Last weekend I went to a block party in the subdivision where I live. None of my immediate neighbors were there, so I didn't know anyone and it was a good opportunity to meet some new people. Since the vast majority of families in the neighborhood are Asian, I was shocked when I heard two women speaking in Spanish about needing more plastic forks at the party. I immediately turned around and, when their dialogue had finished, smiled at one of them and said enthusiastically, "Oí el español---¡yo hablo también!" She gave me a vague smile and a slightly strange look, then walked on.
Several minutes later, I was eating my dinner among some people who were speaking Mandarin. My Mandarin's still too poor to converse with much confidence, but when one woman started speaking Taiwanese, I perked up and said (in Taiwanese), "I hear Taiwanese!" She smiled back and immediately launched into a conversation with me: "You speak Taiwanese?" "Yeah, I only speak Taiwanese. I don't speak Mandarin." "Did you come to the U.S. when you were very young?" "I was born here." "Oh, wow, you were born here and you can speak?"
I couldn't help but notice the difference in these two encounters, which began much the same way but produced very different results. I've had many, many similar experiences. Although my Spanish is significantly better than my Taiwanese, I find I'm far more comfortable initiating a conversation with a Taiwanese speaker because it's never accompanied by looks of surprise or suspicion. Since I look Asian, it's no big deal that I speak an Asian language. But when I speak Spanish to a stranger, it's not uncommon that I'm asked to repeat myself or that the reply is in English. The only time this doesn't happen is when I'm in a setting where it's expected, such as when I'm in Mexico or when I'm at Rotacare with a huge name tag that says "SPANISH INTERPRETER."
One of my former interpreting professors, who is Nicaraguan, describes facing similar skepticism whenever he speaks French, and he's a French (and Spanish) interpreter! This phenomenon is, I think, just a result of our human tendency to want to align new experiences with old ones. I'm sure I'd be dumbfounded if I met a Latino who could speak fluent Taiwanese. And, unfortunately, there is still an amount of prejudice and racism in this country---among all races and cultures---which leads many people not to want to associate with those who do not look like they do.
The only problem this whole thing presents for me is that I don't like surprising people. Many of my friends think it's fantastic and impressive to suddenly demonstrate an ability or knowledge that they're not expected to possess. If I were to perform some amateur psychoanalysis on myself, I'd say my own discomfort arises from my experiences as a minority in a completely different area: a woman in the hard sciences. When, during the course of a conversation with a stranger, it comes out that I have a Ph.D. in physics, the reaction is frequently not positive. It's beyond the scope of this blog to go into this in great detail, but people---especially men---often act suspicious, threatened, or just turned off. As a result, I think I've developed an aversion to surprising people with hidden abilities that has unfortunately manifested itself in a reluctance to use (and practice) my foreign languages.
Sometimes people who hear me speak Spanish automatically assume I'm from Peru (which has a high percentage of Japanese). I find this rather amusing because my accent is not Peruvian, nor do I look Japanese, but if it keeps them talking to me without looking at me like I'm some sort of alien, I won't complain.