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VOICES | Multicultural Manners

Mistaken (Ethnic) Identity

September 05, 1998|NORINE DRESSER

A new Chinese supermarket hires Penny Parsons to design the interior. Parsons orders a large candid photo of Asians to adorn one wall. The supplier fills the request, and the decorator is pleased with the photograph of a young mother pushing a shopping cart filled with groceries and a child assumed to be her daughter. Once on display in the market, the staff becomes agitated, removes and returns the photo to Parsons, requesting a replacement.

What went wrong?

When Parsons ordered the photo, she had only said "Asian" and did not specify ethnicity. While the selected photo had been aesthetically beautiful, it was culturally incorrect. The model who portrayed the mother was Korean and the child was Japanese. Although the decorator could not discern ethnic differences, the Chinese customers could.

Similarly, after Suh, a new Korean adult student, was introduced to her English-language classmates, another student turned to Ruby, the only other Asian, and said, "Now you have someone to talk to." This annoyed Ruby because she was Chinese.

Both incidents resulted from a lack of understanding of the differences between Asian nationalities.


Syndicated columnist Norine Dresser is the author of "Multicultural Manners" (Wiley, 1996). E-mail:

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