be able to respond” – that right there is probably the best way to manage the situation. 🙂

    Reply
  13. Jean

    I would LOVE to turn it around by responding to them in their language, but similar things happened to me when I lived in Chile and I never mustered up the courage to say anything. I kept quiet, but I don’t know that that was the best response because it made me feel lame and meek (not that you should!). And no, I don’t think you’re being overly sensitive at all.

    I’d honestly never respond in English. I feel like that would result in a smug, “I told you so” look between them.

    Reply
    1. Holly @ Run With Holly Post author

      Well, lame and meek is how my approach (just walking away) makes me feel; that’s probably a lot of the reason it makes me feel “icky”. But then I wonder…Do I just feel a compulsive need to get in “the last word”???

      Reply

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