English only, please — this is China

13 Apr 2003

SPEAK BOY!

This is one of my favorite cartoons of all time… Multi-lingual, pro-individuals’ clean air rights, anti-animal abuse — all the while taking a jab at linguistic imperialism.

So what’s the China connection? Those who have not had the privilege of coming to China may expect me to decry some foreigners’ attitudes here. Far from it. Rather than foreigners in China expecting to be spoken to in English more than they are, it is the Chinese who expect to be spoken to in English more than they are.

Sure, there are plenty of people here that don’t speak English and have no interest in it, but many Chinese people — especially college-aged — are reluctant to talk to foreigners in any language but English. Your good-natured attempts at the language are returned with a laugh and English only. I don’t want to make it seem like there are no college-aged students that are willing to talk to foreigners in Chinese. That simply wouldn’t be true. But the proportion is heavily skewed in the opposite direction, or at least much more strongly than I had ever imagined before coming here.

As crazy as it sounds, it’s true. I’m not sure, but I think this is a unique set of circumstances in the world today. The Japanese are not like that. It may be partly because the poor Japanese have a bit of a linguistic inferiority complex, but the Japanese usually seem relieved to be able to speak Japanese with a foreigner instead of having to use English. In Thailand I sure couldn’t speak much Thai, but the people were so friendly that I had a ball with my mangled phrasebook command of the language. And there are a lot of Thai people that speak good English. In my experience, Mexicans don’t feel the need to always bring it back to English either… and they know when you’re American. I’ve never been there, but in Europe English seems to be an oft-resented obligatory linguistic routine. So what’s going on in China?

The answer seems to be that the Chinese people have an intense longing to come up in the world. The government — despite its severely flawed English education system — has recognized the importance of English in our increasingly globalized, capitalistic earthly existence, and has instilled a sense of urgency in the young to learn English. True, some are trying to get out of the country, but others just want to learn it. It is because of these very circumstances that I and many others are able to easily find work in China at a university level and live comfortably here.

And yet, the whole situation can be very frustrating. People who come all the way to China to learn Chinese do not appreciate being repeatedly forced to speak English. Yes, English is now the international language, but shouldn’t Mandarin be the default language here? Also, there is sort of a natural linguistic principle which dictates that when two speakers of different languages communicate, the mode of communication settled upon will be the language that both people speak best. This means that if a Frenchman and a Spaniard meet, and the Frenchman’s Spanish is not so hot, but neither is the Spaniard’s French, but both speak English decently, communication will be conducted in English. Natural, right? Similarly, if a Chinese and an American meet, and the Chinese person speaks pretty bad English but the American speaks decent Chinese, the conversation should proceed in Chinese. Why, then, in China, is this so often not the case? At times it amounts to linguistic bullying, and it becomes clear that communication is not really the desired end.

Again, let me stress that this is not always the case, but I’d like to list two of the ruder experiences I’ve had here, which are not isolated incidents, but rather categories of incidents which occasionally are repeated:

– I was speaking with a Chinese friend in Chinese in a public place. My friend didn’t speak English. A Chinese man I didn’t know approached me and engaged me in coversation in English. He refused to switch over to Chinese, even though my friend couldn’t follow the conversation. My friend and I had to leave to get away from the guy.

– I was speaking to two Chinese people who approached me in English. I spoke to them in English, and then added in some Chinese. One of the people got a strange expression on his face and told me he didn’t understand. The other was like, “what do you mean you don’t understand? He said that totally clearly.” The other became flustered because his friend didn’t catch onto his fake miscomprehension trick.

In all fairness, I should bring up the idea of the “psychological block” to communication in Asia. I have had this experience in both Japan and China. Sometimes you’ll speak to a person in near-perfect (if not perfect) Chinese or Japanese, and all you’ll get is a shaking of the head and a “I don’t speak English.” These people will not listen to you at all, because when they see a white face they become absolutely convinced in their minds that communication is impossible. Often it’s the old that suffer from these psychological blocks. In one case a nearby Chinese person, incredulous, told the guy that I was speaking to him in Chinese, but the man still refused to even listen to me. Incredible. That said, I’d like to say that the second example above is not one of those cases. It was a deliberate attempt to block communication in Chinese.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m willing to speak to Chinese people in English. I also understand that the average Chinese person gets very very few opportunities to practice “real English,” and I’m always happy to speak to my students in English. It can also be very refreshing to speak to a Chinese person in English when the person speaks good English. But I certainly resent being deprived of my right to speak Chinese in China.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Why don’t you just say you are hungarian and your English isn’t very good. I have never tried this but it could work

  2. Anonymous Says: May 13, 2005 at 8:11 pm

    Depending on my mood – and if I’m thinking on my feet – I tell Chinese people after they greet me with the customary “Hellooo” that I don’t speak English. Of course, I say this in Chinese. And I add, and I’m from Greece and only know how to speak Greek and a little Chinese. A white Chinese lie, but one that saves me some hassles and gives me a chance to practice my own Chinese – in China.

  3. what a crazy description on “ur”findings in China!! I am a Chinese, and as far as i know, we often try to speak Chinese with any one from ENglish -speaking countries. the problem is , some people are so arrogant that they will think we dont like our Chinese. What a story do u want to make, sir???

