I am of Asian descent (which is completely relevant) and I work in a bookstore when these things happen to me:
I had grabbed a tall stack of books and on my way to putting them on the shelves when an older gentleman had stopped in the middle of the aisle (which were still wide enough for plenty of room for people to pass), put his feet together, and bowed at me. By this time, I didn’t have enough time to do anything about it, and if I had stopped, that would have meant the stack of books happening on the floor but I didn’t know what he wanted to accomplish with the act. In Asian cultures, the only time when we would do something like that would be whenever we’re introducing ourselves or another. Even in a retail setting, something like this never happens between two complete strangers; perhaps during a transaction when patron of a store may thank a customer for his or her patronage.
Not only this, I also get questions such as, “Where are you from.” I usually answer that I’m from Chicago, as I sometimes have the accent, but of course, this is not what they’re asking. Instead of being able to deal with the situation and say that I’d rather not say, as it can be considered poor service on my part and may involve complaints on part of the customer in addition to solicitations of, “why not”, I lie and say that I was adopted and I have no idea. On the one hand, I can see that they might be really interested. On the other hand, it makes me ask whether they want to know because of some weird illegal immigrant issue they want to bring up, their need to be nosey, or to show of what limited (and usually incorrect) knowledge they have of the language of my heritage by trying to say a few random phrases.
I’m always confused in these moments and never know what to do. 0810-10
In the situations you presented, I would assume good intentions of the customers and play right along. In the case of the gentleman, despite it not being the correct time to bow to one another, had I been you and encountered the customer again after disposing of my stack of books, would have bowed to him while smiling, perhaps even laughing. He may very well have thought he was showing respect to you or making an awkward introduction of sorts and sometimes it’s a kindness to recognize those moments and help the other person climb over their own awkwardness.
I’ve played along with total strangers at shopping stores or out and about and often that can yield these little gems of time, “these small hours, little wonders, these twists and turns of fate” as the song “Little Wonders” by Rob Thomas goes. Two total strangers, probably never destined to meet again, share a joke, a smile or a laugh. It’s my personal “flash mob” moment. It makes my day and I think it adds to the enjoyment of others.
As for asking about nationality, I admit I am quite guilty of this. I am my family’s archivist and genealogist so people’s history and family names interest me greatly. An unusual surname gets my curiosity juices flowing and I’d love to know that person’s ethnic heritage. Being aware that this could be construed negatively, I weigh the appropriateness of the question in context of the timing, how I am relating to that person, etc. When I do ask, I phrase it thus, “You have an unusual or interesting surname I am not familiar with. What is the ethnic heritage of that name?” My experiences are that people are very proud of their heritage and not offended at all. It’s also can be a conversation starter into different areas of discussion. I feel I learn something, too.
“Where are you from?”, is the sloppy, awkwardly abrupt way many people communicate an interest in another person or as a way to start a small conversation. *I’ve* even asked that question simply because I’m hearing an accent I cannot place and I’m trying to figure out where the person is from…although I ‘m more likely to phrase the question with, “I can’t place your accent. Australian? South African? Where are you from?” I live in a Southeastern state where one would assume all Southern accents are the same but there are at least four different variants of a NC accent (and lots more I’m sure) that can place where a person is from. Once they have your locale pegged down, the next question you’ll likely to hear in North Carolina is, “Who is your daddy?” (pronounced “deady”) as they try to mentally fit you into the community as they know it.
You mention you are Asian but I would submit that one reason people ask for clarification as to where you are from is because “Asian” is an extremely broad classification. Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, Philippino, Tibetan, Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Malayasian, Mongolian, Thai, and Sri Lankan are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head and I’m sure there are even more I’ve forgotten. I know from experience that Japanese, for example, would be offended to be mislabeled as Korean. I believe, therefore, that it can be a sign of respect to ask for a clarification of where one is from (a person’s ethnic heritage) so that further communication is based on understanding and a desire to not offend inadvertently.