Mistaken Identity


Today, I received a call from a call centre. I hate those, don’t you? We are supposed to be on a no-call list too.

The interesting thing is the call was not from India, but most likely from China. How can I be so sure? Because the caller spoke in Mandarin.

Now I can’t really speak Mandarin but I did learn a little and can tell if it is Mandarin or another Chinese dialect.

Why would they have called me? Why would they have assumed I’d know Mandarin? I’m not Chinese.

But wait. I am. I’m partly Chinese. I also have a Chinese surname – my maiden name, though when I eventually take my husband’s name, it will still be Chinese.

When election time comes around, I’ve received letters from local members trying to win my vote. The thing that gets my goat is when they send me letters both written in English and Chinese. I can’t read the language. They have assumed, because of my surname, that I am Chinese and that I can probably read the language.

I sometimes forget that people assume I’m Chinese purely from seeing my name. I have lived with that name for so long it’s just a natural part of me, part of my identity.

I forget that society still classifies or categorises people often by simple information such as looks, name, birth place, accent. Heck, I’ve done it too, sometimes without thinking. I’ve been surprised when a “Chang” I’ve spoken to on the phone turns out to be Caucasian, or a “Smith” turns out to be Chinese.

I think about my kids and how society is going to categorise them. I think about my nephews and nieces, some with fair hair and blue eyes named “Wong”, and wonder how society is going to categorise them. I recall my mother and how people assumed she was Chinese after taking my father’s surname.

People seem to need to categorise, even if there is no malicious or racist intent. It’s hard not to ignore someone who seems different. Even I have chosen to categorise myself, though my ethnicity does not fall into one of the common categories. I am very comfortable in my identity as a Eurasian person, a person of mixed heritage, or Hapa. I am both Chinese and Caucasian (of English and Irish heritage), and I am very comfortable in my skin.

I am not sure we can be “colour-blind” in this world. However, we should not be prejudiced or attach negative or derogatory values to difference, especially physical difference. In acknowledging or recognising difference, I hope we can learn to appreciate it and understand that people are, essentially, at the core of their beings, all the same. Just like Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder sang in Ebony and Ivory:

“We All Know That People Are The Same Where Ever We Go
There Is Good And Bad In Ev’ryone,
We Learn To Live, We Learn To Give
Each Other What We Need To Survive Together Alive.”

I’m a strong believer in choosing one’s own identity. I hope my children, nieces, nephews and all other people of mixed ethnicities will not feel they have to hide or conform to suit the main stereotypical categorisations of society. Rather, I hope they will feel the freedom to choose and celebrate their full heritage, much like the children profiled in Kip Fulbeck’s work, Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids (This site requires Flash, which won’t work on some mobile devices, so you might want to check the book out on Amazon instead).

Have you ever suffered from a case of mistaken identity based on something unique about you? What thoughts do you have about your identity or point of difference, whether it be about your ethnicity or looks or anything else?


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21 thoughts on “Mistaken Identity

  1. That’s happen to me, too, where a telemarketer will call and start speaking in Chinese. I know some basics, but I’m not quite conversational and definitely not fluent. So I just interrupt and tell them, “I don’t speak Chinese” and they say, “Sorry” and hang up.

    • I can relate, Kristyn. I am aware that there is an expectation if you look Chinese, that you should speak the language. I even had people speak to me in Chinese. I do understand some but had to reply in English but that wasn’t always helpful. Especially at the markets. I often wondered whether I should have learnt Malay to get by in those situations. It would have been easier!

  2. Just because I am bald, have many wrinkles have a grey beard and have been known to say “cool” and “far out” some people think I am old!

    What up wid dat?

    Cranky um er Seasoned Man

  3. Uh telemarketers! I hate stereotyping in general. I don’t speak another language and have an anglo surname so don’t get anything like what you’ve described-however what I haste is when people assumed that because my children have a hyphenated surname than I do too-especially when my NON hyphenated surname is right there on their paperwork. is it THAT hard to actually look? I also used to hate it when ppl assumed I was Mrs (my ex’s surname) bc we were in a relationship. And I hate being addressed as “Mrs G-M’ more than anything in the world, when I am “Ms G’. Grrr.

    Sorry for the rant-I should actually blog about this!

    • Jayne, I can tell this has annoyed you greatly! Feel free to rant anytime in a comment. πŸ™‚ My hubby get’s mistaken with my surname in many situations because I haven’t changed mine over (probably will eventually). Or else people put a Mrs in front on my surname which is totally incorrect too. Something I found initially surprising when I gave birth to my girls was that they were to be called “Baby W” using my surname until we had named them. I had always assumed they would always, from day dot, be called “Baby C”. I can see the merits though of matching us up. I’d had to be given the wrong baby. Worse still, I’d hate to have my baby given to the wrong mother!

