Illustrations: Mary Vertulfo

Please Don’t Compliment My English

White men do not own the English language, and no one should be held up to this standard to be understood

Hahna Yoon
Published in
6 min readOct 24, 2019

II have become desensitized to the “ching-chongs,” the barks telling me to go back to my country, and White men telling me they “love Asian girls.” But the comment that somehow stings the most is the appraisal of my English, however good it may be — being told I speak English well.

Most recently, the backhanded compliment came from a 22-year-old White English teacher from Connecticut after a five-minute exchange as I sold him a used bicycle outside Seodaemun Station in Seoul, where I currently live.

We were in South Korea, and I am Korean. Of course, I too might find it impressive if a Korean who had never lived abroad could demonstrate such a high level of English. But hadn’t he read my nuanced paragraph about the bike’s tires on my Facebook post? Did he glaze over the part where I told him I lived in the States for most of my life? Who did he think he was to compliment my English?

It was a microaggression. The word was first coined by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s. Derald Wing Sue, PhD, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, argues that racial microaggressions are often so subtle that neither party realizes what happened and that the invisibility of this exchange “may be more harmful to people of color than hate crimes or the overt and deliberate acts of White supremacists.”

Within the Asian American community, having one’s English evaluated is so common that there have been studies on the effects of that one microaggression alone. In 2014, Alisia G.T.T. Tran, PhD, of Arizona State University, and Richard M. Lee, PhD, of the University of Minnesota, authored a study titled “You Speak English Well.” Both were inspired to look into the topic after a series of experiences. Tran recalls being told she speaks English well by her mother’s work colleague while visiting her office. “Then he whispered in an aside to me, ‘Sometimes I have a hard time understanding your mother.’”

“Certainly, the exchange was insulting because it was a veiled attack at my mother, but also because the first comment on its own connoted that he expected…