An Outsider Perspective: Deconstructing “Your English is Really Good.”

This piece is a personal, reflective narrative for a future issue on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at JIBC.

“Your English is really good.” This is one of the compliments I hear quite often, especially from acquaintances, teachers, and peers who noticed me and became curious about my background and experiences. As far as I can recall, people tend to use this compliment as a probe to continue the conversation, followed by casual questions such as “where did you study?”, “where are you from?”, or “why did you move to Canada?”, sometimes over a glass of wine or cheese platter.

Interestingly, in the last couple of years, these compliments or questions are less common, particularly at the workplace. I pondered and reckoned that there may be a reason behind it: either I started sounding more like a Canadian, or people are worried that those questions or compliments can be offensive or even illegal. After all, there are more recommendations, policies, and even prohibitions in place nowadays, which is also a type of progress as people and organizations are becoming more cognizant of the matter of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). But policies can often feel onerous and difficult to interpret, and when that happens, people tend to freeze their minds and hide in a reality of “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

Central to the debate about compliments such as “Your English is really good” lies in the ambiguity of its connotation. For example, one may interpret the expression as “I see that you are not one of us, but somehow you managed to speak just like us.” To some extent, it can be an acknowledgement of the diversity in the room, but it can also be interpreted as a statement of exclusion. As a result, many leaders or teachers tend to avoid these topics and resort to something safer, for instance, food or weather. The dilemma is real. But I couldn’t help wondering if we are also ignoring people’s identity and cultural background by avoiding these topics. Yet, if we were to initiate conversations on these seemingly “sensitive” topics, what might be the best approach? And as leaders or teachers, how should we communicate with the increasingly diverse body of students, staff, and faculty?

In a way, I find it difficult to answer these questions succinctly and justly, let alone sharing what might be the best, as the subject of discussion can be relative depending on the context and audience. But perhaps I could l try to collect some personal thoughts through an “outsider” narrative, and hopefully with that, you will find it easier to continue your own analysis or reflection.

As a first-generation immigrant in Canada, I was born and raised in a rustic and underdeveloped county in southern China and, obviously, I hold a typical Asian name and look. Over the years of drifting in this “global village”, I decided not to have an English name for work and study, mostly because I have difficulty finding a sense of belonging with the names available in the English language. In short, my brief background basically tells you two things: 1) it is humbling for someone like me to speak of diversity and inclusion, as I can be ignorant due to my limited understanding and perspective of culture and diversity; 2) my appearance and my name perpetuate a vivid image of an outsider or a foreigner in a country founded by European settlers, regardless of my lived experiences in Canada.

Despite all the current policies or prohibitions at the workplace, unlike what you might have been imagining, I am not offended by questions like “where are you from” or compliments like “Your English is really good”. In fact, I am glad to receive compliments that validate my years of study and effort, and I am also more than happy to speak about my culture, identity, and stories of drifting and navigating in this “global village”. Similarly, when someone shares their unique stories, I often find it fascinating as I always hear things that I am not aware of.

However, as we tread through these muddy swamps, some questions may feel like a double-edged sword that reminds me of my otherness. To be clear, “otherness” is not something embarrassing in my opinion, but simply a part of one’s identity. But conversation could go sideways, especially when a question is asked in a way that is not expected or not respectful.

Looking back into my experiences as an outsider, I find it helpful to be authentic yet tactful, meaning you can display your curiosity or appreciation toward your students or colleagues but it is critical to be mindful about how to frame your questions and decide when and where to have certain conversations.

And if I may, here are some thoughts for discussion for those who are pondering on how to interact with students or colleagues from different backgrounds:

  1. Don’t stop being curious. It is normal to be curious about people’s backgrounds and experiences, and it is important to acknowledge that people are different. So do find the time to get to know people around you.
  2. Instead of asking directly “where are you from?”, you may encourage people in your class or your team to share their stories on certain topics. Information flows through stories and you can connect the dots.
  3. Choose the right occasion to ask personal questions, for example, a coffee shop, especially if there are restrictions or prohibitions in your organization.
  4. If you are concerned about offending people, ask for consent before approaching personal questions. For example, “Do you mind if I ask a question on…” or “please say no if you don’t feel like answering it…”
  5. Lastly, be as genuine, caring, and empathetic as you can when asking “sensitive” questions. People may open up more than you expected if there is a level of trust, empathy, and respect.