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#115 Faking Obliviousness

Posted April 25th, 2009 by Peter · 17 Comments

Lauren says: May I suggest a post about, “Pretending Not To Understand White People Speaking Asian Languages” And, you know, I wonder if it’s only the Chinese who indulge in this pastime, or if other Asians are on board? Thanks for the submission, Lauren. Here are a couple of reasons why Asians pretend to be oblivious in this day and age.


What happens when you’re thrust into an entirely new environment where communication is almost impossible (save for a few hand gestures and simple words)? What happens when you’re a parent trying to raise your children in a society that teaches them to assimilate as fast as possible in order to get ahead? Now, think about what you would do if you were wrongly quarantined in an internment camp simply for being a certain race? These are all things Asians have had to deal with in the past 150-something years (asians first immigrated in the 1850s). From those hard working railroad workers of the 19-20th century to today’s hip-hop infused “pop-centric” asians, obliviousness has served pragmatic (teaching), deflectory, and many other purposes.

What is Obliviousness? Webster’s dictionary defines it as “the act of being oblivious.” A well kept secret until today, it has the power to teach asian children to embrace their culture. From personal experience, I have to say that I’m probably one of the luckier Asian-Americans that has parents that didn’t break under the pressure of society and speak english to me. Why is this such a big deal? I must reiterate that my parents never spoke a lick of English to me. They never made a comment regarding something I said in English (even if they understood it). They never cared for it. In effect, they never gave in. This allowed me to learn the English language much more proficiently because my parents weren’t teaching me the broken english they had acquired. Instead of saying things like, “I go to the market (a literal translation from my native Vietnamese),” I was taught to say, “I’m going to the market.” There are many things that Asians should do. Teaching english to their children when they have not grasped it, is NOT one of them.


I know many American-born Asians that have taken ESL courses because their parents thought they would be “behind” in school if they weren’t spoken to in English. The result: These asians don’t know their own language and the English language. A double whammy. I’d also have to say that my friends and I (the ones that have been spoken to in our native languages) have a better grasp and understanding of our own cultures because we are able to understand Asian news programs, greet our relatives and elders respectfully, and even call out “foreign” plays when playing basketball =).

Thuy Ngo says, “My mother made great attempts to preserve our home language of Vietnamese by pretending she did not understand us when we spoke English to her. But because of school, even my Vietnamese took on an American accent.” It is extremely easy to lose your language and roots.

Note: The “critical language acquisition” stage ends when a child hits 7. Before that age, languages can be easily learned — one of the reasons why Europe and other Asian countries teach foreign languages before Middle School. Sometimes, it’s just ludicrous how the American education system works.


Asians also figured out that pretending to be oblivious could be used in the workplace. How so? When an asian makes a mistake, isn’t it all too easy to say, “I thought you said Fifteen Dollars (as opposed to fifty dollars)!” or “I thought you said, ‘go to wok,’ ‘” upon being asked why the asian mysteriously took a chinese food lunch break at 4 o-clock? Some asians even try to use their lack of English understanding to get out of speeding tickets, but that’s universally used by immigrants in any country.

In all seriousness, though, Asians have been target of racism in the workplace as long as women have. According to the New Zealand Herald, “In employment, for instance, some felt they missed out on jobs and promotions because of their ethnicity, and workmates pretended not to understand them or patronised them… Some Asians reported being deliberately misunderstood in shops, cafes or a supermarket “in order to humiliate“, being snubbed by other mothers in schools when greeting their children and being avoided in public places.” Furthermore, they feel as though they are not being “wholly accepted” because society sees them as highly skilled workers encroaching onto their territories (like having higher positions on the corporate ladder). As you can see, the pretense can sometimes have adverse effects or be caused by prejudice.


Let’s not forget a certain event in the 1940s that forced millions of innocent Japanese-Americans into internment camps. When that occurred, some asians became oblivious to their own cultures. “One man pretended to not be Japanese, his name was Fred Korematsu” (Japanese Internment). However: “He was arrested for pretending not to be Japanese and he took his case to Supreme Court, where they decided that it was legal to put them in internment,” says George. This was a case where obliviousness meant life or death.

