I’ve never needed to be reminded to play nice. It is at the core of who I am and who I think I’m expected to be. I keep extra gum in my coat pockets. I’ve loaned out more hair ties than I’d ever be able to count. I’ve always assumed kindness, generosity, politeness, and goodness are one and the same, but now, I’m not so sure. I’ve been trying to figure out why I think my niceness is presumed—does it have to do with the fact that I’m Asian? A woman?
The fact I’m an Asian woman and, in turn, so demure, so gentle, very “porcelain doll”? Is it because I’m from the Midwest and, were I to be mugged, I’d probably apologize for not having enough cash on hand? Does it have to do with how quiet I am, how small a space I feel I should take up, my instinct to fold inward and make myself the tiniest, innermost Russian nesting doll? What is it about my vibe that makes strangers trust me to watch their stuff while they go pee?? And, at the center of it all, am I actually nice or am I just performing a role I think I’m expected to play? Who is benefiting from my niceness?
It’s hard not to be jaded by the fact that I often feel like my kindness is expected where others’ is lauded. No one is shocked that I’m comfortable holding their baby. No one is surprised when I wait my turn, hold the door, remember to say thank you and sorry and no, no, please, you should have the last piece.
Most people describe my husband, Riley, as a nice person. He is tall, a man, white, handsome in a way that is approachable, funny in a way that makes you want to listen, and he has whatever Myers-Briggs type is most like a golden retriever. He makes friends easily, often, and in pretty much any environment. Once, a work acquaintance thought I didn’t like them because I didn’t laugh hard enough at a joke they made. I only know this because they confided this to Riley, a person they had known for one (1) hour.
I’m sure it sounds like I’m resentful of the way people celebrate my husband for, say, picking up a piece of trash on the sidewalk or standing next to a toddler particularly well. That’s only because…I am. I’m mad that his Nice Points go further than mine. I also know that maybe genuinely nice people don’t keep track of their good deeds with, say, Nice Points.
I used to worry the only discernible thing about me was my agreeability. In lieu of developing a personality, I established myself as someone who wouldn’t challenge, question, or nudge even in the slightest. What are my thoughts on Walden or transcendentalism as a whole? Whatever yours are, Mrs. Teacher! Do I like Good Charlotte’s music? Sure, she sounds nice! In hindsight, I think I’ve had entire friendships where I just nodded a lot and gave them someone to walk with around Kohl’s department store.
I’ve spent so long with a label that reads nice plastered across my forehead, occasionally pressing down at the corners to make sure it sticks, that I’ve rarely stopped to wonder who put the label there in the first place. Only recently have I started to pick at the edges or think about what I’d look like with a label that says bold or fun or double-jointed. Only now, after having been alive for three decades, am I asking questions like, “Is it unkind to disagree with someone? Can I be angry and nice at the same time?”
I’m not known for my anger. If anything, I default to annoyed. When people cut me off in traffic, I get nervous before I get mad. Would a mouse give the finger to a rattrap on wheels?
I did get a taste of rage when I started taking Wellbutrin—sometimes known as the hot, horny antidepressant. Though it’s unsettling to know that a couple hundred milligrams of something can ignite the part of my brain that decides, “ME WANT FIGHT,” it was admittedly fun to feel angry.
Anger made me present. It was so much more visceral than the damp malaise of depression. I contemplated picking a fight with an editor over email. Throwing eggs sounded fun. I didn’t do either of those things, but the rush! How cathartic to put your whole self into a feeling and, then, push that feeling out into the world through a screech, a stomp, a knife through unspoken tension. Anyway, I’m no longer taking Wellbutrin on its own.
Recently, however, I felt something akin to my Wellbutrin rage when the collective public started going on their Asian Apology Tour. Amid the growing number of hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans, in correlation with the pandemic, I got a handful of messages from friends, acquaintances, and virtual strangers alike to “check in.” This trend, I’m assuming, was born out of non-Asian (often white, usually liberal) people wanting to do something actionable in response to these attacks.
They wanted to speak out against the way Asian people, Chinese people in particular, were being vilified in conversations led by some (often white, usually conservative) people. They were looking for ways to step forward and be a barrier, shielding Asians from those white people. This also became a way—whether intentional or not—to step forward and distinguish themselves as “doing the work,” as one of the good ones.I’ve spent so long with a label that reads nice plastered across my forehead, occasionally pressing down at the corners to make sure it sticks, that I’ve rarely stopped to wonder who put the label there in the first place.
Online, I saw Asian people offering these kinds of check-ins as a way for non-Asian people to engage in an immediate, intimate capacity. And who wouldn’t want to be offered solace? To feel seen in some small part? To have people acknowledge pain you’ve often felt you should keep private? I also saw Asian people who balked at the idea of a bunch of white strangers DMing them to say, “Thinking of you <3 Stop Asian hate!!”
I—and, I’m assuming, many others—fell somewhere in the middle. I wanted there to be recognition for the collective mourning that happens when you see people who look like you killed because of the way they look. I wanted people to feel bad for every joke they made about an Asian massage parlor and every time they laughed when they heard the words me so horny. I also wanted to be left alone by people I knew hadn’t experienced this strange and specific kind of grief.
Fortunately—luckily?—I didn’t have to confront any pointed violence in person. Though I had moments where I worried strangers would approach me in anger or avoid me out of fear—seeing my eyes above my mask and thinking, Hmm, looks Asian enough to me!—it was never something I experienced personally. No one yelled at me or steered clear of me. No one really brought up my race in connection to COVID at all aside from these apology messages I got.
