A friend of mine is a young woman who happens to be of Taiwanese descent. A few days ago she stopped by a local grocer to pick up some items. As she was paying for her purchases, the cashier, an older man who also owns the store, looked at her and said “Arigato.” This happens to be the Japanese saying for “thank you.”
Confused, my friend just looked at him. The man then said, “Isn’t ‘arigato’ your line?” She wasn’t sure if he was trying to tell her to say thank you, but his assumption that she was Japanese and didn’t speak English left her fuming. She says she mumbled a “thank you” and left the store. Naturally, she has no plans to return.
Assuming that you can tell a person’s background or experience because of the way he or she looks is a dangerous idea. Not every Asian person you meet is Chinese, or Japanese. You may see someone as Indian, when they are actually from Bangladesh, a country with its own rich culture. A person with fair skin or blue eyes could actually be mixed-race, and assuming otherwise while expressing your outdated viewpoints will likely cause offense.
This same friend is also often asked where she’s from. She’s actually from Texas, but what people what to know is where her parents are from. Would you ask this of a white person? In my experience, it’s best to let people share their personal stories themselves. If someone has a unique last name, you could ask about its origins, but asking something like “where is that accent from?” can lead to trouble. I knew someone who once asked that of a new neighbor and it turned out that the woman had a disorder that caused her to slur her words. Also, people can be sensitive about their accents.