Question: Can you read English?

Most of the time when I’m at home I either have on my pajamas’s or my Asian clothes on. Now unless your Asian or your like a cultural hybrid (where your ethnic culture is different to that of the culture of the country you live in) you’re probably thinking why I’m differentiating my Asian clothes from like my jeans, skirts, tops, and shirts and it’s because I only wear my Asian clothes at home, when I’m visiting relatives, or either at weddings or Eid. My Asian clothes perhaps represent a different part of my identity to the clothes I’d wear out or to uni and stuff.

Anyway, this morning I was just sitting around in my living room flicking through TV when a man knocked at my door. So, I opened the door and this is how the conversation went:

Me: Hello

Man: Hi there, I’m just promoting this magazine it’s about nature, world geography, global issues and things would you be interested?

Me (thinking it’s some sales ploy): No thanks

[ My mum (from upstairs in Bengali): Who is it?

Me (in replying in Bengali): Oh, just a sales person.]

Man: It’s free and very interesting

Me: Oh, okay sure I’ll have one.

Man (flicking through showing me some pictures of the rainforest): Can you read English?

Me (brain thinking what did he just ask, mindlessly but politely answers): Yeah

Man (Hands me the book): Good girl, here you go, have a good day.

Me: Thanks, you too.

So, as I closed the door still completely baffled by the question “Can you read English?”, “Can you read English?”, “Can you read English?”, “Can…. you… read… English?”. It really kind of hit me when he said that because I’ve been born and bought up in England, England is my home, and English is the language I use most. Even though I’m bilingual and speak, read, and understand Bengali my writing in Bengali is very basic. Moreover, the fact I study English Literature and English Language at uni shows that English is my “thing”, the study of English is what I’m dedicated too, and to be asked “Can you read English?” seemed pretty insulting and an ignorant question to ask. The “good girl” that follows it is perhaps is even more patronizing what made him think I couldn’t read English. I probably should have replied back to him with something sarcastic like “why, don’t you offer a reading service? or “Why is this book exclusive to English readers?, or something but I didn’t I wasn’t quick witted enough.

I don’t understand why he needed to even ask that. I wondered if he assumed that I was new to living in England or perhaps that my Asian attire made him assume that I’m a girl from a “backdated” culture that suggests I wouldn’t know how to read English. Was it because I switched from English to Bengali to English with no hesitation why did he ask “Can you read English?”. I don’t even know it just bugged me inside and it still kind of is. Does he think the tribes of people in the rainforest would be able to read English? Does he think all the tree’s cut down every year are made in to paper only for the English language and it’s readers? I don’t know but I find it ironic that this person is promoting educational literature about the rainforest, nature and stuff and in some way that question made him seem like he was from a superior culture because he assumed I couldn’t read English.

My street is pretty mixed with all sorts of people from all over the world so, I just feel like either this guy was ignorant or just offensive. If you didn’t think I could read English then you should’ve left when I said “No, thanks” but anyway, I just found it a weird and irritating experience like someone was questioning such a big part of my identity. I just find that uncomfortable someone was trying to make my identity different to theirs, inferior even.

Or perhaps I’m reading too much into it? What do you think?


8 thoughts on “Question: Can you read English?

  1. Ah geeze, definitely ignorant. Tsk tsk, people be jealous of bilingual ethnic Asians. Haha, and I think I know what you mean by Asian clothes. I have this old grey argyle sweater that I just wear around tue house or when just casually visiting family.


  2. That is shocking! Definitely ignorant in my opinion. He should not be surprised by the fact that people can be bilingual and wear non-Western clothes in the comfort of their own homes….


  3. Haha, I know it’s not really the same situation, but I get that a LOT here in China. And in this case, it’s definitely ignorance, and never meant as an insult or to offend. They just really can’t seem to get their minds around the fact that I’m not white-skinned, but claim to be a native English speaker/from England. A friend of mine gets this specifically a lot from some of her classmates, who ask her if she can understand what’s being said in a conversation between English-speaking friends…. “YES, we are from England, and we speak English, guys!”
    I’d be a bit annoyed too, it sounded really patronising, eugh.


    • Yeah I’d say your situation is more like a curious non-offending ignorance I wouldn’t be annoyed at that whereas this was more I don’t know the word for it but I guess because the question seemed abrupt and out of conversation it annoyed me.


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