Some messages were welcomed and within the context of an actual mutual relationship. They were from people I’d previously had conversations with about race and whiteness among many, many other conversations about life, work, my family, my dog, depression, wide-legged overalls, and the best kinds of soup. They were from people I’d be mad at—or, more likely, annoyed with—if they didn’t text me on my birthday, people who know with certainty that I am talking about them right now. Other messages were…a surprise? Well-meaning and earnest, sure. But definitely a surprise.
Were these gestures nice ? Were these people nice ? Was the random stranger who slipped into my DMs to say, “Thinking of you,” nice? If so, nice for what? Nice to what end? Nice for who? Why did niceness feel so much like a bribe? It made me wonder if niceness isn’t a personality trait but a trading card.
In case you need it, here is a list of things I would actually like you to apologize to me, specifically, for:
1) A particular interaction between the two of us (e.g., you cut me off in a meeting, you ignored my email, you said a mean thing to me, you farted on me and walked away)
2) That’s it. That’s the whole list.
There is something so sad and so funny about getting messages that basically boiled down to “sorry about the racism :/ .” Though I’d never be bold enough to ask directly, I’m curious why they thought they were apologizing, who they thought that apology was for? As someone who says “sorry” like a reflex, I can sense when someone is expressing pointed remorse and when they’re offering an apology as an obligatory act.
Some of those messages I responded to with a quick “thanks!”—(you can tell I was irritated because I only used the one exclamation point). Others, I ignored, panicking a little that they might be able to tell I read their message and didn’t respond. (This is a near impossibility as I’ve never once had read receipt enabled on my phone. I still don’t understand who that feature is for. The number of times I read a message, think about responding, and forget about it entirely only to wake up in the middle of the night four days later like oh no is none of your business!)
I still don’t know if I should have responded to those unexpected check-ins, setting aside my own comfort to preserve theirs. Half of me—probably the white half (JUST KIDDING!!!)—knows they were trying to be nice, to be good, to acknowledge the Bad Things happening rather than just ignore them. The other half called my sister immediately to be like, “Are you also hearing ‘sorry’ from random white people?”
Is it rude to ignore an unprompted apology? Should I have acted kindly and responded with gratitude? Would an equally obligatory “Thank you so much!” really have been a nice thing to say?
Those apology messages felt indicative of a much larger social tendency—both in cultural conversations and in myself—to perform kindness rather than actually figure out what it means to be “good.” It’s so much easier to do the right thing when you’re being told what is right. Say “please” and “thank you” because your parents said you should. You can point to a commandment and say, “I haven’t coveted my neighbor’s wife, so I must be doing something right.” Rules and guidelines and pretty Instagram infographics are easy. It’s much harder to examine our innermost intentions and ask, “Who am I doing this for?”
I started thinking more about the cultural ramifications of niceness after I saw Parasite. There are plenty of reason to love that movie: there’s the bop that is “Jessica, Only Child, Illinois, Chicago.” There’s the scene where the wealthy Park parents get freaky on the couch while the Kim family hides underneath the coffee table, equal parts horny and terrifying. There’s the fact that Da-song, the Parks’ youngest child, is just chilling with an arrow between his butt cheeks when “Jessica”/Ki-jung first meets him.
But it’s how Chung-sook, the matriarch of the Kim family, responds to her husband describing the Parks as nice “even though [they’re] rich” that I cannot get out of my head. As the Kims secretly party in the Parks’ lush living room, drinking their fancy booze and eating their snacks, Chung-sook half-drunkenly replies, “She’s nice because she’s rich.”If you are expected to be nice to someone who is more powerful than you, it’s likely obedience rather than human kindness.
I’d never really thought about how social niceties are a privilege to be able to both experience and give out. There’s a certain brand of niceness that seems inextricable from servitude, particularly when any kind of imbalance of power is involved. If you are expected to be nice to someone who is more powerful than you, it’s likely obedience rather than human kindness.
And so, I guess, I’m mostly curious, when I’m nice, who am I being nice to? What am I being nice for?
Why be nice to the man at the pool who insists he knows I’m Asian, who doesn’t wait for an answer, anyway, because he says he can tell by my “kung fu stare”? Why placate the men at the bar who won’t leave me alone until I tell them my race? Why oblige the guy on the metro who asks for my number because he “could tell” I was half-Filipina? Why feel an added level of obligation to engage because all these men are Asian?
So much of kindness comes down to the ability to absorb the thoughtlessness of others. I wonder if people would still think I’m nice if I spoke up when I felt uncomfortable. On the other side, I wonder who has soaked up my own verbal slights like a sponge, filling their pores with my thoughtless detritus so I can keep believing that I am good.
I mean, it’s certainly helped my own ego in the past couple years to be a nice and good rule follower. I kept my six-foot distance without complaint. I wore my mask over my nose. I felt better about myself when I wore my mask through the drive-through, a momentary signal to the person working: Don’t worry. I’m one of the good ones. I did wonder what being quarantined had done to our tolerance for doling out these kinds of niceties, but I suppose we have our answer. How will people recant stories of the time they started a fight on an airplane because they didn’t want to follow CDC health regulations? How will the rest of us talk about the time we cheered at a viral video of a flight attendant duct-taping a belligerent, unmasked passenger to a seat? Maybe the only feeling more visceral than anger is righteousness.
I wonder why it’s taken me this long to question the motivation of my own kindness, but it has felt more critical than ever to differentiate between the performance of niceness and that which comes from true good intentions.
I don’t think I’m any less agreeable than I was a year ago, two years ago, thirty years ago. I don’t think I’m any less primed to shrink or apologize or smile out of obligation than I’ve been before. But when I push back against things that make me uncomfortable—the things that seem rooted in surface-level obligation, the things that reinforce ideas I wish didn’t exist in the first place—I’m starting not to worry about it as much. And worrying less feels nice.
Excerpted from She’s Nice Though: Essays on Being Bad at Being Good by Mia Mercado. Copyright © 2022. Available from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.