  4. Hey Hey Hey! Enough with the telemarketers! :-p
    I was a telemarketer once! Only for a few weeks and I hated it! But I had to pay the bills, and studies in psych are not cheap! I coped a lot of abuse! And I have to say, although I don’t like to receive calls from telemarketers either, I feel for them and if I have the time and it’s a survey, then I’ll answer their questions. They are only trying to make a living. If they are trying to sell me something though, I will politely decline. The bit I can’t stand is when they insist after you’ve said no! That REALLY irritates me!

    Anyway, your post was not about telemarketers.

    Mistaken identity. We all do it don’t we? It’s almost unavoidable. I guess as long as we don’t use it to discriminate, there is no harm done. I have a friend who regularly gets asked if she is the nanny because she is chinese and married to a caucasian guy and their kids are blond! She laughs it off though.

    I like to think that I am raising my kids to be accepting of everyone – or at least to not reject someone because of their culture, race or religion. Interesting point you’ve just brought up. I’m just wondering too, whether as parents we pass on some of our prejudices without meaning to. Much the same as we would passing on a phobia?

    • Glad to have given you a window to get the rant about telemarketers off your chest, Anna. πŸ™‚

      I know and have read of quite a few either mixed people or people in mixed marriages who experience what your friend did or similar. Some get quite angry and offended, others play around with it and yet others, like your friend, laugh it off. If people question me about my heritage, I tend to play around with them. For example, Them: “Where are you from; what is your background?”. Me: “Australia/Australian”.

      As to passing on prejudices, I guess I have to say, my prejudice is that my girls would embrace all their heritage. I suspect they are likely to be boxed in as “Chinese” but the question is whether they will choose to identify as Chinese only or all of who they are. If they say, Chinese, I’ll have to accept that is their choice too.

  5. I hadn’t considered this aspect of social assumptions before – so thank you for a wonderful insight into your experiences. I can relate to similar assumptions. I was born in Indonesia to Australian/caucasian parents who just happened to be working there at the time. So every form I fill out as an adult asks me where I was born and then proceeds to assume that I may need an interpreter. Small, I know. But then there’s the times where these assumptions have been humourous… like when I was waiting for a check-up at my maternity hospital whilst pregnant with my 1st, and some official person called me name, I answered yes, and they looked at me quizzically and said “but you’re not Indonesian!??” – and it turns out they were doing a study on Indonesian babies and thought they had landed a jackpot with me. And once I waited outside a job interview room waiting to be called for half an hour, the interviewer kept walking out looking for someone, then walked back into his office. Finally he said, “we’re just waiting for an Indonesian lady, and then you’re next.” Turns out I WAS that “Indonesian lady”. πŸ˜‰

    • I had to smile with your stories, Deb. It was obvious who you felt you were so I can see not only were they surprised that you weren’t who they thought an Indonesian should be, but so were you surprised they thought you were; all because of that one piece of information. I do wonder who they were looking for though. I have friends from Indonesia and it’s a bit like Malaysia where there are the local/native Indonesians (bumiputras in Malaysia) but there is also a large population of Chinese immigrants who are also Indonesian nationals. Did they expect you to be one or the other? Curious….

  6. WOW! I am always so stunned when I hear this – I’ll never forget my friend – 3rd generation Australian but looks Asian telling me about the racist slurs that would get thrown her way during her commute to work. SHOCKED! My husband is half Chinese and grew up being called a whole range of names. It’s just wrong! On the one hand it’s good that we don’t expect everyone to speak English anymore, but not good that we still make assumptions based on appearance.

    • It is sad that anyone who looks different can still, in this day and age, be assumed not to belong. I, like your husband, was also teased when I was young. We were the only Asian children in our school, and half-Asian at that. It was quite an eye-opening experience to then move to Singapore for a few years where people of mixed heritage are almost worshipped as being “perfect” beauties. I must say my little teenage mind was all confused and my self-esteem was too. My experiences are why I don’t say to people I am “Chinese” and “Australian”. I see “Australian” as a nationality which means it can embrace people of all ethnicities. I, therefore, tend to use the word “Caucasian” or say specifically, “Cornish and Irish”.

    • Lol, that’s funny, Kel. I haven’t changed my surname (yet) and because it is Chinese (from my dad), sometimes people who meet my husband after meeting me assume he is Mr Wong. Thankfully, he’s yet to take offence!

  7. I often get asked if I’m Itialian — maybe because of my dark features??? Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where we just accept people individually…

    • It might be interesting to ask someone why they thought that, next time they ask. I must say I do tend to notice features, probably because of my personal experiences. I guess people are initially drawn to those similar to themselves in some way, especially in a new social setting. I’ve seen it time and again in my work with people from many different cultures. There is a small comfort in feeling someone “knows/understands” you when, of course, they don’t really. Ideally I agree with you; a person is a person and we should accept them as they are, whatever package they come in.

  8. Pingback: “I’m not racist, but…..” – The Terminology of Difference « Mixed Gems

  9. Pingback: “I’m not racist, but…..” – Let’s test your prejudice « Mixed Gems

  10. Pingback: “I’m not racist, but…..” – Nature or Nurture? « Mixed Gems

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