A question Missing in the Andreas Lubitz Discussion


So, last Tuesday, Germanwings’ airliner crashed into the Alps, to kill 150 passengers aboard. The death of 150 people is shocking enough, but what makes the accident more shocking is the fact that the sudden descent of the airplane and the ensuing crash looks intentional. A few pieces of evidence released after the accident – the co-pilot Andreas Lubitz was alone in the cockpit at the point of the crash, and on the radio clip recorded right before the crash, one could hear the co-pilot breathing normally and the pilot banging on the door, asking for entry to the cockpit, and there are intricate mechanisms that should be solved before the airliner begins to descent – added up together to suggest that the crash was intentional. The possibility of the co-pilot’s depression was suggested early on, therefore, and by today, the French prosecutors in charge of investigating the accident confirm Lubitz’s depression history.

Now, a lot of discussions of the crash seem to focus on the co-pilot Mr. Lubitz’s mental health. People ask if his depression really drove him to suicide as well as mass murder. Some suggest that we should reinforce mental health evaluation processes so that the mentally ill should not be employed for a position responsible for public safety. Others, however, express the concern that this particular incident may stigmatize all mentally ill people. I think these are all legitimate questions and concerns, but there is one question that I think is more important or at least as important as these questions but is curiously missing. That question is, why did Germanwings do nothing about Andreas Lubitz? Germanwings seems to have known all long about his mental illness. But the company nevertheless instated him as a co-pilot of an airliner that transports 150 people. Why?

I am talking about money. Or the commercial airline’s effort to cut the cost of production. Or its capitalist approach to human labor.

Let’s say that I am a shoemaker. I make shoes and put them on the market for sale. Once they are on the market, I do my best to sell my shoes. If my shoes sell right away, that’s great, but if they don’t, I will reduce the prices. If one of my shoes get damaged, it is still more in my interest to sell them at a reduced price than withdrawing them from the market altogether, because I already spent my money on the leather, etc. But, what if my shoes are damaged to the extent that they put the wearer’s ankles in danger? Do I still sell the shoes or not?

When Lubitz is trained to be a co-pilot, he is like a commodity made for sale. The company spent money to train him, and he is now expected to bring profits for the company. When he is found to have some mental difficulties, however, something could be done about him. Or nothing.  What’s certain is that it would have cost Germanwings a lot more money to properly retrain him for his job, to find him a safer alternative position within the company, and to find a suitable replacement for his position than, well, doing none of these. In other words, it would have saved the company money to use Lubitz as he is and keep fingers crossed that nothing happens.

So, I think one important thing that we have to discuss is the company’s capitalist approach to its employees. Employees are humans, and all sorts of things can happen to them. It is possible that one is mentally healthy at the point of employment but develops a mental illness over the course of his/her employment. Then what should we do? Fire him/her right away? From a capitalist point of view, it may make sense to do so. But we are talking about human labor. A capitalist approach to human labor, when it is not adjoined by other concerns and approaches, is woefully inadequate. What I see in Germanwings’ crash is this inadequacy. Lubitz was not a ready-made product to  bring money without fail to his employer. But he was viewed that way, and I think that is what took away the precious lives of 150 people.

My Suggestions for Facebook Use that You Can Totally Ignore. Or Not.

1. Understand that people use Facebook for different purposes. If you understand Facebook as a place to have fun, hang out with your friends, and catch up with them, that’s fine. Most of your Facebook friends are amused to look at your cat photos, your family photos, your selfies at restaurants, etc. Keep posting that stuff on your page. At the same time, however, know that some people use Facebook to express their views and exchange ideas on controversial topics. If you disapprove of this political use of Facebook, well, there is nothing you can do about it but ignore their posts. You can’t tell them to stop posting political stuff on their Facebook. Don’t impose your understanding of Facebook onto others. If their stuff really bothers you, either unfollow them (then their posts won’t appear on your timeline) or defriend them.

2. You have a lot more latitude on your Facebook page than on someone else’s. It means that when you write on your friend’s wall or comment on his/her post, you should be careful. If the latter, it is really important that you read your friend’s initial post. There, your friend sets the tone of the discussion or indicates where the discussion will be headed. Try to read all the earlier comments as well. When there are too many, read enough so that you develop a pretty good understanding of where the discussion is going. Whatever you say in your comment will be understood in relation to your friend’s initial post as well as to the earlier comments. Remember that you may mean a benign X, but in the context of the discussion, your comment may be read as meaning an obnoxious Y. If you find this such a heavy reading assignment, I suggest you don’t comment.

