opinion

"Let’s get this clear: I speak English. I can hear you."

Just in case you weren’t sure, I speak English. Fluently.

I was born in Sydney. I’ve lived in Australia my whole life. So yes, I understand everything you say in English.

But there are still people who assume that I don’t speak or understand the language. And I can only describe the feeling I get as a strange mix of disgust and humour.

“But you sound so Aussie!” What does that even mean? Image supplied

I was at Woolies yesterday and all I wanted were some tampons. I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the purchase. I was tired and I was in pain. But they were on sale so that made me feel a little better.

There were two women standing in front of the section and I waited for them to move. When they did, I politely said “excuse me” and made my way.

I was crouched on the ground, trying to be thrifty and working out which brand was better value when I realised one of the women was standing above me.

And she said “hit me again”.

First of all, I didn’t hit her. I probably brushed up against her, but I didn’t HIT her. Secondly, I was so ready to rip into her, thanks to all of the raging hormones.

But I just looked up at her and said “sorry?” with what was probably a bit of a bitch face.

And that’s when I realised she wasn’t looking for a fight. Her face said it all – her eyes became larger and she gasped a little. Her face literally screamed “shit. You speak English.” I knew at that moment that she had assumed I wouldn’t understand her.

As I walked away from her, I overheard her say to her friend “fuck. I didn’t think she spoke English.”

Shopping for tampon
All I wanted was to buy some tampons… Image via iStock
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But this isn’t the first time this has happened to me. It’s actually happened on a lot of occasions. People often walk passed me and say things like “stupid Asians” and when I respond to them or ask them if they are ok, they look at me in horror and walk away silently.

Once, a man at the Optometrist asked his wife “why is the Asian girl staring at me” in a pretty condescending tone, right in front of me. I’ll admit, I was daydreaming a little so I must’ve been staring in his direction. But why not ask ME why I was staring at him?

I responded for his wife and let him know that 1. I wasn’t staring at him and 2. next time, just ask me why I’m staring at him, because you know, I speak English.

He apologised and began explaining that he didn’t think I could understand him. Um…because if I didn’t understand him, it would be ok?

The number of times people have been genuinely shocked by the fact that I can speak English just amuses me. How am I so good at English? Where did I learn? Do I communicate with my parents in English or Korean?

And my all-time favourite, “But you sound so Aussie!” as if coming from an Asian background, EVEN IF I was born here, automatically disqualifies me from sounding “Aussie” (whatever that even means).

Harnsle and her parents. Image supplied

Let’s get one thing straight though. Even if I were an international student or had newly immigrated to Australia, I would still be able to understand you. Most Asian countries teach English to their students from primary school so chances are, they just choose not to engage with you.

These days, when I speak Korean, I have to assume everyone can understand me because so many people learn and speak the language.

And that’s the society we live in – one that is so multicultural that languages really pose no barriers anymore. So to think that some people still assume that Asian equals no English is just wrong. There’s no other word to describe it.

So let’s get this clear: I speak English. Hell, my parents even went to uni here. So if you ever have a burning desire to threaten me or insult me, mean it and direct it at me. Don’t presume I don’t speak English.

Because if you’re betting your chances on me not understanding you, you are SO wrong.

Read more:

Charlie Pickering: “I know nothing about racism in Australia”.

Was Benedict Cumberbatch’s comment racist?

FLUFF: Kim Kardashian has solved racism.

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