To the American Who Told Me, “Don’t Speak Chinese to Your Husband”

By unknown. Photographer: Heritage Auction Galleries of Dallas, Texas -, Public Domain,
By unknown. Photographer: Heritage Auction Galleries of Dallas, Texas –, Public Domain,

I always used to think you were cool and open-minded. You voted for Obama. You had a terrific downward dog pose. One of your friends was Chinese.

I figured, surely you would understand how wonderful it is to have a bilingual relationship. I thought you would praise me for speaking more than my native English – for being able to have meaningful conversations in both Chinese and English with my husband, who is from China.

So imagine my shock when you told me not to speak Chinese with my husband – in so many words.

I remember the way you looked so uncomfortable when you said this to me. I’m sure, at some level, you realized how totally inappropriate it was. That the part of you that prided yourself on promoting diversity would be tarnished by this one small action.

But you did it anyway – and you didn’t even apologize about it.

Since you care so much about diversity, let’s make something really clear. Speaking a foreign language is diversity. You can’t say “I love diversity” and then suddenly crap on someone else just because they speak another language.

Also, anyone who cares about diversity should have known that “English only” is just another way to say you’re afraid of foreigners. And guess what? Foreigners are also part of diversity, in case you didn’t notice. You shouldn’t be afraid of them if you like diversity. You should embrace them…which means embracing foreign languages too.

If this is about your own self-esteem issues – that, somehow, my ability to speak Chinese makes you feel bad about your monolingualism – please get over yourself. Nobody forced you to speak only English. You could have studied a foreign language anytime. Heck, you could do it now if you wanted. It’s called education.

Though, honestly, given how much you don’t understand about diversity or racism, you might want to start educating yourself on those.

Oh and by the way, there’s something else you should know. Saying you have a friend who is Chinese doesn’t prove you’re not a racist. In fact, white people have been using the excuse, “I’m not racist, I have a black friend” for years. It’s still lame, even when you replace “black” with “Chinese” or any other minority group.

I’m embarrassed that people like you call themselves “diverse” and “open-minded”, and then say things in public that would make anyone want to revoke your so-called diversity credentials instantly. So maybe the one who shouldn’t be speaking isn’t me — it’s you.

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19 Replies to “To the American Who Told Me, “Don’t Speak Chinese to Your Husband””

  1. I come from a trilingual family and when my mother spoke another language to her friend/s in public (50’s, 60’s Canada) she was told it was rude to speak another language that other’s couldn’t understand in public in case they were talking about them. It’s kind of like whispering in front of someone else. Maybe that’s what your friend was referring to. I’m trying to give your friend some grace. L

  2. Funny, I had similar experience with my husband about speaking Mandarin or Taiwanese. I’m nowhere fluent, but I do try to speak it with my husband. I think maybe some people are so used to being included, and when they’re not, it bugs them.

  3. Definitely sounds by someone who was intimidated by your grasp of a second language! Very rude to tell you not to speak Chinese to your husband of all people. You wonder when was the last time they didn’t speak English when on holiday in foreign country – maybe it’s fine to speak in languages that other people don’t understand, as long as that language is English…!

    1. Yeah, great example about speaking English on holidays abroad. What’s sad, though, is that few Americans actually go on holiday abroad and have yet to have this experience. I think everyone needs to travel to a foreign country and experience what it’s like hearing a foreign language spoken around you.

  4. Not a single person in my family has learned a single word of Chinese in the 10+ years my wife and I have been married and here in the US. In fact, when we used to take my mother to Chinese restaurants, she would flip out if either my wife or myself spoke any Chinese to the wait staff at all.