3. When you comment on your friend’s post, know that you are entering your friend’s larger personal/professional network. You are not just talking to your friend only but to all of his/her friends. Be aware of the ways in which you interact with your friend affect your friend’s relation with his/her friends. This is especially the case when you want to criticize – even obliquely – your friend. Yes, your criticism may be a valid, constructive one, but you don’t want to loudly or publicly announce your friend’s blunder or mistake to all his/her friends. Let your friend interact with his/her friends on his/own terms. If you have trouble with your friend, keep it strictly between you and him/her. Some suggest that political discussion on Facebook should be approached carefully. If so, discussions of your friend’s personal actions and decisions should be approached ultra super carefully.

4. Distinguish personal and public aspects of the matter that you discuss with your Facebook friends. Recently, one of my Facebook friends posted an article about the Germanwing’s co-pilot whose depression is suspected to have caused the the airplane’s crash. We were just discussing this particular co-pilot and mental health in general, until someone came along and turned the conversation around to make it one about my friend’s mental illness. This is not acceptable. I can and should be able to discuss on my Facebook problems of modern marriage, without revealing any intimate details of MY own marriage. I can and should discuss how expensive it is to raise a baby these days, without discussing how YOUR wallet is getting thin because of your baby. If I discuss the current condition of higher education in America, I don’t want to hear too much about what YOU are doing in your classroom. Your example may be one in point, but let’s get the conversation keep going. I applaud your excellent teaching, but not on my Facebook where I am discussing something including you but going beyond you.

Movie Review: Whiplash (2014)


Whiplash describes interactions between a young jazz musician, who is talented and very ambitious about advancing his musical career, and his teacher, who brutally and mercilessly pushes the limits of his student’s capabilities. The movie receives raving reviews, both from movie critics and the general public, so I had high hopes for the movie. Whiplash is intense and emotionally engaging. I am glad I watched it. Yet, despite the movie’s strengths, I was left with a note of disappointment at the end of the movie. Let’s say that I met a beautiful woman at a party. She wore a beautiful dress and impressive makeup. After she changed into PJs and removed the makeup at the end of the party, however, I realized that she was not beautiful. Her beauty was mostly due to the pretty dress and makeup. Roughly put, this is how I feel about Whiplash.

My response to Whiplash has a lot to do with my (jaundiced, skewed, or prejudiced) way of watching movies. I watch movies in the way I read novels. Stunning visual effects and dramatic music are important, and I appreciate them, when they are used effectively in a movie. But first and foremost, I care about what the movie tries to show. When viewed in my narrative-centered and thus movie-inappropriate interpretive frame, Whiplash makes a half-baked success. The movie is definitely successful in its visual and aural effects. Jazz music used in the movie is a pleasure to listen to, and different camera walks and close-ups portray the characters’ emotions in vivid details. In addition, I should mention the two main actors’ superb acting. Basically, the movie has plenty of eye candies and ear candies. But the story that the movie tells leaves huge room for elaboration, I think.

The movie has two main characters: a young student named Andrew Neyman and his teacher Terence Fletcher. Andrew is currently enrolled at “the best music school” in the nation (the movie uses the fictional school called Shaffe Conservatory of Music, but I think it is really modeled on the Julliard). Understandably, Andrew is an already very talented drummer, but he has an indefatigable will for excellence. He always wants to do better. The movie makes this point through various episodes. Terence puts Andrew into competition with other students at the school, and when he proves his talent and becomes a core member of the best jazz band of the school, Terence makes him know that he is just a “temporary” core member. Andrew gets into a car accident on his way to a concert. With a bleeding head, he sits in front of his drum set.