Sometimes, Asians pretend not to pretend; or pretend to pretend; or pretend to pretend to not to pretend. Which is which? It all depends on the “strategic necessity.” By Faking Obliviousness, they are able to raise their children without forgetting their culture, rid themselves of liability in the workplace, and be defiant in the face of adversity. Obliviousness is a skill that helps Asians thrive wherever they go.

Thanks for reading this week’s post,
Peter Nguyen
Stuff Asian People Like Staff


Last 5 posts by Peter

Tags: Activities · Asian Parenting · Culture · Customs · Environment · Habits · History · Japanese · People · Politics · Relationships

17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 kvietgrl // Apr 28, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    love this post. i couldn’t agree more. i really think parents should help their kids learn their native language.

  • 2 YeahIKnow // May 9, 2009 at 8:34 am

    I think you also missed the part where its rude and nasty to people who are at times simply trying to be polite or friendly. Sorry it really is sad that Asian lose some of their culture when they become American citizens but what does that have to do with how you treat other people who don’t speak your language. You pretend to be dumb and not understand but when called dumb or treated differently because of the way you act you get upset.

    And the whole “white people deserve it” line only works when you do it to white people when it seems to done to everyone. I don’t like when people use adversity from their past as an excuse for bad behavior. So what white people were mean to you hell they are mean to everyone and being the “good minority” means they are better to Asians then to the rest of us.

  • 3 Anonymous // Aug 14, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    Internment camps, don’t forget the other enemies of the US at the time: Italians & Germans. They too were in internment camps.

  • 4 Um, actually. // Nov 21, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    Italians and Germans were not put into internment camps. There were far too many of them plus, it was ((supposedly)) thought to be harder to tell the difference if someone was Italian or German.

  • 5 John M // Jan 2, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    If you and your spouse speak a foreign language, don’t speak to your kids in English. Our daughter’s s school did in fact try to get us to do their job for them when they suggested we speak to our daughter in English. I told them that teaching English is their job. Our job is to teach Japanese.

    See my post at or to restate in case links are forbidden, “ slash rearing-bilingual-children”.

  • 6 Erik // May 11, 2010 at 4:08 pm


    I agree, being an Appalachian American, Appalachian English was spoken at home and is spoken usually more quickly and has a different grammar and sentence structure with contractions being more complicated and vastly more important than in Standard American English, but was forced to study even harder in English class to learn to speak Standard American English. But yet I can easily switch between both dialects and accents at will.

  • 7 Erik // May 11, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    @Um, actually.,

    Actually many Italian and German immigrants who were politically active were put into internment camps. But imo the difference between that and the treatment of the Japanese is that a good portion of the German immigrants were active supporters of the Nazi Party and were spies.

    And ethnic Europeans usually can look at and tell the ethnic background of another ethnic European. We’re far from homogenous. Just look at the differences between say, Greeks and an Icelander. Even some places in Europe some folks can tell what region of a given nation they’re from based upon their looks.

  • 8 Erik // May 11, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    @John M,

    Good point.

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  • 10 Anonymous // Jul 24, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    Do you even know how language acquisition occurs? This reads like a 7th grade essay.

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  • 13 Girl Here // Oct 2, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    Yeah, I don’t much Vietnamese now,well actually I I never did. I went to Vietnamese school since 1st grade and hated it.

  • 14 I hate annoying Chinese women that do this // Nov 14, 2011 at 8:42 pm

    Whenever an Asian person speaks Chinese to me on the street, I ignore because it’s ridiculous that they assume that I know Chinese for looking Asian.

    Those ridiculous people never consider that I could be Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, or a third-generation Asian that just didn’t know Chinese.

    How’s that for obliviousness?

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  • 16 LatinaHispanica // Nov 17, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    I am certainly glad my parents only spoke to me in Spanish and not English. My father would do that obliviousness technique or call me out for speaking or answering in Spanish. I speak both languages without any accent. In fact, both Americans and Latinos ask me if I was born in the U.S. because I speak unaccented. Folks in mixed language marriages really should only speak to the child in those foreign languages. They will, barring some intellectual deficiency, English with TV programming, preschool, their siblings, neighbors and primary school. They will thank you when they’re adults. Believe me.

  • 17 Katsumi // Jul 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

    1. Concentration camps; not internment camps.

    2. Hundreds of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry were forced into the camps. Because they had to leave immediately, they lost all their property except for a suitcase.

    Only hundreds of German and Italian fresh-off-the-boat non-Americans were forced into the camps.

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