  4. This was the entry that just NEEDED to be written. This was my biggest problem, by FAR, in China. When I first arrived in Japan, I thought — “SWEET! Japanese are cool. They are different, and respectful.” But then I got a lot of English coming into me at a party the other week and though: “er.. Maybe I misjudged and I’m being stupid, and the Japanese act just the same. Perhaps they also see the $1000’s I’m spending on tuition and living expenses to be here as all for the sake of them to freely learn conversational English from me.” But I take it back now that I see someone else concurs on my idea about Japan being a tad bit different.

    Heck — this is the very reason Guangzhou is my favorite city in China. Although I know but a word or two of Cantonese, when I was down there I felt extremely respected and happy when strangers first tried to speak to me in Cantonese. For me RESPECT means believing it is within the realm of possibilities that I can speak their language…

    (And Shanghai was a nightmare in the opposite direction. Cash register ladys always motioning me to look at the price on the register display with their FRICKIN SIGN LANGUAGE. Easy solution ? 你是个哑巴吗? 我看不懂手语。)

    Well — the main problem for me is that I don’t know how to handle it, and become far far too emotionally involved… hints or suggestions are welcome! But definitely this “issue” should be in the top 10 on the warning list for those about to head off for China.

  5. It’s interesting that I just discovered this entry of yours. I wrote a simlar entry in March 2004 which recieved a number of interesting comments about the same problems in Korea. Stonewalled When Speaking Korea

  6. I’ve only had this problem in China when people thought their English was better than my Chinese. Then I would start talking about politics or current events in mandarin and it served as a verbal pimp slap. After that they would only throw in the occasional English word.

  7. as a few hinted above, it’s not so frustrating for you because you ARE a native english speaker, it is more frustrating when you are not.
    Then it is even more frustrating to be systematically taken for an American when you are… French… this does not happen so much in mainland China, but in Taiwan all the time.
    In China, people point at you and say “laowai”, in Taiwan only kids point at you, but saying “meiguo ren”, no it’s not appropriate to say to a kid “cao ni ma, ni jiao wo shenmen meiguoren ?”

  8. In Korea, I would speak to Spanish to Koreans looking for English target practice. In China, I spoke Korean. It was hilarious to see the expressions on some people’s faces as they tried to reconcile the white face with the Korean language. One guy actually figured it out and said, “You can speak Korean” in English, of course.

  9. yes, just yesterday, I was buying things from som vendor in the street, and then comes the wise 30 something chinese woman behind me “you can speak chinese !”
    of course, I ignored her totally
    how disgraceful is that ? commenting that someone can speak chinese, but saying it in another language ?
    and even if she had said it in Chinese, oh my, give me a break, use your head, if I speak Chinese, probably I’ve been around quite a while, have met hundreds of Chinese saying “oh, you speak Chinese” in both English and Chinese

  10. I know exactly what you mean Seb. My favourite is “You can use chopsticks!” How hard do they think it is?! That aside, it’s heartening to hear these comments. I’d thought it was just my laziness but obviously I’m not imagining that it’s hard to generate speaking practice. I often regret leaving Dali in Yunnan Province. It was chock full of people who couldn’t be bothered to practise / learn English.

    Newcomer

  11. The chopsticks one gets me as well. I mean, it’s two sticks. Sure, I’ve seen many a fresh off the plane tourist struggling in an overpriced restaurant, but after being here for six months I had students telling me that they didn’t think I knew how to use chopsticks. I commented that if that were true, I should have either lost a lot of weight, or had very dirty hands, neither of which was true.

    That being said, I have seen a few “newly rich” struggling with a knife and fork at a western style restaurant. I guess it’s all relative.

  12. “The answer seems to be that the Chinese people have an intense longing to come up in the world.”–John

    I totally agree.

    Generally, we all know asian cultures put a lot of importance on “face” and “status”. This is what this behavoir is all about. I don’t believe in any of these instances the people were being intentionally insulting. That includes your example at the food stall, Seb. You have to appreciate that they grew up in a totally different set of “status” values from you. Yeah, it’s very frustrating when people pretend not to understand your obviously near-perfect chinese. By western standards, that behavior is childish. But to them, it’s all about face.

    Asian cultures seem to have some inferiority complex when dealing with cultures that have more “riches” than them, i.e. English-speaking cultures, which they automatically associate with American culture. In their head, they’re thinking, “Why the heck does he insist on speaking Chinese? Chinese are poor! Chinese language is worthless!”

    I had a very interesting convo with a Thai friend of mine. He was telling me about one of our co-workers, also a Thai. He originally approached him at work and tried to speak Thai with him. The other guy pretended not to understand Thai. My friend KNEW where he was from and that he DEFINATELY spoke Thai. But he still pretended that he could only speak (strong accented) English. My friend explained to me that Thais have a cultural inferiority complex and for the most part, view their language as economically worthless, therefore culturally worthless as well. So our co-worker was trying to gain face by pretending only to speak English.

    I related this story to another Thai friend and he told me “When I go back to Thailand on vacation, I NEVER speak Thai. I pretend to know only English and I am treated like a God.” He related to me this story how he was in this store at the mall in Thailand and these two white guys came in and were speaking perfect Thai aloud to each other.

