“What are You?” 

I’ve had this post as a draft for half a year ago…. but I thought: “Why not publish this now?” so here y’all go.

I feel like working in an Asian targeted retail store has made me more cynical and unhappy. As title of this post suggests, I often get the question “what are you?” by non-Chinese customers. I’ve since quit my job because it is exhausting to deal with racist customers everyday. It does a number on the mind. It is upsetting as well, because I identify as both Canadian and “Chinese” (technically Hakka).

I get customers asking me the following…. BTW these are all real conversations:

  1. Customer holding up a bunch of ingredients: “Are you (insert ethnicity here)?”
    • Me: ” No”/”Yes
      • Them if I say “No”: “Oh but you look like it. Do you know anyone who is (insert ethnicity)? I’m trying to make a (insert ethnicity) food.” BITCH USE GOOGLE!! JUST BECAUSE SOMEONE IS (INSERT ETHNICITY) DOESN’T MEAN THEY KNOW HOW TO COOK THAT DISH
        • Me: “No, I don’t know anyone, but I am pretty sure there are some good online recipes.” 🙂  <– passive aggressive smile
      • Them if I say “Yes”: “Oh do you know how to make (insert food)?”
        • Me: “Nope, sorry.”
        • Them: “But aren’t you (insert ethnicity)? How come you can’t make (insert food)? Shouldn’t (insert ethnicity) know how to make (ethnic dish)?” BECAUSE I CAN’T FUCKING COOK YOU ASSHOLE, AND RECIPES ARE NOT INNATE
  2. Customer: “Hey, can you read this for me?” *Shows me text on their phone*
    • Me: “Sir, I can’t read that. Sorry.”
    • Them: “But isn’t this Japanese?”
    • Me: “No, that is Korean and I am Chinese.”
    • Them: “But isn’t the langauge all the same?”
  3. Customer: “What are you?”
    • Me: “I’m born in Canada.”
    • Customer: “No, where are you realllyyyyy from.”
    • Me: “Well to be specific, I was born in Surrey Memorial Hospital in British Columbia.”
    • Customer: “No, I mean where are your parents from?”
    • Me: “Well my parents are in Vancouver too.”
    • Customer: “Okay, well you aren’t from here right? Where are your grandparents from?”
    • Me: “They’re in Hong Kong.”
    • Them: “Oh so you’re Chinese? I knew it.”
    • Me: *opening my mouth to correct them (I DO NOT like being identified as Chinese) and they walk away*
  4. *I stopped giving a fuck and decided to experiment how far customers would go sometimes* Customer: “What are you?”
    • Me: “I’m adopted.”
      • Customer: “Why are you working here then?”
      • Another possible response, Customer: “Who are your parents?”
        • Me: “They’re a super nice couple from Switzerland.”
        • Them: “What langauge do you speak”
        • Me: “English???” *Innocent confused head tilt to not appear passive aggressive*
        • Them: “What are you?”
        • Me: “I’m a Canadian citizen???” *pretending to be confused but boiling mad inside*
        • Them: “Do you know your parents? What are they?”
        • Me: “Umm… they passed away when I was young, I never knew them.” *feigning sadness and uncomfortable at their insensitive question*
        • Them: “Oh, but then do you know what you are?”
        • Me: *looks them dead in the eye* “Sir, my parents are dead and trust me, I’ve love to know what I am.” SOME CUSTOMERS ARE COMPLETELY INSENSITIVE TO THE DEAD PARENTS THING IN THEIR QUEST TO DISCOVER “WHAT KIND OF ASIAN” I AM
  5. Them: “Why is your English so good?” ….???????????
  6. “Where are you from?”
  7. “WHAT ARE YOU?”

Why is this upsetting? Don’t know what I mean? This video gives you a summary:

What Kind of Asian are You Video

It’s offensive to be asked “what are you” as it just implies you’re not human, you’re the “other”, an alien that doesn’t belong here. I’m born and raised in Canada and people assume I’m an immigrant whom should return to their place of origin (for me ironically it happens to be in Canada, jokes on you, racists!) Everyone in Canada has come from somewhere else unless you’re Aboriginal, yet why are only people of colour being targeted for the question “what are you?”???????

The question is often accompanied by an accusatory wagging finger and a tone of voice that is condescending. That, my friends, is called micro aggressions and casual racism (as I’ve learned in my Gender Race Sexuality Class 101 @UBC).

When people first started to ask me “What are you”, I responded “Hong Kong” because that is where my grandparents are currently living and I don’t want to explain what “Hakka” is for the millionth time. Then they will start saying “Oh yeah! That explains your __(insert physical aspect here__)”. OR “I’ve been there, I like your sushi”, at which I ask them exactly where in China they have been, at which they butcher the name, and the fact that sushi is Japanese. Most of the time their responses to me are fucking racist and stereotyping me.

For the record, I am actually Hakka. Just like how Canada has Aboriginal peoples such as the Haida peoples, China (specifically Hong Kong) has Aboriginal peoples too. In HK, there is a group of Aboriginals called “Hakka” whom make a living traditionally by the sea and fishing. My ancestors lived and died on boats. TBH I’ve grown tired of people wanting me to explain what Hakka is, or the responses “you don’t look Aboriginal” (Like bi*ch please… open your Eurocentric mind….). And Hakka peoples are recognized by Hong Kong, and China (possibly Taiwan as well, but I am not certain). Side note: we are respected and given certain grants and land permits because Aboriginal peoples are treated with respect from the colonizers, unlike Canada. Canada needs to learn how to respect Aboriginal peoples.

A better, and polite, way of phrasing the question to COMPLETE STRANGERS could be “what culture do you identify with?” Or “what is your ancestral background?”. Because the world is constantly globalizing, people are moving and settling into different countries. EG. There are Chinese people moving to Korea and identifying as Korean. Also, it is just fucking R-U-D-E to ask strangers “what are you?”.


P.S.: One time while I was not at work, and being a private citizen and eating food, a complete stranger asked me “where are you from?”. To which I responded “I came from my mother’s uterus.” 😀 He walked away.

Another time I got “What are you?” I said “Well last time I checked, which is this morning, I am a human.” *passive aggressive smile* They usually walk away.

Whenever I am not at work or school and get stopped/ inquired by complete fucking strangers, I take all the anger I bottled up from racist remarks at school, and project it onto them. And believe me, I can scream a string of long insults very, very loudly.


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