    It is such an English-speaking thing, and I don’t say this without having experienced it, both in the U.S. AND in China: there are half a billion people who think that English is the be-all-end-all language, even though a much steeper percentage of the world speaks some variation of Mandarin or Cantonese. It is a superiority AND inferiority complex. Superior that they speak English (very often poorly), and inferior in not being able to understand any other language. Learn how to understand/speak “hello”, “goodbye” and “thank you” in as many languages as you can. Others in the world will be impressed. Not Americans, but others… 😉

  5. Before we moved back to Finland I was sort of afraid of this kind of thing happening. I was worried that we would experience a lot of racist comments, nasty looks or whatever. And I had plans for how to deal with those situations. I thought I would say something like “keep your racist opinions to yourself”, “you don’t have a say on who I choose to be married to”, “I don’t care, please stop talking to me” or something along those lines. (We can be very blunt here sometimes) I was actually sort of looking forward to dealing with stuff like that, thinking I’m all prepared for it.

    But I haven’t had a single encounter or comment like that. Not even from drunks on the subway or on the street. When I speak to my husband in Chinese in public, people might do a double take or just look curious. Sometimes people ask what language we speak and seem to be impressed when I tell them. Maybe it’s also because we live in a part of town that is very international with a lot of immigrants. Or maybe because in Finland we don’t really do small talk. I actually think that might be a big part of it. Talking to a stranger is very rare and if someone I know would say something like that to me, they would be out of my life pretty fast.

    Anyway, if someone would say something stupid like that now, I don’t know how I would react on the spot. Probably just stare at them with my mouth hanging open. I really think that person must have some severe self esteem problems if they are afraid of you talking about them. Or, as you said, maybe they are just jealous 😉

  6. Wow. First, who feels entitled to dictate communication in another couple’s marriage? Second, why wouldn’t a person just say, “Hey, I feel left out, when I’m around do you guys mind speaking in English?”

    Oh, right. A person steeped in white privilege, one who believes they have the right to demand that everyone else conform to their culture. Because of course their culture is best.

    Alternatively, a person who deserves to at least be verbally smacked upside the head.

  7. lets give your friend some benefits of doubt. could it be that Jun Yu speaks english with a heavy accent and that it is hard for people to understand ?? if so, maybe he means that if you speak english to him, he would improve his english. if that is not the case, then your friend’s superiority complex was hurt that you speak chinese instead of the dominant english that most other people speak ????

  8. Someone was once telling me how rude they thought it was when family/friends/I can’t remember the exact details used a language they didn’t understand around them. They were horrified when I told them I never understand a single conversation my inlaws have around me as they speak to eachother exclusively in Shanghainese (even though I’m learning Mandarin and they can speak Mandarin). But my view is who am I to try to make demands about how they speak to eachother?! They have always spoken to eachother in Shanghainese, they always will. My hope is that as my Mandarin improves they will increasingly use Mandarin when speaking to me (which has already started happening even though my level is still very low). I would never expect that they would stop speaking Shanghainese to eachother. I find that people who try to demand people speak English have invariably never even tried to learn another language themselves.

  9. Even the most racist people or people who are perceived as racists such as Jeff Sessions have Asian family…and can say “I am not a racist, I have an Asian son-in-law and Asian grandchildren…Obviously, the white side of the family is contaminated at least in the eyes of the southern whites and hence cannot be mentioned by the media…

    So the world is turning upside down. Pretty soon, I am very certain that cats will say bow wow! and dogs will say Meow!! and the mice will say moo! Actually, the creator of Tom and Jerry had an episode in which a futuristic doctor manages to achieve this goal. May be he was thinking of Jeff Sessions!

    So why is anyone surprised that a Obama supporter will says something not very savory. He probably even voted for Trump and supports Jeff Sessions. After all he cannot be racist he has a Chinese son in law! Actually, now that Sessions may not have to run for re-election, his daughter, son-in-law and grand daughters can come out of the closet. No one in Alabama knew about this, did they? And he put a nice show opposing all immigration (his words, including probably spousal immigration).

  10. Well said! Bizarre behavior, but not uncommon … I routinely see movies on Netflix now which have been downvoted massively – because they are not in English. I know, because the comments section is full of the vitriol of those apparently shaken to the core by having been confronted with a language they did not speak – in their own country. The horror 々!

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