    The store was full of cute young female clerks. Normally they would have flocked to the white guys because they perceive them as foreigners with lots of money, but my friend said they completely ignored the white guys and after he(my friend) pretended to not speak Thai, they flocked around him and came to the conclusion that he must be an American actor. A couple of them asked for his number.

    Those of us who are westerners can’t understand this behavoir. Here is why–we have our own self-loathing and boredom towards our culture. Most westerners who are white, grew up in the suburbs in America feel they HAVE no culture, no “flava”, so to speak. That’s why you have these white fools like Eminem adopting black-American culture and pretending to be “from tha hood”. They long to have a culture of their own. So when they travel abroad, they cannot understand how someone with such an “interesting cultural tradition” as Chinese could have no appreciation for it themselves.

    G

    • Sn0w Wh1te Says: June 10, 2012 at 12:42 am

      “Most westerners who are white, grew up in the suburbs in America feel they HAVE no culture, no “flava”, so to speak. That’s why you have these white fools like Eminem adopting black-American culture and pretending to be “from tha hood”. They long to have a culture of their own. So when they travel abroad, they cannot understand how someone with such an “interesting cultural tradition” as Chinese could have no appreciation for it themselves.” – G

      I’m going to stray a bit off topic for a moment, while I did agree with most of what you had to say the last paragraph kinda of bothered me. Simply because white kids who have nicer means (or not) of living get bored and wanna explore the workings of other cultures (black included) that does not mean they are all “Posers”, Eminem himself grew up on Michigan’s infamous 8 Mile Road. If you bothered to study up on it you would have learned 8mi Road still today serves as a radical racial and economic divide. Eminem just happened to have had to grow up on the concrete street instead of the lush lawn. Black people happened to be who he identified with the most because the people he lived around and hung out with were mainly black in the same social economic situations as himself during his uprising to fame. Just because someone had a different skin color it doesn’t mean they have “act according to hue”. Sincerely, The-“TriBlooded Girl from L.E.S’s hood”-Whos-Had-to-Deal-With-Judgments-Her-Whole-Life-Cause-She-“Looks White”.

  13. I absolutely agree with what G says. As mere human beings we all tend to judge the book by the cover. Besides we have tuition and lectures to “practice” Mandarin. Daily life is entirely different. The lady at the food centre or the hawker on the street may not have the same linguistic abilities some students have. We wouldn’t exactly use Shakespeare’s English at a Mom & Pop store, would we? Mandarin also has many “tiers”. Spoke Mandarin can be quite different from written Mandarin. Besides, it is nice to explain first your intention to use Mandarin. Then you will experience the enormous support. It can be overwhelming but in such a nice way.

    Jac

  14. G,

    I’m Thai and must say that your observation is mostly correct. ‘Mostly’ because I can assure you that the reason your Thai friend decided to speak only English when he was on vacation in Thailand was NOT because of the linguistic or cultural inferiority complex. Thailand is known for its hospitality because its people are friendly. We LOVE foreigners. Let me repeat that, we LOVE foreigners. Now you may be thinking: “No, you love our money.” That’s probably true if you go to a tourists-plagued establishment. But isn’t that also true in other countries, Europe and, to a much lesser extent, the US included?

    You see, when you speak a foreign language in Thailand, you are accorded a special status. In most cases, you are immuned for expectations to conform to local customs and treated with greastest kindness imaginable. If you want to do a little test, go to the northeastern part of the country where people are poorest, hide your credit card, cash and other valuable items, ask for FREE accommodation and board and I guarantee you it wouldn’t take more than a day. Heck, an hour would probably be enough.

    John,

    I’m not sure if it’s the same here. In Thailand we laugh, giggle or smile when hearing a foreigner speaks Thai. But then we have a different situation because we barely have any foreigners who can speak perfect or even near-perfect Thai. Be assured, however, that our laughter, giggling and smiles have nothing to do with mockery or insult. We just love laughing and smiling.

    Seb,

    You’re being too harsh. Familiar with the term ‘white privilege’? Even if you do, I bet you have never had–or will ever have–to struggle with not having such privilege. Being spoken to in English, French or German in a non-English, -Frenh, -German speaking countries is NOTHING compared to the humiliation of being looked at constantly with bewilderment when the shopkeeper in the US, France or Germany realizes you can’t speak his language.

    Is it so hard to graciously accept random compliments from the local people?

  15. GOOD FOR YOU JOHN!

    I agree with you wholeheartedly, and also resent those who try to deprive me of my right to speak the official language of a country where I am.

    If it comforts you, English speakers have the same problems in European countries. Even after many years in Germany, I still come across those who think they have a right to practice English with me once they discover I am British.

    Never give an inch! It’s the only way some of these people will understand.

    • Tim D said “Never give an inch! It’s the only way some of these people will understand.”

      I agree 100%. My Chinese is quite reasonable, though I wouldn’t say advanced. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as it is if I wasn’t a selfish bastard who insists on speaking Chinese with every Chinese person I come across.