If “strong-willed” is the key word to characterize Andrew, the word to characterize the teacher Terence Fletcher is “merciless.” Terence says, “there are no two words in English that are more harmful than ‘good job.'” He thinks that many teachers deprive the world of a future Charlie Parker by settling too easily. He believes that a truly talented music student who will become a future Charlie Parker won’t be discouraged by a harsh teacher who demands that the student push the limits of his or her ability. I think that this teacher-student relation is fascinating. A great deal can be made out of it. Unfortunately, the movie does not make much out of it. For example, what does Terence think about his teaching methods? He says, “I will never apologize for how I teach.” But in reality, this type of teacher is in trouble. The movie addresses this point by showing that one of his students, under intense stress that Terence’s tutelage causes, commits suicide. Andrew’s lawyer makes him confess that he is also emotionally distressed, a confession that eventually makes Terence lose his job at Shaffe. So, Terence cannot be 100% comfortable about his pedagogy. He must be at times haunted by the anxiety that his teaching is too merciless or too discouraging to his students. I am interested in learning more about the conflict that Terence experiences as a harsh teacher. But the movie is not sensitive enough to address the complicated facets and effects of the demanding teacher.

Likewise, the movie portrays Andrew in too broad a brush. Yes, he is strong willed and not easily discouraged. But what does he feel when he attacks Terence physically and gets expelled from Shaffe? I want to see more about the inner turmoil of the young musician whose brilliant musical career is obstructed all of a sudden.

Finally, I think the procedure through which Terence and Andrew get reconciled can be portrayed with more sensitivity. After Andrew gets expelled and Terence loses his job, Terence performs at a local jazz bar, and he invites Andrew to join his band to perform familiar repertoires that Andrew used to play at Shaffee, such as “Whiplash” or “Caravan.” On the night of the performance, however, Terence announces that his band is playing “Up Swing.” Andrew has to sightread the music, and he mangles the performance.  Nevertheless, our Andrew is, again, strong-willed and won’t easily give up. He begins to play “Whiplash,” without Terence’s conducting but inviting other members of the band to join him. They do, and the movie ends by showing Andrew’s BRILLIANT performance of the piece. Terence gets impressed and smiles his rare smiles, a conclusion that suggests Andrew’s growth as a musician, Terence’s success as a teacher, and the two men’s reconciliation. But, given the depth of their tension, this reconciliation feels too easy.

The Crisis of the MET

the met

If you keep a close eye on the news of the classical music world, you may have heard about the financial crisis that have stricken the Metropolitan Opera. This week, the New Yorker published an article that describes the origins and the current status of the Met crisis. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/23/a-fight-at-the-opera

It is clear that the Met’s finances are not healthy. According to the article, in 2013, the Met ran a deficit in the amount of 2.8 million dollars. A number of big donors are withdrawing their donations, because they don’t want to invest in a bottomless pit without a clear prospect of healthy recovery. In fact, many suspect that the Met would go bankrupt in a couple of years, if the current condition persists. Now, who is responsible for this insolvency, and what should be done about it? Answers to these question are not clear. Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, suggested cuts in the salaries of full time orchestra members, singers and dancers, and stagehands. These workers, however, emphasize more efficient and responsible management of the company’s economy.

I don’t know every minute detail about the Met, and I may change my view as my knowledge gets updated. But as I read the New Yorker article, I imagined a man who makes, let’s say, $500,000 a year but still worries that his income is not large enough to cover all the expenses. He may say, “my wife wants to buy a new yacht this summer, each of my children wants to go on Caribbean vacation, using their own helicopter, and I want to buy a new house in Monte Carlo. How can I pay for all of these?” I will say, if this is the scale of his consumption, no income is large enough. He will always feel poor, whether he makes $50,000, $500,000 or $1,000,000.

Roughly put, this is the Met’s situation, I think. I don’t have all the numbers on hand, but it is safe to say that the Met has a large economy, large by most – I am tempted to say “all” – opera company’s standards across the world. Despite the large scale economy, the Met is still crying poverty. Why? Partly or mostly because the Met puts on a number of new productions each year. It sounds exciting in theory, but in reality, new productions often call for new equipment, new technologies, new artists and more production time, which means more money. This is where I think a serious problem lies. One of the key words for Peter Gelb seems to be innovation, and there is nothing wrong with pursuing artistic innovation. I fully support it. What I am questioning is if artistic innovation is necessarily synonymous with costly new productions. Gelb says that La Boheme is one of the ever popular operas that the Met stages. The Met is one of the best opera companies in the world, and I am sure their La Boheme is fantastic. But does this necessarily mean that another La Boheme produced by a smaller and less expensive opera company is inferior to the Met’s in terms of artistic integrity? I doubt it. Money certainly helps to execute an artistic vision, but good artworks don’t necesarily require a lot of money. I can easily imagine a La Boheme that is produced on a smaller budget but still offers fresh insights.

