Your No-Frills Guide to Working With an Asian Colleague

Collage that has Wenmei with cut outs of a globe, house, wakeboarder, crochet, and a hamburger

Hooray! You’re a non-Asian who has an AAPI-identifying person in your workplace! Don’t stand there like a deer in headlights! Just follow this no-frills guide to the dos and don’ts of interacting with an Asian in the workplace.

Where are they from, like really from?

Asians are not for you to categorize and pigeonhole into your pre-existing schema of whatever “type” of Asian you are familiar with. Their heritage is their business, and they decide if and when to divulge that information, not you. Even if you share your own heritage––it’s not a case of “I’ll show you mine, so show me yours.” They could be from halfway around the world or down the street, and their English language skill is not a signifier of their country of origin.

Are Asians going to steal my job and destabilize the American dream?

If you are concerned about any racial group “stealing” your job or diverting work away from you, reexamine how you use race as a determinant for other things (aka you might be racist). They’re not going to replace you because of their race. Immigrants coming to the U.S. have created more jobs than they “take” and are essential to the growth of this country. Right now, racial minority groups are disproportionally affected by the pandemic, Asian women in particular. Also, you should know by now that the American dream is a myth and changes with time. If you feel threatened by scarcity, maybe reexamine the institutions that make you feel like you have to compete with other groups of people for economic prosperity.

Can I give them an easier-to-pronounce nickname instead of their actual name, like Jim or Bob?

Asian names can be hard for non-Asians to pronounce. They’re often in another language with a completely different phonetic system. Look, Asians get it. It can be a simple matter of what we’re familiar and unfamiliar with. Do you know how many years went by before I knew how to pronounce Siobhan? But don’t persist in ignorance! I can’t tell you how many times my name was butchered or misspelled and how dehumanizing it got, especially from schools (and instructors and administrators) who were supposedly proud of my accomplishments but still spelled my name wrong in graduation programs and award certificates. It’s a part of life in the U.S., so we are very understanding when your tongue gets tangled with non-English names and words. If you’ve already asked three times and still can’t get it, go on the internet to hear what a name sounds like! The internet can be a wonderful thing. Conversely, if they prefer to be addressed by a name like Jim or Bob, don’t badger them about their “real” name. Have you considered that it might be their real name? If they want to share their non-English name with you, they will, but it’s best to address them from how they introduce themselves.

They probably have the BEST kung pao chicken or boba milk tea recipe, right?

Just because someone identifies a certain way doesn’t mean that they are the de-facto expert in their language, culture, or the spokesperson for their country of origin if they are not U.S.-born. I am Chinese American, but I do not answer for the Chinese state. Nor am I the arbiter of the “authenticity” of a certain thing. How would I or people like me know what the “best” or most “authentic” version of something is? In the same vein, if something feels funky to Asian people, like a non-Asian owned restaurant promoting “clean” Chinese food or non-Asian people on social media altering their features using a combination of makeup, filters, or clothes to look more Asian (aka Asianfishing), listen to and validate these concerns. Chances are that they are much more acquainted with the issue than you. One more thing: don’t be so overeager to associate yourself with their culture. Liking to eat dim sum or getting a henna tattoo is not a personality trait. (Btw, if you’re not South Asian and you don’t have justifiable proximity to those cultures, you shouldn’t be getting henna.)

Let’s Recap

If nothing else sticks, just remember that any AAPI person that you come across is just that: a person who has other personality traits than their heritage. Find things to bond over like crocheting, watching Bob’s Burgers, or a shared love of wakeboarding. Be compassionate without othering, supportive without tokenizing, and advocate for your colleagues in their time of need.


About the Author | Wenmei Bai is a recent graduate from the University of Redlands with a Bachelor of Arts in History and a double minor in English and spatial studies. She also held positions in the Asian Student Association, the SURF Garden, and was an Outdoor Programs Trip Leader, among many other bits of bobs of her personality she explored at Redlands. She is an aspiring voice actor, writer, and overall Rennaissance woman.

By Wenmei Bai
Wenmei Bai Alumna