  16. i was in a doctors office in conn. US when i noticed there was a chinese man in the waiting area, i started some small talk in mandarin and he began to ask me where i was from, how old i was and where i learned mandarin, he then immediatley flipped my conversation to english and i felt i had to compete for time to speak with him in mandarin. like scuba diving with one breather. quite frustrating!!! I knew he was going to be called in to be attended so my practice time was limited and later concluded that he probably got the formalities out of the way and moved right in for the free lessons.

  17. The first time I was in China, I was just starting to learn Chinese. I got all the “Oh, your Chinese is so good.” comments (in English of course.) Which was flattering although completely wrong. But the best lingustic moment of the whole time I spent in China was during the last week. I was brokenly bargaining with a shopkeeper, and I turned to a friend and said something in English. The shopkeeper turned to me and said (in English): “You speak English very good.” I was totally confused and thanked her, but I could never quite figure that comment out.

  18. abe:

    Interesting. Now you should explain to people like Tim D how their behavior frustrates the people that they talk to.

    Also ironic, considering that you were the one who was trying to get in a free lesson.

  19. interesting, as my experience in China has been largely the opposite. Now, Taiwan on the other hand…it’s always a huge controversy here as to just how bad the problem is.

  20. Im lucky, I guess. I am in a part of China where english is less know than in say Shang Hai (really the wrong place to go if you dont want to speak english), But also when you first speak Chinese to someone that does not know you they have not adjusted their ears to hear Chinese come from foreign lips, It works the other way too, I was in one of thoese indoor playgrounds in the shopping malls they have here any a chinese lady asked me something, Now I expect to hear Chinese, so when she spoke to me in English I really thought I heard Korean, I took a few minutes for me to adjust my ears that she was speaking english, I said a few words to her in english and then continued speaking Chinese, This is what I usually do as most Chinese I meet cant say much more than a few sentences, guess IM as rude as the chinese John has meet. Another time a mother said to her daughter “oh say Hello to the foreign teacher ” and then in chinese ask her child to start crying. I tryed to be clever and told here in chinese to stop crying and “I could only speak chinese and french”, As I walked away the mother started to shout things in french to me, I just smiled and walked away, I dont understand french.

  21. For the most part I’m lucky, since I’m an American Chinese, and people really can’t tell that my Chinese SUCKS. But then again, everyone starts staring when I start fumbling in Chinese -.-

    THEN I’m in your situation.

  22. Well said, as usual, John. I studied in China in ’87-’88 and again in ’90-’91. You succinctly set out one of the most frustrating blocks to learning Chinese. (For Angel (above) — What can I say? John’s just tellling it like it is. No need to get mad about it, luv. You can’t say he’s crazy unless you’ve walked in his shoes.) I had the very same experience. Going to more remote areas of China, in my experience, helped; but then I ran into the problem of grappling with non-standard Chinese.

    John, I love your podcasts, and your honest, straight-up, articulate, no-nonsense demeanor.

  23. 浦石克 Says: May 26, 2007 at 9:18 pm

    yeah, I TOTALLY HATE IT WHEN THIS HAPPENS

    Let me share one way to minimize all this grief that has sometimes worked for me, is just being up front. Example:

    Sure, ‘you’, meaning any foreigner in general, came all the way to China, so you feel entitled to speak Chinese. ‘They’, the local who wants to converse in English, sees this as a great opportunity to showcase their English education, as well as get a litmus test of if their English is genuine enough to communicate with a real-live waiguoren (In their mind they may see this a showing their passion and respect for what they percieve as your mother language- even if it’s not)

    Why not just tell them up front, “Oh, so you want to practice your English? Great I want to practice my Mandarin/Hakka/BaiHua/Whatever, 所以你可以说英语,我对你说(汉)语,我们说话一下...” There, everyone get’s a free lesson; sorry if this is too much of a compromise, but it’s only fair and mutual.

    I do agree though, it’s a nice respectful gesture when others approach you speaking the native language, with at least the expectation you have the ability.
    *And so it follows… remember this when you are in an English speaking country, no matter how badly you want to practice your putuonghua, at least have the respect to reciprocate and approach someone (even if you are positive they grew up in Beijing) using English (the native language of the place). Then ask them if you can serenade them with your flawless Mandarin or whatever.

    Anyways… Just wanted to contribute my 两毛

    • 浦石克:

      The idea of having the Chinese people speak English and the native English speaker speaking Chinese is ridiculous.

      阴差阳错

      It’s best to simply make friends in China who want to be friends with you for reasons other than a language lesson.

  24. Another great blog!

    It seriously burns me up when people do that. I used to teach in a University and I almost never spoke with my students in Chinese, because all they would do is correct me or pretend not to understand. The art students, who could barely speak English? They were the ones I hung out with.

  25. I knew a chinese who was convinced that every country in the world speaks english. Well he went to Europe and nobody speaks english there. What a surprise. He went to Spain: They speak spanish. He went to Germany: They speak german. Incredible! They are so unfriendly those Spaniards and Germany! And they have told him that all lao wai speak english and english is english is english and with that only it´s enough toi communicate with anyone everywhere in the world…. I say: Welcome to Europe and the real world ;-).

    What a stupid chinese view of the world.

    Btw: Spanish is the world´s biggest language by native speakers (right after Mandarin and Hindu) and growing and not english. In Usa alone there are 35 million spanish speakers. In Europe actually english is nothing for the daily life and it is predicted that it will lose its significance in the future.

