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January 18, 2010 / Katie

Honey, Why You No Like?

In the movie Saving Face, a Chinese American woman struggles with her identity as a lesbian and how to reveal this fact to her mother. Homosexuality, among many other issues like mental illness and interracial marriage, is a traditionally taboo topic in Chinese culture. Even when the truth is known, it’s usually never discussed or openly acknowledged.

Cultural taboos aside, there is one scene from the movie that has always stuck with me. The mother goes into a video rental shop looking for a specific movie and asks the clerk at the register if they have it. She asks in Chinese. Of course, the clerk doesn’t understand her and they continue to have a seemingly mutually incomprehensible conversation that quickly escalates into shouts of frustration. The audience knows, however, that the mother can speak English, only for some strange reason she chooses to behave as if she didn’t, like a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant.

Personally, I found this scene baffling and almost ridiculous. I wanted to shout at the mother, “Why don’t you just speak English?!” It would make her life and the clerk’s life so much easier. Why would she want to pretend to be something she wasn’t and feed into the misinformed assumptions Americans make about immigrants?

Since living in Chinatown, though, I’ve come to understand her tenuous position. I admit, with a bit of shame, that I’m guilty of the same behavior. I sometimes find it easier to play dumb and pretend I don’t know Chinese, both because people expect me not to understand and because it’s somehow less complicated for me to allow people to keep their assumptions intact.

Today I did some errands around the neighborhood and stopped into a nail salon to get the acrylics on my fingers removed. (Three weeks ago I made the mistake of saying yes to French tips at a Vietnamese nail salon, which I naively thought were painted on, not glued. “Honey, I fix it for you,” is a statement that should always be treated with suspicion.) It was a slow day at the salon, and while my fingers soaked in acetone, the woman helping me asked why I got acrylics in the first place. I explained to her in simple English how I had been duped. She relayed my account in Chinese to her coworker lying on the couch, who was lazily reading a magazine in wait for the next customer.

Then we hit a snag. In trying to separate the acrylic from my finger, she inadvertently ripped off half the nail. I saw the look on her face and then looked down to see the blood oozing out as the nail began to turn black with death. She reported this across the room, “我坏了,坏了,坏了.” I broke it. I’m surprised I didn’t faint at this point. But I somehow made it through the rest of the shaving, clipping, and filing she had to do to get rid of the acrylics.

When we were done she disinfected my exposed nail and covered it with a Band-Aid. She charged me $13. I gave her $14, not wanting to break the $20 bill I had in my wallet, and besides, SHE BROKE MY NAIL! I listened as she told her coworker how little I tipped her: “他给我太小的小费. 只一块,太小了.”

Feeling queasy and now ashamed for being a cheapskate, I got the hell out of there, vowing never to get acrylics ever again. The truth is I’m also queasy about speaking Chinese. I have some hang ups about overturning people’s expectations by speaking a language I spent three dedicated years of my life learning how to speak.

I wish someone could have yelled at me, “Why don’t you just speak Chinese?!”

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