It’s not the N-word–Stop glaring at my son!

When NEIGE doesn’t mean NIGGA or *****

Nei-ge!” My son often yells in the store, at the restaurant, and even while waiting in line for something important.

Nei-ge! nei-ge! Neiiiiii-geeeee!!!” Everyone at the store has turned to stare at us at least once by now.

My husband’s angry. He’s self-conscious.

“Stop saying nei-ge!”

My son decides to ignore his dad. Baba is obviously in a bad mood.

“Mama! Nei-ge!” He points to something on the floor.

Nai-ge?” I ask in response. I have no idea what he’s yelling about.

Nei-ge!

Nai-ge?

Nei-ge!

People are giving us quizzical looks.

Nai-ge?

Nei-geeee!!” Exasperated by my apparent dullness, my son crouches down low and points at the metallic purple star-shaped decoration.

“Ahh! It’s a star! You found a star!”

So what is he saying?
…Did you guess what “nei-ge” means yet?

In Mandarin Chinese, “nei ge” means “that” or in this case, “that one”, to which I would ask my son “which one?”

Misplaced Anger
My son is only two and a half, but he gets dirty looks, even glares, whenever we go out in the States. He doesn’t know why people are treating him poorly, he doesn’t know why his father gets frustrated and won’t let him say the new word he learned a few months ago, or why he should refrain from speaking his second language in public at all.

An example of the plushie he saw

Once we were at TJ Maxx, reading a picture book near the cashiers. The picture book had animals in it. My son pointed at every single animal and said their name to me. Some animals he doesn’t know the name of, or he can’t say their name, so he says “nei-ge!” (That one!) By doing so, he elicits the name from me and learns.

On this particular trip, we were waiting for his daddy to pay for our purchases, so we remained in place while others passed us by.

Even I could feel daggers on my back when he pointed to a gorilla in the book and yelled, “Nei-ge!”

Not only does he not often see gorillas, but he was especially excited because there was a gorilla plushie on the shelf right above us.

Nei-ge! Nei-ge! Nei-ge!” he pointed to the the big black gorilla soft toy.

I saw an angry-looking African-American woman walk past us. She glared at both us, and even I told him to keep it down.

Then don’t teach it
Some have suggested we just don’t teach him this word, since he is bilingual and there is an English equivalent. There are two problems to this: one, we shouldn’t have to teach him to not say “that” when it’s just his toddler pronunciation and local racial sensitivities that make a Chinese word sound like a racial slur. Two, we didn’t actually teach him the word.

Nei-ge is also often used as a filler word, similar to “ummm” or “uhhh” in English. We use it habitually, not even noticing it until recently when we’ve tried to reduce its usage. Although we use it in conversation all the time, I haven’t noticed people glaring at us, so I think it’s just my son’s accent.

Daniel Tiger and friends

Less judgement
Unless we were Spanish speakers, I’m not sure why people would think we would teach a two-year-old to say n****. On second thought, if we were Spanish speakers, I’d be equally irritated with how sensitive Americans are in regard to race and racism.

Kids “call it what it is”. When my son watches Daniel Tiger, he points to the dark-skinned girl (Miss Elena) and describes her as “hei hei” (blackie, in Mandarin). That’s an observation. Would you rather he be color-blind? Please. Children before the age of four do not have the malice to other anyone and call them names.

Have you had a similar experience? Did you ever wonder about How “racist” Chinese kids are? How did you handle it?

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Complaining is the illusion of action; break the habit with simple mindfulness

Complaining is useless. Either act or forget it.

Complaining is a tough habit to break. You can suppress complaints by remaining silent, but your mind still screams complaints like a hungry caged bird shrieks for food.  If you give a complaint space in your mind, it multiplies like rats in a cage…until you’re facing combustion, compelled to find a snake to swallow them up for you.

That’s an outlet or release. That’s climbing a mountain so you can yell from it’s peak. Or driving to the ocean so you can drown your tears in its waves.  That’s paying for all you can sing karaoke so you can wear out your voice, screaming the lyrics of Linkin Park. Or buying a chocolate mousse cake and scarfing it down all by yourself.

I thought this cycle of complaints and release was a normal part of adulting, that it’s only to be expected. Everyone does it, right? It’s just a side effect from the disease of our society.  Back then, I leapt right on the patriotic retail therapy wagon, partied as hard as I worked in my 50+ hour work-weeks, and engaged in all the poor habits that experts say will shorten my life. I thought, hey, that’s life, right?

Question your “normal”

I was wrong. There exists a better way. It requires a lot of time, effort, and persistence to unlearn my concept of adulthood, but I knew as soon as I took a peek into its effects that one day I will thank myself.

