Part 1 of 3
It’s been awhile since I posted “An OBVIOUS warning to political ideologues,” but I’ve decided to explain some of my views and experiences. My timing is terrible given the degenerating political discourse in the U.S., and I might be crazy to tarnish my clean “no politics” online image, but here we go. First, a story explaining my family’s culture of origin (Thai-Chinese):
One day I brought food from a new Thai restaurant I discovered near Sacramento, California for my mom to try. I’m not great at distinguishing the regional differences in Thai cuisine, but the food tasted “off” to my mom. She asked if the restaurant owner, whom I chatted with a few times by now, advertised which region of Thailand she was from. I responded, “No, but I can ask her next time.”
“No! Don’t!,” my mom yelled in alarm.
“Why not?,” I asked.
“That’s personal information,” my mom explained, “In Thai culture, you don’t ask this question of people you just met.” Further conversation with my mom revealed that asking where people lived and worked (though I already knew where the restaurant owner worked in this case) is off limits. Politics is also off limits. These are topics that are currently allowable in casual conversation for the average American (though past social norms dictated that politics and religion were off limits). A problem crops up when the average American doesn’t notice, or tries to change, the preferences of those who’re more culturally East Asian.
In my lifetime, I’ve tried to initiate conversation about U.S. politics with my parents a few times, and I’ve broached the subject with my sister perhaps twice. Conversations about U.S. politics never came up among our lifelong Asian friends and relatives (even among those who’re born and raised here, like me). I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of conversation between my parents and their friends or relatives, and I’ve never heard them talk about (U.S. or Thai) politics.
What happens when I naively (as the most Americanized member) initiated conversations about politics in my immediate family is that these invitations are politely batted down with an “Oh well” response to my statement or silence, and then a change of subject. And this was when I was apolitical and without strong opinions. I wanted to get a sense of what they thought, but I learned that people in our culture keep politics to themselves.
Here’s what I’ve put up with at work (and to safeguard my past co-worker’s identity, I’ll call her U.F., which stands for Unhinged Fanatic).
One attempt at revealing my political values:
U.F.: So which news sources do you like to get information from? The New York Times? NPR?
My response: I’m skeptical of journalism and don’t find myself relying heavily on any source.
My thoughts: I prefer listening to the sound of fingernails scratching a chalkboard (for those who remember that) over the sound of NPR’s radio personalities’ pseudo-intellectual accents.
Another attempt at revealing my political values:
U.F. (who was also a part-time teacher) walked to my desk to confide the following: A student who got a B+ on the exam asked me for an extra credit assignment. I’d give opportunities for extra credit to students who got a C or below but I don’t think those who get a B really need it. You know what I mean?
My reaction: … (silence)
U.F., searching for my facial expression, asked again: Know what I mean?
My reaction: … (still silent but now giving her a frown that says, “No, I don’t know what you mean!”)
U.F. slunk back to her desk. I had more thoughts about this issue than I could verbally express (given how much time I could imagine this taking from work).
My thoughts: When it comes to extra credit, it’s everyone or nobody. Selectively providing extra credit opportunities based on sentimental pity is too arbitrary. What if another time she feels sorry for students with D’s and below but not people with C’s and above? Even those with good grades can use extra credit to cushion themselves from an unfortunate final exam grade that drags their grade down. Those who maintain an A can have an A+ on their records. I know this was also a metaphor for her views on individuals who earn different levels of income, and an attempt to discover what my views are on the matter of unequal outcomes. (More about the latter in Part 3.)
One of the last attempts at revealing my political values (and, by this time, I transitioned from polite to blatantly cheeky in response):
We were at an office party when U.F. whispered in my ear, “There’s not enough food for everyone so I’m not going to eat,” and looked at me expectantly. I knew exactly why she did this. I thought to myself, ‘Why pressure me? Why not just do what she thinks is right based on her own subjective perception and leave me alone to come to my own conclusions?’
I smiled, made eye contact, and nodded to indicate I heard and understood her. Then, I strode up to the buffet table and grabbed not one but two gourmet sandwiches (the one she gave up, I tell myself), piled finger food onto my plate, returned to her, and ate. She excused herself and left me.
These attempts at revealing my values along with my not mirroring her values must’ve left her dissatisfied and frustrated. One day, she suddenly and loudly lashed out at me for overestimating and misreporting the amount of snowfall my hometown gets during winter when another co-worker asked me for this information – which was, by the way, a private conversation that didn’t include U.F. in the first place. I wonder if she realized that her anger is her own damn fault for not knowing when to stop digging for information about others and/or trying to get others to express her values.
Overall, I responded in a way that’s polite, allows me to stay true to myself, and keeps conflict unrelated to work from taking too much time. If she had brought up actual political issues then I’d formally complain, but digging for values was a fuzzy area to take issue with. It only recently dawned on me, when I’ve had time to reflect and recall what my Asian family and friends do NOT talk about, and as I’m not in the habit of constantly scrutinizing for cultural differences (especially when there’s work to do), that this difference exists. Had I known then, I would’ve pointed this out.
However there’s such a difference between trying to find out another person’s political values (as opposed to opinions on political issues, which, most people tread more carefully about) that I could see her continuing this annoying behavior because this is a gray area. Unfortunately, people like her who incessantly try to find out others’ political values often don’t have any idea that the conversation has veered into politics when they perceive their values to have melded into larger popular culture.
Fortunately, I’d been patient and had a good sense of humor. U.F. was the butt of daily jokes between me and a friend I talked to after work. My friend was, at first, aghast that I didn’t say, “Well I’m famished!” before loading up my plate at the buffet table to be more socially appropriate and salvage my relationship with U.F. However, I wanted U.F. to stop and stepped up my signals of displeasure, hoping she’d take notice. He understood and lightened up the mood with the following:
Him: Do you want to know why U.F. didn’t want to eat the food?
Him: The table was too low.
Him: She couldn’t reach it from her high horse!
In the future, I’ll try to avoid working with vocally pushy people and at organizations with a loud political culture. However, if the tenets of multiculturalism bind its adherents (as they should, otherwise these people are hypocrites), I CAN legitimately allege, by borrowing from the Social Justice Warrior (SJW) playbook, that anyone who tries to elicit my political views and values is RACIST!!!! for going against my cultural preferences. Perhaps I’ll do that next time.
If you’re a leftist who isn’t pushy and doesn’t act in the manner outlined in this post, give yourself a round of applause. It’s unfortunate that I don’t encounter more of you (perhaps because I’ve lived and worked in areas that function as echo-chambers). Many members of your tribe have crossed the line with me unfortunately. In contrast, I don’t recall ever having this problem with those who follow traditional social norms that forbid introducing politics and religion into casual conversations (i.e., conservatives). Likewise, I haven’t encountered any libertarians, moderates, and, naturally, apolitical people who are politically pushy in an interpersonal setting.
Moral of this story: Learn when to shut yer pie-hole as this is a valuable relationship-building skill