Uhm, in the USA this is highly out of the ordinary, and he was a bit surprised. One time many years ago, one of my other children had gone up to a man in a wheelchair and asked him why he didn’t have any legs. I was embarrassed then, and I was slightly taken aback this time as well. But, in both cases, the men were very kind and answered the question.
This man, startled just a bit, replied, "What do you think — Mexican?" Because where we live, there are a lot of Mexicans and one hears a lot of Spanish spoken.
He looked Chinese to me, but looking at him I could see how people could mistake him for a Mexican. He was about five feet tall, had relatively dark skin, black hair, brown eyes. A wide face and a big smile. So then, Munchkin replies to him in Chinese, "Wo juede ni shi Zhongguoren." (I think you are Chinese.) He was floored, because she was right, and he understood what she said.
After that we had a nice (though brief) conversation. He said he came to the USA in 1982 from Fujian Province (which is directly across the strait from Taiwan and is known for its tea production) and that he had brought all his family here. He’s heard that China has changed a lot. He said that when he came here, things were very hard there and he imagines they must be much better now.
As we spoke, the language kept reverting to English, which is different from what we are used to. Most of the time, we are used to speaking Chinese with Chinese people. Even when we struggle with the language, the language used typically doesn’t switch to English. In a taxi or on the street, it’s because the person doesn’t speak English. With my Chinese friends who do in fact speak English, it’s because they understand we need to practice our Chinese and they coach us through the rough spots. So, we are used to repeating ourselves and struggling along even when the going gets tough in Chinese. But not so in the USA. Here, the language switches to English much more quickly. So, much of our conversation was in English. We would speak Chinese, and he would reply in Chinese, at first, but if we struggled the slightest bit he would explain himself in English. Or if we asked a question in Chinese, he would answer us in English.
I got the impression that friend was more comfortable speaking English. Indeed, he explained to us that he wasn’t used to speaking Chinese. It was at about that point in the conversation when he told us he had been here since 1982 and that all of his children had been born in America and raised here. So, it has been 26 years since he’s been immersed in a culture where everyone speaks Chinese.
Yep, Munchkin was lucky that she didn’t offend someone. A lot of the time, when one sees a Chinese-looking person here, that person does not in fact speak Chinese. In such a case, they are likely to be less forgiving of a question like "Hey, where are you from?!" Mommy will have to talk with Munchkin about that. And about talking to strangers in general. Folkways are different here. In China, everyone spoke to Munchkin. The Chinese love children and dote on them. It is nothing for a stranger to speak to a child or for a child to speak to a stranger. They would have been surprised or offended if she failed to reply. Here, it’s the opposite.
As we parted ways, walking in opposite directions, our new friend called back to Munchkin, "I was so surprised to see a beautiful little American girl speaking Chinese! I’ll have to tell my family about that!" He was smiling broadly.