An unassuming greeting became the subject of debate overnight after Masterchef Australia finalist Sarah Tiong accused an Australian radio station of being racist — by saying "ni hao ma" (Mandarin for how are you) and "lei ho ma" (Cantonese) to her.
The Sydney-born chef, whose parents hail from Malaysia, posted an Instagram story earlier this week sharing how she felt "uncomfortable and shocked" by how "insensitive" and "tone-deaf" the experience was.
"It is rude and privileged to assume that I understand that Asian language, just because I appear of that descent," she later explained to a follower. "The mere presumption that I speak or want to speak Mandarin or Cantonese with you followed by the flippant dismissal of distinguishing the two different languages is racist. It's dehumanising."
After word broke out about her displeasure, the radio station, Triple M Sunraysia, quickly issued an apology for the offence caused.
However, the entire exchange had Singaporeans divided on whether it was truly racist.
"How the **** is nihaoma stereotypical?" one netizen asked. "When a foreigner say nihaoma to me, my first thought would be 'wow he speak mandarin' instead of 'wow that's ****ing racist'."
Many others chimed in with similar views, saying how the other party had been respectful by acknowledging her ethnicity, rather than mocking it.
Some also called Tiong out for being "overly sensitive" and that she should have just gotten over the misunderstanding instead.
The director and founder of local aquaculture company, OnHand Agrarian, similarly called Tiong "entitled".
"Putting aside the fact that her name is literally Sarah 中(Tiong), there is nothing wrong with being greeted in a language people think you speak."
Other netizens, however, had a different take on the situation, citing that context was key.
One noted how for some, assuming they could only speak a certain language was akin to typecasting, and by doing so can feel derogatory — something other commenters described as microaggression.
"Have been on the receiving end of mocking ni hao ma's in Australia, accompanied by rude gestures — it's one extra step from that 'go back to China chinky'," another shared.
MasterChef judge Melissa Leong, born to Singaporean-Chinese parents, backed up Tiong in her own Instagram story, explaining how the experience was considered "a mere daily occurrence for many POC."
"It is not funny, or clever. It just illustrates how deep rooted racial toxicity is in this country, and anyone with a voice in media should know better."
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