As I mentioned above, the Met is one of the best opera companies in the world. It gets support from a number of rich and generous donors. But more importantly, it has a rich reservoir of operatic knowledge, skills, and insights accumulated over multiple generations. When the Met pursues artistic novelty and innovation, I hope it draws more on the second resources than on the first. Breaking new paths does not always require money. It often requires creative thinking, though. To use my crude analogy once again, you can earn $500,000 and still feel poor. However, if you reduce the scale of your consumption and find alternative methods to make yourself happy, you will find that $500,000 a year is a lot of money indeed.

Are you worried about your body? Please don’t.

skinny fat

My thought on this topic is yet very rough, so I am not sure if I can put into words the ideas that are just germinating on my mind. But let me try it. After all, what do I lose?

Today, I read an article from Time Magazine on the danger of skinny fat. (http://time.com/14407/the-hidden-dangers-of-skinny-fat/?xid=fbshare) The idea of the article is that while we single-mindedly focus on our weight as an index of our obesity, people who are in the normal ranges of weight are not necessarily in a worry-free zone. According to the article, skinny people can store fat in their bodies, and this kind of fat can be more dangerous than the fat of fat people. (Please note the word “can” here. Not that skinny fat is more dangerous but that it “can” be more dangerous than fat fat.)

I responded to this article with anger. I asked, “okay, we all know that fat fat is dangerous. Now, skinny fat is dangerous. What’s next?” I brushed off this thought immediately, though, thinking that I was probably overreacting. But in the next moments, I found myself wondering “Am I really overreacting?” I am tempted to say, no.

What I see in the Times article is a set of worrying machines, or a number of scientific studies that make us anxious about our bodies. Hence my question today is, are our worries worth it?

The bottom line is that everybody carries some sort of health dangers, regardless of his or her body type, and that we all die. To give credit to scientists, I say that there are definitely patterns that correlate a certain type of body to potential health problems. For example, people with a big belly and overflowing muffin tops run a higher risk of heart failures and live shorter than people in normal weight. But the thing is that it is just a pattern. A tendency. Not a guarantee. People with a big belly run a higher risk of heart failures, but this pattern does not mean that they all will die of heart attacks. We see on the street plenty of overweight men and women who are in their 80s and 90s. By contrast, anyone who is in normal weight ranges, maintains a healthy diet and does a moderate amount of exercise can develop a heart attack and perish tomorrow. And, when you fall into this unusual category that lies outside the general patterns, the patterns established by scientific studies mean nothing. For example, I weigh an “ideal” weight, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables everyday, run 10 miles a week (I am not describing real me. Let’s just imagine it to move our discussion forward, though). But I am diagnosed a colon cancer. About the science studies that approve my healthy habits, I will probably say, “f@?k them.”

I guess my argument today is that the end point of our life is determined by the combination of so many different factors that nothing alone guarantees how long we will live. Given the uncertainty of when and how we die, I think our priority should be given to the effort to improve the quality of our life. I understand that physical health is important for a good life and that we are all responsible for maintaining a healthy body. But, again, the definition of a healthy body is not clear-cut, and high blood pressure or high cholesterol, insofar as they don’t interfere with your having fun with your loved ones today, are not deal breakers, I think. On my death bed, I don’t think I will list my hour glass shape or low cholesterol level as valuable accomplishments of my life. What I appreciate is such things as quality time I spend with people I love, good books and music, etc. These things definitely improve the quality of my life and deserve my time and energy while I am alive. Also, I want to make small contributions to see that the world, when I leave it, is a better place than when I came in. My weight? My fat? Not really.

Now, another question emerges. Am I thinking within an American frame of reference, in which we do everything in our power to justify our ever growing body sizes? Maybe.