    So, learn spanish (best), french and german, dear chinese people, and you are prepared for the future.

  26. The best languages to know in written form (in my opinion) are spanish, chinese, and arabic. It’s difficult to breakthrough this to practice chinese but I go with the half/half thing. Right now I’m in America and most of my Chinese friends speak chinese around me.

  27. frankiebuggy Says: September 29, 2007 at 12:59 am

    Ok, Chinese want to be the part of the world even the core of the world again, westernized, like what japanese did 100 years ago, I missed Tang dynasty. In that time, most of people want to learn and speak chinese. Ha,ha.

  28. Nice blog! About the psychological block: not just elderly people, also for children it absolutely works that way. My 2 1/2 year old daughter, born and thus far raised in Beijing, gets very upset when I say something in Chinese to her, or when a Chinese person talks to her in English. To her Chinese face = Chinese, Western face = Dutch.
    Thinking of that, the anonymous Greek person might have chosen the right approach, because often strangers approach my daughter in English, but will always continue in Chinese once we have explained she speaks only Chinese and Dutch. But on the whole I don’t think this is a big problem in China. It’s definitely a bigger problem in my home country, where foreigners complain its impossible to learn the language because everyone wants to show off their English…

  29. Heh — I should trade places with any one of a number of Shanghai expats. I came here to teach — learning the language is a side effect, not my core objective — and I’m having the damnedest time getting past my block. To my great shame I can comprehend only the most barebones tourist Mandarin, and I’ve been here for over a month. The kicker is that it’s not the tones getting me down — when I repeat a word, everyone tells me I’m getting it right — only, I lose the word two minutes later because I have my linguistic memory linked strongly to text.

    But I will happily report to any and all that Yangzhou is a damn great place to practice Mandarin, should you know enough of it to practice it. It’s a decent-sized city with decent resources, but because it’s off the main railway line there aren’t many foreigners yet, and almost everyone in town thinks I’m an utter fool for being unable to understand them when they speak to me in Chinese. Exceptions are pretty rare: a man who weighs vegetables at the supermarket was one of two non-expat, non-college-associated English-speakers I’d met in a month. (He’s asked me where I’m from about three times now.) I hear ‘hello’ a lot, but haven’t heard ‘laowai’ once, and at a lot of local shops, the employees give me these sort of noncomprehending looks: “dude, wha, there’s a Westerner in my business?”

  30. Native English speakers might find this situation frustrating, but imagine how frustrating it can be for non native speakers !!!

    I also find it very amusing when shopkeepers petrified with fear don’t want to talk to me and instead tell me a price by using those Chinese number gestures that I don’t understand even though I can speak decent Chinese…

  31. Da Brazilian Gangsta Says: February 19, 2008 at 10:27 am

    If you come to Brazil and don’t speak Portuguese, we get your money and kick your ass.

  32. I hve already found this a bit where I live. in Sydney, where there is a huge Chinese population (one of the many reasons i decided to learn it). Some chinese, mainly middle aged women and shop keepers in less chinesey areas love it but generally you’re met with stoney silence or a bewildered response… it’s quite disheartening because you just want to practice or show them some respect in your own way.
    then, i found this in Germany too. Speak to them in very passable German and get a response … in English. I gave up in the end.
    The Thais, on the other hand, any and all of them, respond very positively to even a few basic words like hello, bye, thanks etc.
    Attempting to communicate with someone in thier own language shouldn’t be seen as some kind of insult…
    still, at least it’s nice to be able to walk through Chinatown or Ashfield and know what signs say or understand a conversation on a bus. And to be able to be understood when you need to be. I guess that’s something

  33. I find this disheartening and positive all at the same time. On one hand, as I see it, it increases my odds of being able to survive living in China without my girlfriend at my side at all times to help translate.

    On the other hand, I was hoping to be able to rapidly improve my Chinese by virtue of having no choice but to learn. While I certainly don’t mind chatting in English for a bit, the thought of locals pretending not to understand me even when I do speak Chinese correctly has me somewhat dismayed. I can’t think of anything more counter-productive to learning the language.

    Just another challenge to add to the list, I suppose.

  34. Interesting how a blog entry from 2003 still gets several comments each year.
    I’d like to chime in which an experience I had not long ago.
    I was going shopping with a good friend of mine (if we hadn’t known each other for 5 years, she’d never have been able to persuade me…). We spoke English with each other, since her Chinese is really decent and she wanted a break from being exposed to it all the time. The shopkeepers who’d heard us talk were a bit confused and unsure whether I was an ABC (nope) or a native (yes), so they spoke English first, but switched to Chinese as soon as we’d established that we’re both comfortable with the language. When we were approached by a police officer, though, things got complicated. My friend had lost her phone as we’d walked past him, so he wanted to return it to her. He insisted to trying to explain the situation in his admittedly abysmal English, not even listening to my attempts to converse with him in Chinese. It took ages to clear the matter up. This situation is extraordinary because I have heard many a tale from foreigners who had to deal with officials who stubbornly refused to try to speak English, even if that lead to total incomprehension if the foreigner couldn’t understand Mandarin.

