Do you ever get the feeling that Chinese people think you can’t really learn to speak their language? There is a Chinese restaurant I have frequented in San Francisco for almost two years now. Each time I go in to get take out, I chat with the staff and laoban (boss) while waiting. They are all native Cantonese speakers, sometimes struggling to find the right word in Mandarin. Many times I’ve guessed what they were trying to say and helped them with the Mandarin word or phrase. Nevertheless, something humorous and very telling happened last time I went in.
One woman with whom I am very friendly said in Mandarin “Can I ask you something?” I said “sure”. And she replied “I hope you won’t be bothered by what I am going to ask, but, all this time we’ve been speaking with you, have you really understood us or are you just pretending.” Wait a second, I was thinking, I am the one who corrects your Mandarin! She has heard me having complex conversations with the laoban, who has more fluent Mandarin. Why would she ever imagine I could pull off such a complex hoax, including guessing entire conversations and making up answers in Mandarin, all while having no idea what I am saying? Yet, I think I know why. I think she falls into the category of Chinese people who simply don’t believe it is possible to speak or understand Chinese if you are a “Big Noser” (Chinese slang for the ethnically non-Chinese).
I can never guess who will be a person who eases into a conversation, briefly complimenting my level in Mandarin, but immediately accepting the concept of a Big Noser actually conversing in Mandarin. It is impossible to predict. I have interviewed Mandarin teachers, people whose profession it is to look at big noses and try to get them to learn Mandarin, who cannot accept really speaking in Mandarin with someone sporting a schnoz larger than their own. I had one teacher unable to concentrate, laughing and saying “I just can’t believe it!” while interviewing her in Mandarin for a teaching position. At one point she covered her eyes and said “If I just do this, I will then think you are Chinese and not find it so funny”. Then there have been others with little to no exposure to Westerners, let alone ones who speak Mandarin, easing right into it and going with the flow.
There have been some posts, including one of my own, about people not speaking Chinese to Westerners. The assumption has been that they prefer to practice their English. This may be true, but I also think some of these people actually don’t believe it can be done. No matter if you have been conversing with the person on a weekly basis for two years. It must be a ruse, smoke and mirrors, a carnival trick. How I wish I could do that, and skip the nearly two decades of study.
Filed under: China & Chinese Culture, Learning Chinese | Tagged: Americans learning Chinese, Americans learning Mandarin, big nose, big noser, Chinese difficult, learn Chinese, Mandarin learning, speaking CHinese, speaking Mandarin, study Chinese | 33 Comments »