Movie Review: Still Alice (2015)

Movie Review: Still Alice (2015)

still alice poster When I said to my friend that I was going to see Still Alice, my friend uttered a deep “ugh.” I asked her if she watched the movie. She said, “no, but I read the novel. It was a disturbing book.” All right, that seals it. I like disturbing books and movies. Seriously, life throws all kinds of shit at us, and I want to know what kind of shit is tossed around and how we could respond to each kind of shit. There is no doubt that the movie Still Alice is disturbing. It is about Dr. Alice Howland, a famous scholar and professor in linguistics at Columbia University. A beautiful, accomplished woman at the age of 50 with a loving husband and three children. But Alzheimer’s disease strikes her. The movie portrays her downward spiral into the iron grip of Alzheimer’s. Given this topic, the movie should be disturbing. But my feeling after I finished watching the movie is that Still Alice is not disturbing enough. It is not as disturbing as it could be and it should be. The movie begins by showing Alice, delivering a talk at UCLA. She’s an irrefutable authority in her field, and to demonstrate her expertise, she opens her speech with such eloquence, elegance, and confidence. But towards the end of her opening sentence, she experiences a brief moment of blackout. She brushes it off, however, with a disarming smile and the humorous comment, “oh, I shouldn’t have that champagne during lunch.” Everybody laughs. In the next scene, the movie shows a lovely Christmas get-together of Alice’s family. Her husband (portrayed by Alec Baldwin) is also a faculty member at Columbia, and out of her three children, she made one lawyer and one medical doctor. In the opening scenes, my heart just melted out for Alice. Oh, she’s so pretty, so attractive, and so charming! She is intelligent without being arrogant, articulate without being pretentious, and kind without being uncritical. And her impeccable sense of fashion! This is beside the point, but in the scene where she had a meeting with her department chair, I wanted to literally enter the screen and ask her where she got that lovely green polka dot blouse that she was wearing. Basically, I wanted to steal every clothing item that she had. Anyway, the point is, I immediately fell in love with her, and I thought that I could look at her for hours and hours. As the movie progresses, Alice exhibits more and more undeniable symptoms of the disease. Yet in a good portion of the movie, Alice is still on the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and she shares with us audiences what the disease means to her. For example, in one scene, she delivers such a beautiful speech to the audience gathered for a meeting of Alzheimer’s Association. She speaks about her own experience of the disease, the experience she sums up as “the art of losing memories.”

Alice delivers a beautiful speech at a meeting of Alzheimer's Association.

Alice delivers a beautiful speech at a meeting of Alzheimer’s Association.

As Alzheimer’s attack gains momentum, however, I expected that the movie would inevitably shift its focus from Alice to people around her. I had this expectation, because, well, Alzheimer’s is a disease that causes you to lose your mind. Alice is a smart woman, and she uses available resources very well to sustain her grip on reality as long as possible. For example, she writes up some basic questions on her cell phone and makes herself to answer them everyday. She even makes a video for herself to prepare for the day when she can no longer remember the name of her oldest daughter or her address. Nevertheless, after a certain point, these devices would and should fail. Such moments as the speech scene mentioned above where Alice is still charming and elegant despite the disease would be eventually replaced by scenes showing ugly, angry, helpless, and animal-like Alice. Curiously enough, however, this deterioration does not really happen to Alice. Yes, Alice fails to find the bathroom in her house and pees on her pants. Yes, she places her cell phone in the kitchen cupboard and throws a fit when she can’t find the phone. Yes, she even mistakes one of her daughters with her sister. The kinds of embarrassing things that any Alzheimer’s patient experiences happen to Alice, but nevertheless, I felt that Alice is too elegant and too composed and too intelligent throughout the entire movie. This is the time when the word “sanitized” came to my mind. I felt that I was shown a sanitized portrayal of Alzheimer’s disease. On a personal note, my grandmother passed away from Alzheimer’s, and I observed the progress of her disease firsthand. Also, my husband’s grandmother was an Alzheimer’s patient. Alzheimer’s disease that I observed through these two women is a lot uglier and more degrading of human dignity than the movie shows. For example, one day, I came back home from school and found my grandmother yelling at someone on the phone at the top of her voice. She was still on the early stages of the disease, but when the automated voice recording asked her to press some numbers to proceed, she took a long time. The machine kept rejecting her attempts, and finally, out of sheer frustration, my grannie was yelling at the machine, using all kinds of profane words and unspeakable slurs. This is just one example. My grandmother enacted a number of ugly, dirty, embarrassing scenes, scenes that I could not even dream of when she was healthy.

Even in the last scenes of the movie, Alice is still too charming.

Even during the last scenes of the movie, Alice is still too charming.