That day is not today. It was also not yesterday when I spent the entire Monday grumpily complaining to customer service. I rode a rollercoaster of emotions: one minute hot and angry, next minute appeased and regretful. Yet, I know that with sustained practice, the day will come when I’ll successfully respond to each inconvenience, pet peeve, and disaster with only a wry smile.  It will come when  I learn to not just suppress my complaints (because that’s tyranny), not just dismiss my thoughts (because that’s discrimination), and not just embrace my anger by spitting flames at my opponents (because that’s violence).  If I just accept the complaint-thought and let it go, I won’t have any fire in me to release.

Treat a complaint like a frenemy

It’s like bumping into that acquaintance you don’t really like. You see them and hope they don’t see you–but of course they do. You even make eye contact! By now, you’re panicking in your head because you really don’t want to say “hi” or chitchat with them, but you think you should. You think you need to suggest lunch some time or invite them to a group outing. Ugh.

The truth is that you don’t have to be friendly at your own expense.  You can just acknowledge  them with a nod of your head, and maybe a small smile if you’re feeling kind. With that nod, you communicate: “I see you. I know you. Good day.” Then, you can both continue your way without feelong any guilt, anger, or anxiety. How cool is that?

Try it with an acquaintance next time you want to hide under a table, or try it with your thoughts next time a complaint bubbles up. Don’t let complaints fester and infect your mind, attitude, or behavior. Don’t walk away from an awkward conversation feeling less-than or annoyed because now you have to see “that person” again. Acknowledge, let go, and move on. No release necessary.

 

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Where does the name “Suotmaa” come from?

Americans, a diverse group of people brought together by land, dreams, and a love of freedom (the constitution), are very sensitive to remarks on their race, ethnic heritage, or any question that undermines their national identity. When polite, they’ll refrain from asking you any questions, but sometimes they just have to know–you know? So they’ll covertly ask you about your name (unless you’re John Smith, in which case you’re just British) to find out your ethnicity, where you’re really from.

My name is Finnish

My Finnish dad told me that when he studied in the States, his name was always butchered. At some point, his name, Juha Suotmaa, was completely Americanized to “John Southman”. I have not had such an experience (yet), but that’s because my first name is generic enough for people to just drop my surname.

The Finnish language is not well known in the world and thus most cannot identify a Finnish word when they see it. It’s not a Constanza, Wu, Nhi, or Park. Often, people will look at my name, look at me, and guess Filipina, Malaysian, or even South American. They would never guess American, Taiwanese (Chinese), or Finnish.

Granted, our family name was not always Suotmaa. Before my grandfather had changed it, we belonged to the Suominen family tree. Although I don’t know the reasons behind the change, I do not mind our branching off, for to me our unique name signifies the rooting of a new family tree.

I could’ve been a Wang

Perhaps that’s also why I have yet to change my name after almost a decade of marriage. When we were married, I was still in college and feared all the paperwork the name change required. I worried it might postpone graduation, or that I wouldn’t receive my diploma in time. Since my husband is Chinese, he didn’t seem to mind that I kept my own name (it was barely a conversation), and every time I’ve brought it up he’s said I should just keep my unique name.

Today, I brand myself with my father’s name when just a few years ago I longed to blend in as “Jessica Wang”. Fitting in was one of the reasons I chose to study in California (when most of my friends went to England). I was tired of heads turning when I walked into a room, of random people speaking a random Asian language to me and expecting me to understand, and of having to explain my family background to every confused gaze. I thought, for sure, I wouldn’t ever have to do so among California’s diverse population.

Of course this was not entirely the case. Clearly, my childhood memories were rose-tinted. In college, I first ended up in international circles, and then befriended locals after I transferred to Los Angeles. I was a third culture child (TCK) disguised as an American born Chinese (ABC), an identity I perpetuated after we moved to Beijing in 2012.

When labels matter

In China, I learned that ABCs are a dime a dozen (just like in California), and most of them felt insecure, disrespected, and inadequate compared to the white expat “foreigners”. For many Chinese, foreigners have to look different to be foreign, and anyone of Chinese descent, regardless of upbringing, is simply an overseas Chinese person (huaqiao). Hence, my husband’s elevator pitch for me has always included: “she’s half-white. Her mother’s from Taiwan.” Years later, it finally dawned on me that my Chengdu-born husband was selling me better than I had been. He had understood what was unique about my brand, about me, better than I had.

Today, we might be back in Los Angeles, but I’m no longer pretending to be someone I’m not. I have no reason to blend in, and I don’t worry about what others might perceive me to be. When someone alludes to my heritage, I play dumb and keep them guessing. If you want to find out where I’m from, where I got my name, or who I am, just ask me. I don’t bite.

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