This afternoon, when I was walking towards the little convenience store downstairs, I passed a man who said something to me. I didn't quite catch it, but it seemed non-threatening, so I mumbled "Hi" and went into the store. As I was contemplating what I wanted for a snack, the man came back in. He said that he'd said "Hi" to me in Chinese (he didn't specify a dialect), but realized that my face wasn't Chinese, it was Korean, and he wanted to apologize for the mistake.
I automatically kicked into Small Talk Conversation #18 ("you know, it's funny, about half the time people think I'm Japanese, and the other half Korean; yes, I was born in Korea but came to the U.S. as an infant when I was adopted; no, I don't speak the language."), and then he went away and I bought my snack and went back to my office.
Being greeted in an East Asian language happens to me, oh, every year or so. It always makes me rather uncomfortable, but for some reason it wasn't until today that I really pinned down why:
It's a manifestation of one of the two major stereotypes attached to people of Asian descent in the U.S., namely "foreigner." (The other is "the model minority.") I wasn't wearing anything more exotic than a business-casual short-sleeved shirt and skirt, I hadn't spoken, I wasn't with a tourist group . . . in short, there was absolutely no reason to think that I was something other than your average native-born U.S. citizen who only speaks English and maybe high-school Spanish. If I'd been a redhead, he wouldn't have greeted me in Gaelic, or if I'd been black, he wouldn't have said hello in Amharic or Swahili or whatever. But because I was Asian in appearance, he assumed he knew something about my cultural and linguistic status.
I'm not precisely offended. He was obviously trying to be friendly, and probably thought he was being culturally sensitive as well. (I was considerably more vexed when an opponent in a case, a pro se prisoner, called me by my first name in legal documents.) But Small Talk Conversation #19 is "I'm lucky, being Asian on the East Coast, at least, is much easier than being black, I've hardly ever had problems." And this is true. (A couple comments in high school, but they wouldn't have liked me anyway; two behind-my-back utterances as I was walking down New York City streets that I found disturbing, but that didn't go beyond that.) But not having problems isn't the same as not having felt the effects of racial discrimination, and now I've found a way that I have.