  35. Chris Simpson Says: August 24, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    Sorry John

    Impossible to guage whose language is better, so if your decent, go for your life. Pretending not to understand IS FAIR GAME (many chinese have lated admitted it as a tactic). You will not be shown mercy in educated urban areas.

    At my work, other department heads have instructed their staff to sharpen up their english with me (this happens in shops too). My listening is good. Therefore things that could be easily said in 3 seconds takes at least 30 seconds in english.

    It is pride, face, and free lessons. Buts its also a lack of respect for strangers. In china there is only friends, family and country.

  36. Leeong1300 Says: August 26, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    I realize this is a blog for white people in China to vent their frustrations and I don’t mean to invade your web space, but I just want to remind you all that this is exactly what Asian-Americans have to deal with their entire lives. It’s even more frustrating when you’re born in the west and weren’t raised to speak your native tongue. My parents immigrated from Asia, but they raised me to speak English so I would have an easier time here, and subsequently I never practiced my native tongue. Unfortunately the racism (which is now supported by a new found white-bred patriotism) here in the US is so strong that it doesn’t matter how fluent your English is or what it says on your birth certificate, people will still see your face call you a gook or a chink behind your back (unless they’re drunk–then they’ll say it to your face) and tell you to go back to where you came from. Come back to the West and share your experiences so that hopefully more people will understand what it feels like. However, I really doubt anyone will change how they feel or act when it comes to this. Blood is blood and it makes up who you are and it doesn’t matter what words are coming out of your mouth. You are what you are.

  37. well said leeong,

    actually its the same in Australia. Im second generation ABC from Sydney N.S.W and was born and raised here to speak english as a first language. But caucasian australians assume that Yellow face=cant speak english/can help them speak chinese.

    They speak slowly to you as if you are retarded, and act so patronisingly when you speak in the langauge you were raised in(english) saying such things as “well done, you speak really good english” “you are so well spoken” i mean what do you say to that? Maybe they are placing racial stereotypes on me and think/assume ill speak like “velly solly me no speaka no engrish?” based on my Asian face?

    Also most white aussies would call me “chinese” or “asian” never Australian, because they assume that Australian=white. Ive been shopping with Italian tourist friends in Brisbane and the white Australian shop keepers keep speaking english to my Italian friends and ignoring me, even though i told them that they were from Italy and couldnt speak english well.

    So ethno-nationalism works the same way across the world i guess.

    All the caucasians up in here “complaining” well, now you know how Asian Australians/Asian Americans/Asian Canadians/Asian Europeans feel!

  38. Hi, this blog is very interesting. As a Chinese person who is well versed in both Chinese and Western culture I think the reason for this phenomenon lies in the isolated nationalism spread by Asian governments.
    To a Chinese person, the idea of globalism is truly a novelty. Keep in mind that regular official contacts between Chinese and Western governments didn’t take place until about 100 years ago. That’s right, this is simply governmental contacts, we are not even talking about common citizens’ interactions yet. So to a country as old as China, which has about 5,000 years of history, knowledge of the western “white” world (if you will) is very limited. Thus, to most Chinese people, a white person is always considered foreign. And his or her ability to speak Chinese would so contradict this affirmed belief in the Chinese psyche that the Chinese counterpart would usually simply reject this fact. I think until about ten years ago, uneducated Chinese people looked at white or black people as aliens from outer space. They have never seen them before. Some even conjectured that black people are strong because they have three testicles (I kid you not). When they see a white or black person, there is an absolute blank in their mind and they don’t know how to react to them.
    Sometimes, it is very difficult for us Chinese to interact with a white or black person who can speak Chinese. A foreigner speaking Chinese symbolizes, to us, an understanding of Chinese culture. However, we are sure that the foreigner does not understand the full extend of our history, culture which has shaped our psyche. Saying certain Chinese words or phrases creates a complicated chain reaction in the Chinese irrational psyche which results in many assumptions, negations, and implications. This in turn, dictates the flavor or the flow of the regular conversation in Chinese. So in other words, we often times say things but mean something else depending on the situation. And only another Chinese person would understand this. Thus, I can totally understand how some Chinese might laugh at a foreigner attempting to speak Chinese. They simply don’t understand the culture and the psychology linked to the words they say. Being able to say the language doesn’t mean that they understand the language (know what they are talking about). So instead of feeling like talking to an idiot, most Chinese would just simply speak English.

    And of course, most Chinese today realize that English is the universal language and there is much to be gained by mastering it. In a country of 1.3 billion people where resources are scarce anything that comes free or potentially free will be taken advantage of immediately. This is unfortunate, but a necessity given the economic conditions.

    If a white or black foreigner really want to learn Chinese, I suggest that they master the language first and then really study Chinese history, literature, and culture. The latter trio are an integral part of the language. You cannot say that you have mastered the language until you understand what the words imply………

  39. Tian,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think you still cling to a few ideas which I don’t think are valid, though:

    However, we are sure that the foreigner does not understand the full extend of our history, culture which has shaped our psyche.

    This may be true, but it’s also true that no Chinese person understands the full extent of 5,000 years of Chinese history and culture. But guess what? You don’t need to for most communication.

