So it’s finally general election day (again!) and in the build up you’d think that local canvassers would be hungry to win over voters on the doorstep wouldn’t you?
Sadly not if you are Asian. This week, I experienced yet again the “Mistaken for the Cleaner” scenario. Here’s what happened:
Door bell rings.
I answer it.
The canvasser looks at me and gives me a flyer (for the party that I support) and asks me to give it to the resident voter.
I am taken aback, because I would like to have a chat about the candidate that I am going to vote for, but the canvasser has already turned his back and is already exiting the gate.
I finally find my tongue.
“I live here. I’m a voter too you know? Aren’t you going to talk to me?”
Cue awkward back-tracking by canvasser on the hot foot.
*sigh* “Did you think I was the cleaner?”
“No, no, of course not, we get doors answered by all sorts of people, you know friends and so on.”
I’m not really buying this. REALLY? Someone opens the front door and the first thing you think is: this person is a ‘friend’ of the resident…??!!
“Do you want to know about our policies.”
“Don’t worry. I’m good.”
This is not a unique scenario. Not too long ago I laughed out loud along with the rest of the world when the images of Professor Kelly’s report on South Korea was unexpectedly hijacked by his kids. Yet the initial hilarity and empathy with Professor Kelly’s clip soon became soured by the comments that flowed beneath the video. If there ever was a hero of the piece, it was his Korean wife that sped in to save the day and heroically crawled back in on all fours to close the door to allow peace to descend. I immediately warmed to her as her casual wear and practical pony tail looked just like my own. My own response to such an eventuality with my own children would have been instinctively identical.
Why then was she presumed by many to be the Nanny/ Maid, and worse still, why were her actions defined as being “submissive” and “fearful”? What would the “proper”/ “non-submissive” response from a wife and mother have been? To walk in and wave at the camera? To leave her husband to battle it out with the children on-screen?
Whatever people may say to try to justify their gut reactions, I am without a doubt that the “nanny-assumption”, just as the canvasser’s “cleaner assumption” was based on our ethnicity. How can I be so sure? Because it happens to me (and I’m sure other Asian/ Latino women) all the time. Here are a few of my highlights:
• When I first started dating my husband (a 6 foot 2 white South African), many people expressed surprise, questioning “You are a strange couple. What do you have in common?” I soon realised this was a bit of code for “He’s tall, white and handsome and should be going out with a leggy blonde not a short bespectacled Chinese woman”. This line of thought was later confirmed by a sozzled old bufty we had the misfortune to sit next to at a wedding once who stated the quandry more precisely due to inebriated state: “How did you two ever get together? He has round eyes and you have slitty eyes.”
• My husband had invited some of his new, white, male colleagues over for dinner. At 5 minutes to specified guest arrival time, I’m still in my tracksuit pants doing the last minute hoover and cushion plumping because in London with the ineffectiveness of the transport links and the relaxed attitude to time-keeping, I’m figuring I’ve still got 20 minutes to get changed and slap on some lippy. But what-ho? There’s the door-bell! The damn husband had failed to mention that his new colleagues had meticulous talent for punctuality. Never mind, I do my hostess duties diligently: offering to take coats and taking orders for drinks. The guests are genial and I show them into the dining room, where I start to serve the food that my husband has prepared. Here I figure that since they have caught me in my casual garb that it would be affected to disappear upstairs and re-emerge tarted up, so I don’t bother with that pretence. It is only when I plonk myself down at the table amongst the gathering that I notice the strange looks from my fellow diners. There is a definite note of initial surprise that “the brazen cleaner/ house-help is joining us for dinner”, followed by a tinge of embarrassment when they finally clock that I am the wife.
• When I was on maternity leave and started being in my house in the day time, I couldn’t help but notice that each morning a troupe of Asian ladies would come up the road, disappear into various houses and then leave in the evenings. I could see them through windows dusting and polishing in various houses. I realised that I looked more like them than my actual neighbours. It was no surprise then that when unexpected callers came to the door (the gas man, electricity man, charity door-stoppers, election campaigners, the police) they would ask to speak to the owner of the property when they were faced with me. After a few times of indignant proclamations of “I am the owner of this property”; I realised that it was much more fun and expedient to actually pretend to be the Cleaner and this works fantastically well to get rid of a lot of people that I don’t have the time for. I don’t even need to speak. I just put on a puzzled look, shake my head and shrug my shoulders like I can’t understand English.
• One time on maternity leave I went to the Royal Academy of Art with my baby and a friend with her twin babies. I had access to the Friends’ room so we ventured in there to have a snack, but the tables were all full, so we were kindly invited to join a table that was already occupied by a sweet elderly couple. This was a blessing as we had 3 babies between us. As my daughter was asleep, I helped out my friend with one of her twins by rocking her in my arms, and my friend chatted amiably to the elderly couple. When along comes a posh old dame who comes over babbling with delight about how wonderful it is to see families enjoying a day out at the RA. She talked at length about her own daughter who “also had triplets”. At this point I clocked things from her perspective. Here was a family of white grandparents, white daughter and triplets. That left me, the Nanny.
• Add to this the countless times I have had to have my passport doubly scrutinised at airports (apparently because there are Chinese gangs providing all manner of people with fake British passports) or if I am with my children, all our passports doubly scrutinised (because of Chinese gangs child trafficking). Strangely enough, if I travel with my husband, or if he travels alone with the children, this never happens. The addition of a “jolly fine white chap” somehow legitimises the rest of us.
Like for Jung-a Kim, Professor Kelly’s lovely wife, none of the above particularly bothers me. The reason being that for most non-white females, we have acclimatised and adapted to these day to day occurrences. I believe that these days we are to refer to them as “micro-aggressions”, but in my day, they were just things we ignored/ laughed at or put up with. Annoying, petty stereotyping is not the preserve of non-white females. Although I have witnessed a myriad of advantages that my husband gets purely by being a “tall, white, male”: aeroplane upgrades, hotel upgrades, many, many people-that-ignored-me smiling and offering to help him, people hanging on to his every word (when he is actually spouting my rhetoric which would have been ignored if it were coming out of my mouth); I have also witnessed my tall, white-male husband frequently mistaken for a Bullingdon club posh toff/ arrogant Apartheid supporting South African/ Countryside Alliance fox-hunter/ Trust Fund elite just because of the way he looks – which I imagine can also be tiresome.
“What are you doing going out with him?” my Socialist Worker reading friend asked.
But scratch beneath the colour of our skins and you will see that we:
• Are both the youngest of 3 children
• Are both from close knit families
• Are both immigrants to the U.K.
• Are both originally from pariah nations (South Africa due to Apartheid; Taiwan due to Chinese diplomacy)
• Both have direct experience of the effects of racism and inequality
• Both have an interest in opening our minds and hearts to new people, new places and new experiences
• Are both happy with who we are
So where it matters, we are immensely similar.
And so, in conclusion I think that we should all do a bit more of looking beyond stereotypes. I have no problem with being mistaken for a Nanny/ Maid/ Cleaner, because consider the alternative: I absolutely hated travelling with my husband to Thailand/ Indonesia and other developing Asian countries in my youth, because if we ever got in a cab, went for a nice meal or checked into a fancy hotel; I was clearly always “The Hooker”.