Analogy of the Week

Talk Talk China is a site devoted to whining about China. That sounds like a bad thing, but the guys that run it do a good job of keeping it entertaining. I also appreciate how they make no pretenses about what they’re trying to be. It says right in their sidebar: “Dan, DD, and Dawanr are 3 laowai that have been here for way too long (collectively over 45 years!!) and this is where we come to just let all out.” TTC is not an alternative news source. It’s not offering brilliant insight into the Chinese psyche. It’s generating rant after entertaining rant.

Lately, though, the guys have been posting a few less cynical entries, and I’ve been enjoying them a lot. DD wrote about key Chinese phrases for impressing the locals. Dan wrote about “language lurkers” (locals that make efforts to speak English around a foreigner, but not directly to the foreigner), and then followed it up with an appeal to his readers. Dan wants to know: how can Chinese people strike up conversation with a foreigner in such a way that they will not be viewed as annoying (or worse yet, language rapists)? If you have thoughts, join in on the conversation.

For me, the best comment so far was one by Laowai19790204, who wrote:

> If you want to have a conversation with someone and you are going to approach a total stranger, at least have the common courtesy to figure out something interesting to talk about.

> […]

> It’s kind of akin to a guy in a bar wandering over and trying to pick up a random, hot girl. He’s not interested in her personality, and he has nothing to say, but damn, she’s got what he wants and he’ll talk to her anyway, despite the fact that it’ll annoy the crap out of her. Chinese people looking to hold conversations with random foreigners should be aware of this weirdness in their behaviour. And make an effort to at least make the conversation interesting. Otherwise you’re just another sleazy guy in the bar of life, trying to pick up a nice piece of english speaking ass.

Well said.


John Pasden

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


  1. Good call. Whenever friends or acquaintances ask me how they can practice their oral English more with native speakers, I always tell them to do it as a secondary activity: first, find a common interest that’s NOT English, and then use English as the way to do that activity.

    For example, there’s an ultimate frisbee club in Shanghai that meets on Mondays and Saturdays, and I hear it’s half-half expat/Chinese. So why not get your excercise, and pick up more English coincidentally while you do it? Or maybe you like live movies, or music, or picking up girls, or whatever. Anything is better than pure language rape.

  2. Da Xiangchang Says: November 30, 2005 at 3:27 pm

    I don’t see why it’s a problem. When some guy comes up saying stuff in English, just say “Tingbudong” over and over again until he leaves. Regain your English-language skills if some attractive girl comes up. Simple as that.

  3. John,

    Reading through TTC–man that’s a whole lot of posts and comments. The most interesting entry to me is the one about Laowai income in China. No wonder these Laowai’s are having a good time in China! They are even getting paid just for their “face” value. I also have to salute to the people making less than 10K RMB a month though.

  4. I told one of my students once that if she really wanted to practice her English with foreigners on the street, she should go to some fast food joint and get a cup of ice. Then take a few ice cubes in her hand and walk up to the nearest lao wai and throw them and the ground. Following that, she can say:
    “Now that I’ve broken the ice, is it ok if we talk for a few minutes?”

    I shopped this around and every foreigner I knew said they would give her at least 5 minutes.

  5. I had an amazing experience on a bus once in Yunnan that makes me wary of quickly brushing people off as ‘language rapists’ (although when I’m sure that’s what I’m dealing with, my fluency in French comes in handy).

    Anyways, I settled in for a looong busride from Kunming to Xishuangbanna (not even a sleeper bus, what was I thinking) and before I knew it the guy sitting next to me was trying to strike up a conversation in English. Given that I had no choice, being stuck next to him for the next 16+ hours, I figured I’d give him a few minutes of my time before opening a book or pretending to fall asleep or something.

    However, this guy turned out to be one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever talked to. He was a professor from Tianjin, had been to about 40 countries (Italy was his favourite), had been in the Chinese air force back in the day on a bomber plane, and was determined to get to Iraq before the Americans invaded just “to see what it was like under Saddam” (this was in early 2003). We chatted history, politics, culture, travel, life, economics, development- you name it, it was covered. What a stunning individual.

  6. Justin (Parasite) Says: December 1, 2005 at 12:22 am

    There was this one girl who wanted to do an exchange with me. I did it a few times, and it was fair enough — though I was starting to suspect her of getting more English sessions in than I got Chinese. Anyhow — she was seemingly SUPER conservative and I started feeling really bored and annoyed. It seemed like our conversations were becoming very contrived, and I was avoiding my normal perverted topics… Well lo and behold, I told her I was too busy to continue, only to hear from an old friend about 2 months later (one whose Chinese was good enough that he wouldn’t benefit from any exchange) that he had on a first meeting told her that since he couldn’t benefit from her Chinese, the only way she could make herself useful to him was by exchanging ‘bedroom time’ for English! The girl hadn’t hesitated to agree, and needless to say I was shocked! Remember how I said she was conservative ? Well that was quite right — she was for damn sure going to save herself until marriage, but that didn’t preclude her from offering the guy access to alternate entry points. SOOOO if there is a moral to the story — it is of the very tales from the crypt style twisted sort: on a free market of value exchange, DON’T underestimate the willingness of Chinese to compensate you for your English time. (And I have reason to believe this was neither the exception nor the rule, but common enough.)_

  7. Da Xiangchang Says: December 1, 2005 at 8:52 am


    That’s a good idea, though I’ve never had the cojones to ask anyone that! Some of the rants on that website are alright, some silly and meanspirited–like calling Beijing a “shitty village.” Some of the rants, however, are waayyyyy off base, esp. the rants against Memoirs of a Geisha on Laowai19790204’s website. If I could receive a yuan for every retard who trots out the braindead “Zhang Ziyi doesn’t look Japanese!” argument, I’d be richer than Jackie Chan.

  8. Well, retards aside (hey, if I only have one awful post I’m doing well, I’d say), my new strategy is to answer back in Japanese the next time I’m walking down wangfujing and get stopped on the street for English lessons or the galleries or whatever scam they’re running nowadays.

    The broken ice opening is great.

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