    Some cultural knowledge is essential, yes. But you don’t need 5,000 years of it.

    Saying certain Chinese words or phrases creates a complicated chain reaction in the Chinese irrational psyche which results in many assumptions, negations, and implications. This in turn, dictates the flavor or the flow of the regular conversation in Chinese. So in other words, we often times say things but mean something else depending on the situation. And only another Chinese person would understand this.

    Saying one thing and meaning another is an element of communication found in all languages and cultures. It’s not actually that tricky; it’s all about context. Mastering the fundamentals just takes a couple years’ immersion in the culture. No, you don’t have to be Chinese to understand.

    • Too gentle on Tian. Spouting racist shite. What if a white or white-looking person is a native Chinese speaker? He seems to be saying that is not possible.

      • I agree with zukeeper. Chinese people laughing their heads off at Westerners and others speaking Chinese? Possibly we could extrapolate and say that the reason English is so much easier to learn than Chinese is that Western culture is so much more accommodating. Laughing at people – as Tian says happens – is not accommodating.

  40. Joey The Boy Says: April 19, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    I’m just kinda proud to say that in the Philippines and Thailand, its quite the opposite, I mean people speak quite fluently here in the Philippines, but most of us are actually quite happy to teach someone about our language and culture, when we here a foreigner say the word “mabuhay”, I usually feel exhilarated and touched..

  41. Ultra Funkular Says: July 3, 2009 at 6:22 am

    justin was in china?

  42. Bob Ah-Tye Says: August 12, 2009 at 2:25 am

    Don’t have a website at least I don’t think I do. But my comment is whether there is a Caucasian who speaks Chinese mostly with little understanding of other languages. He would be like a counterpart to me in that I am fluent in English with little understanding of Chinese and ethnically I am Chinese fourth generation Chinese American.

  43. Yeah being Chinese-American but not being taught Chinese is sort of strange… So I’m learning it and I can identify with being embarrassed at not being able to speak. However I seem to have an advantage because tones don’t confuse me at all. Also the way I look at it is that I am grateful to have a project for myself, and I will appreciate the language more when I know it. I mean, I just take English for granted but I won’t take Chinese for granted… For a while.

    I don’t think the ‘Chinese people can never speak english’ thing is ALWAYS true, I guess I’ve been lucky enough to be mostly with people who don’t object to me speaking english. I have encountered some people who just thought Chinese people were really strange.

  44. […] The existence of a “natural rule” founded in efficiency can explain a few things. It explains why, even though you really want to improve your Chinese, you never mind speaking in English to your friend that studied in the States for 8 years. His English is just too good, and it feels silly to speak in Chinese. It also explains why you, having learned Chinese in China for three years, feel especially frustrated by food servers who refuse to speak to you in Chinese even though their English is barely intelligible. When people wantonly break the rule, the interaction becomes weird and frustrating. […]

  45. Oh man, I have the exact same problem. Even my ABC friends get it in Taiwan. I am Korean, however, upon knowing that I grew up in the u.s. well…let the english wanna be speakers roll in. One trick ive learned is to pretend you dont know what they said in english. It may be mean, but then they feel embarassed, and they’ll speak to you in Chinese. Otherwise, I totally avoid all people who want to practice their english with me and get free language exchange. it is not why I am here, and i have no interest in doing that. I haven’t been to China, but defenitly in taiwan, you’d be hardpressed not to encounter this problem. Yes, not everyone has a desire to learn english, but many a times…it’s what youll find, and you just have to weed out the ppl who are willing to speak to u only in chinese. thats my 2 cents.

  46. Perhaps because I’ve only been in China about a month so far, I haven’t yet had too much of a problem with this. Especially given that most of the time when people say “you speak Chinese really well” they say it in Chinese, not English. It’s quite obvious that I don’t yet speak Chinese very well, but it’s pretty much an inevitable part of the conversation when meeting someone new.

    Actually, a few days ago, I was performing the simple task (linguistically & practically) of buying a bottle of water from a street stall. However, partly because of my language level, and perhaps because I was tired, I strung together a pretty terrible sounding, toneless sentence. As I was walking away, I overhead the stallkeeper comment to her friend “他说中文不好”; which I chuckled at, and then we all had a good laugh! Kind of refreshing!

    The really funny thing that happened recently, however, was being told that I speak English (my native tongue) really well. This one stumped me! But now when I think about it, perhaps it’s not as silly as it sounds. After all, there are native speakers of English with a relatively basic command of the language, and then there are those who use English in a more sophisticated manner (not trying to compliment myself, just thinking it over!)

  47. Strangely I haven’t really found this to be an issue in China. My rule is that I only speak Chinese to Chinese people and almost every friend of mine in China is Chinese.

    Even those who have lots of Western friends, have lived overseas etc seem to prefer speaking in Chinese to me because their other Western friends only speak to them in English.

    On occaisons when someone I meet might try to speak English I might say something like “不好意思 我不会说英文” and if they ask where I’m from I will say “我来自澳大利亚“ In a joking manner so it’s pretty obvious I do speak English, but usually at that point they just speak in Chinese.

  48. I believe this has all been discussed before in a previous entry on this blog about “language power struggles“, has it not?

