*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 ___________________________________.