One of the more awkward questions I’m asked in the US is some variation on “What language do they speak in Singapore?” It’s actually a perfectly understandable question, and something I might ask if I didn’t know much about a country.
Most recently, I was Christmas shopping at FAO Schwarz. A saleswoman approached me to let me know they could give me free shipping. I deferred. She pushed harder. I said “I don’t live around here.” She informed me they could ship anywhere in the US. I deferred again. “Canada, too!”
The one I’d avoided because I didn’t particularly want a longer conversation. “I don’t live in the US.”
“Oh, where do you live?”
Finally, I give the answer that always starts a longer conversation. “Singapore.”
“Where is that?”
“How do they say hello in your language?” (meaning Singapore)
People don’t ask that question expecting “hello.” They’re curious, perhaps even excited to learn something exotic and new. Hearing that English is the primary language of a country they’ve never heard of (or only have the typical knowledge of–gum and Michael Fay) is confusing, even disappointing. Most frequently it’s just awkward.
I generally then explain that it’s a former British colony, and some people look at my blankly, as if to say “and that means….?”
The US education system (like many) isn’t strong on the history or customs of other countries and cultures, particularly small ones like Singapore. So it’s unsurprising that someone wouldn’t know where former British colonies are (or where all of them are), or how that would impact those countries linguistically. After all, once the US declared independence, that was it, right? The fates of the rest of those colonies of the British Empire are generally never mentioned again.
I don’t like making people feel bad/awkward/uncomfortable. Sometimes I wonder if I should just lie and say “ni hao,” or “wu an.”