    Like the commenter above I haven’t experienced much of this difficulty before. I have travelled around many of China’s cities and provinces and very rarely has anyone ever spoken English to me. On the odd occasion that someone in China can, and is willing, to speak English to me, I remember feeling relieved and happy that I could take a break from Mandarin for a while. Of course this could be because I am fluent in the language and don’t have much of a laowai accent. Or it could be the fact that I rarely visit English-speaking hubs like Shanghai.

    Either way, I can’t help coming away from the experience feeling that no one in China speaks English, absurd as it sounds.

    One should also keep in mind that there are plenty of people in China who are totally willing to communicate to foreigners in their native language – indeed the opportunities (in my experience) are endless, especially given the the sheer number of Chinese people both living in China and around the world.

  49. All my meaningful periods of Chinese practice that resulted in gaining some more skill came through talks with people who did not speak English or had let it go etc. Also, those people tend to be much more relaxed with mistakes and don’t interrupt or correct etc, except by gently answering with the correct form from time to time.

    I agree with some commenters that a lot of what you talk about comes down to nationalism, racism or a superiority kick. It’s almost always aggressive when it happens. Like when was the last time someone said, “I can speak English if you like?” when you start in Chinese. That’s why I enjoyed you calling it a power struggle last time.

    Also a good book illustrating how language exchange and conversations are made up of various plays for status is Keith Johnstone’s Impro.

  50. Chinese at heart Says: April 4, 2014 at 5:41 am

    I had the same issue across the pond over in Taiwan when I studying Mandarin. It was so frustrating (I even had to ASK people to speak Chinese). Eventually I started lying to people (despite them seeing my Canadian flag attached to my backpack). I told them I only know how to speak French and Chinese. Seemed to work quite well. I didn’t sit a plain for 26 hours, and leave my family for a year to teach people English. I went to Taiwan to develop my Chinese

  51. I also enjoy the “white man”‘s privileges, English is not a curse it’s the VIP card, and I can always switch back to my normal daily speaking anyway.

    Such things could never bother me, at least not too much, perhaps people who complain about it are just sensitive or they are always meeting up with the small, highborn English speaking population instead of living in the normal, monolingual part of society.

    Also I don’t understand why after refusing speaking English they go read a blog post about it in English, read English comments, write English commentaries and chat about it in English, I mean, the entire point of doing that wasn’t to keep you away from English in the first place? I remember seeing somebody point that contraction only once, he said something like “most blogs about learning Japanese are in English, they’re great if the language you want to learn is English”.

  52. I’ve encountered this a few times, but like Carl Gene Fordham above, I haven’t found it to be much of an issue. In fact I’ve benefited in the other direction.

    In 1991-1992 I lived in Wuhan, which at the time was almost completely free of foreigners. One time when I was walking with a Chinese friend in a park along the Yangtze, I saw a policeman spot me from like 150 yards away, and he literally started sprinting toward me. Like, Carl Lewis style. In the 15-20 seconds it took him to get to me, I’m thinking “Uh oh, I’m about to have a run-in with the police, I hope this isn’t going to be bad”. Once he reaches me, he sits there panting and clutching his side and I’m waiting for the bomb to drop. Then he’s like “Hello, how are you?”… and I’m thinking, that’s all? So I started chatting with him in English for a few minutes. Turns out there was no issue at all, he just wanted to practice his English. And since you’d only see one foreigner a month or so in Wuhan at that time (at least in Hankou where I was), he wasn’t going to waste the opportunity!

    Also, on that same visit I used to have friendly “language wars” with the clerk at the postoffice. With a smile on his face, he would always speak to me in English, and I would always (with a smile on my face) reply in Chinese. It was like a mini-battle to see who won. My Chinese was low-intermediate at that point, and his English was a bit better, so he usually won.

    But frankly, these experiences were rare enough that I viewed them as mostly amusing. I had plenty of chances to interact with people in Chinese there… the times I felt pressure to speak English in China were few enough that, even had I caved in, it would still only detract a few percent from my total chances to speak Chinese.

    Afterward, I took a break from Chinese for a long time, but over the last few years I’ve gotten back into it and am trying to get as fluent as possible. I now live and work in the U.S. and I’m able to go to China only a month or so a year–work and family constraints prevent me from living in China long term. Given these constraints, getting fluent really requires me to surround myself with as many opportunities to learn Chinese as I can even though I’m in the U.S., in a city without too many Chinese. But I’ve been fortunate to have a variety of friends, students, and colleagues from China (now living in the U.S.) who get a kick out of my hobby and are happy to speak to me extensively in Chinese rather than English. They think it’s awesome I’m trying and they’re humoring me. Due in large part to their generosity (as well as my own hard work), I’m now quite a bit better and can hold Chinese conversations about a wide range of topics, including technical conversations about my work (I’m a university professor in a field of science).

    So, thank you to all the Chinese people in the U.S. who have been gracious enough to speak to me in Chinese! I’m grateful for it. Their graciousness and benefits I’ve received from it more than outweighs the times in China where folks have attempted to speak to me only in English.

  53. […] in Chinese. I was meeting people at every turn that just wanted to talk to me in English. This was very frustrating. On top of that, even if their spoken English was pretty bad, my Mandarin was worse. So if our goal […]

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