But our Alice does not really show her ugly sides. Even the Alice at the very end is in continuation with the charming, articulate Alice of the beginning. And this was rather disappointing to me. I wanted to see more emotionally charged scenes: more uproar, more anger, more throwing of the fists, and more desperate interrogation of “why this punishment to me and my family?” As Alice speaks herself in the movie, all you have accomplished in your life is escaping you. Not only that but you get reduced to the level of animals. You excrete in your room and smear your shit on the wall. Or carry it in your purse.  How can you not be angry? How can you not be resentful of God or whichever being who metes out such a harsh punishment to you? Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease, because it reduces a dignified human being into an animalistic creature. It creates overwhelmingly violent, intense emotions for the patients themselves and for people around them. The movie Still Alice does not come close enough to portraying those raw, unrefined emotions, I think. It is, to me, too clean. Too elegant. Too sanitized.

Why You Shouldn’t Ask “Do You Speak English?”

A couple of days ago, one of my friends wrote on his Facebook about an episode from his high school freshman year. My friend is Asian American and looks irrefutably Asian (not the kind that makes you wonder) and on day one of high school, his teacher asked him, “do you speak English?” Recalling this embarrassing moment from almost 20 years ago, my friend wrote, “I may be oversensitive, but this question still bothers me a bit.”

On the day my friend wrote this post, I simply took it as a good joke. But the next day, I began to think. The question “do you speak English?” looks innocuous at first glance, but a lot is at stake in that question. I think the question is troubling for a couple of reasons.

First, let’s think about the context in which the question is asked. Usually, the interlocutor is someone whose English speaking ability is unquestionably clear, read a white American. And the addressee is someone whose English speaking ability is questionable, read people of color. Can you imagine someone who looks Asian or African asks a white person “do you speak English?” Well, this happens occasionally. For example, I, looking Asian, can ask a white French tourist visiting my town, “do you speak English?” But it is safe to say that most of the time, I am asked the question and rarely ask it.

Second, let’s note that there are two kinds in people of color: people of color living in the United States (Asian Americans in the context of today’s post) and people of color living outside the United States (Asian Asians). Now, imagine that our white American interlocutor asks the question to Asian Americans. (This is precisely the situation in which my friend mentioned above was placed.) The question is downright offensive! When addressed to Asian Americans, the question quickly becomes one on Asian Americans’ belonging. It is like saying, ” we Americans here speak English. Do you speak English? Do you belong here? Are you really one of us?” The question assumes that Asian Americans are second rate citizens who should prove their worth first before they belong to the United States. The white interlocutor gives a test, and Asian Americans should pass the test.

"I raise the bar. You jump over it."

“I raise the bar. You jump over it.”

Now, let’s consider the second case: our white friend asks the question to Asian Asians. In this case, the question becomes an expression of cultural arrogance and domination. It is like saying, “I speak my language. You come my way and speak my language.” My mom is a good example. She is a Korean Korean living in Korea all her life, and to the surprise of some people, Koreans in Korea speak Korean, not English. But when she visits me here, some people ask her, “do you speak English?” To those, I want to ask in revolt, “do you speak Korean?” If you understand that people outside the United States speak different languages, why do you expect that they speak your language?

However, I want to be fair to our white friend. By asking “do you speak English,” our friend usually tries neither to question Asian American belonging in the United States nor to express cultural arrogance. Chances are, our friend speaks English only, and all s/he wants to know is simply if s/he can communicate with a stranger, using the only language that s/he knows. Then, am I too harsh to our white friend? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. I do understand that most of the time, this is a question that means a zero offense on the part of the interrogator. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the meaning of an individual question is determined within the society in which the question is asked. It means that your question may take a different spin that you do not initially intend. In this post, I discussed Asian American belonging and cultural arrogance towards Asian Asians as two examples of social meanings that the question “do you speak English” inevitably invokes.

Oh, I see that our white interrogator is not convinced by my analysis. I understand. What he wants to know – “can I communicate with this stranger, using English?” – is still left unanswered. If “do you speak English” is not good enough, what can he say instead to get an answer to his question? Well, I have a suggestion. Instead of asking “do you speak English,” you can ask “do you live here?” Be sure that your question accompanies the following hand gesture.

Do you live here?

Do you live here?

If the addressee is Asian Asian, you will get either a puzzled look or a no, depending on the addressee’s knowledge of English. My mom, for instance, pounds her chest and cries, “Korea!” If the addressee is Asian American, you will get either a yes or the name of some American city. You get an answer to what you want to know without bringing all the heavy baggage!

Last words. What do I say, if someone asks me, “do you speak English?” I say, “no.”