I found myself on the wrong end of entrenched preconceptions. The woman was shouting, unwilling to hear my words. I wasn’t quite sure what to do in the midst of her panic directed toward me. All because she recognized me as a foreigner.
Then I realized: It is entirely too easy — and too common — to make assumptions based on what we think we see instead of trying to understand the truth our eyes don’t see.
I have lived in Hong Kong 40 years, so I speak Cantonese rather well. I’m accustomed to strangers reacting with surprise when I speak to them, but nothing I have ever encountered could have prepared me for the reaction of a shopkeeper in a furniture store.
A couple was talking to the only employee in the store when I arrived to ask about getting the latch on my recliner fixed. I waited for them to finish before I spoke up and asked about getting my latch fixed.
The shopkeeper took one look at me and freaked out. She started shouting at the couple to come back and talk to me.
“I can’t understand her,” she said.
Surprised — because she was yelling in perfectly intelligible Cantonese — I asked, “You don’t understand Cantonese?”
“I don’t understand English,” she shouted at the customers who had come back into the shop. “You’ve got to help me.”
“But I’m speaking Cantonese,” I said, trying to reason with her.
The couple glanced from me to her, then shrugged.
“She speaks Cantonese,” they said.
Again, they started out. And again, the shop woman freaked out.
“I don’t understand her,” she shouted. “You’ve got to translate for me!”
Not knowing how else to make my point, I raised my voice and spoke as clearly as possible: “Don’t look at my face. Just listen. I speak Cantonese!”
It took about two full seconds for my words to penetrate her panicked brain. Then she turned on me as though she would like nothing better than to tear me apart. Even though her actions had shamed her and caused her to lose face, her anger was directed not at herself, but at me. In spite of her anger, we managed to conduct our business without further incident, although she obviously had no desire to help me.
Fact Turned False
The whole episode really made me think. Because I am a blue-eyed, white-headed Westerner, I am the obvious outlander in Hong Kong. Especially if I’m in an area of town seldom frequented by Westerners.
The shopkeeper saw my Western face and just knew in her heart of hearts she could not possibly communicate with me. She knew this for a fact. She was so certain of her inability to understand me that even when I spoke to her in perfectly understandable Cantonese, she could not get past my face and hear my words.
What she thought was fact turned out to be completely false. Her fear prevented her from understanding my simple request, made in simple Cantonese.
Now I’m wondering: How often have I been guilty of the same thing? I have seen big men with extensive tattoos and assumed they were criminals. They turned out to be motorcycle evangelists — people who attend motorcycle conventions armed with tracts and Bibles in order to evangelize this sub culture.
I have been guilty of seeing a group of young men and assuming they were up to no good just because of their skin color. In reality, they were simply having a good time, like all kids their age.
I have heard people make assumptions about another’s morality, personal integrity and life goals based simply on a confessed political party preference. The same has been true among Christians who seem to focus primarily on a denominational name.
But these are all assumptions, based on stereotypes and not actual facts.
Through God’s Eyes
Every time I assume things about someone based solely on preconceived ideas, I negate that person’s uniqueness and value as a person who bears the image of God. And I’m possibly denying myself a deep, meaningful relationship with a wonderful human being.
Everywhere there are real people with real value hidden in plain sight. In I Samuel 16:7, we read: “…The Lord does not see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
This verse has become a self-check for me. From now on, my prayer is God will help me see people through His eyes, to accept people for who and what they genuinely are, beyond what I think I see and hear. Because, just like the frightened shopkeeper, my eyes will sometimes not see the truth, but God’s eyes always see people exactly as they are.