Big Noses Can’t Really Learn Chinese

" Your Average Big Noser"

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.

35 Responses

  1. When I first started trying out my Chinese, Natives would just be so startled and even laugh(I am sure my newbie accent didn’t help! I asked one woman in Chinese if she spoke Chinese, she said in English no she did not speak Chinese!

  2. I absolutely agree. I had no idea that Chinese native speakers were THAT surprised. I find it really depressing sometimes, but I have a lot of friends here in Melbourne that do believe I can learn to speak well and help me a lot 🙂 and by the way, I love reading your blog. You are a dead set champ.

  3. Rachel, thank you for describing this phenomenon. I think that almost any Westerner who lived in China experienced something like that. Here is one of my encounters.

    Here I am, sitting in the Shanghai metro and reading a Chinese book. Right next to me there is this gentlemen yelling at the top of his lungs in a heavily accented Henan version of Mandarin. He is yelling because he is talking on a cell phone and everybody knows that talking to a person who is far away requires a lot of lung. While he is doing that he also is glancing from time to time at me and my book. Finally, after the phone conversation is done, my neighbor looks at me and asks me in Chinese. “Can you read that?”. When I answer that it is the case and why otherwise would I be wasting my time looking at these little worm-like squiggles of Chinese characters, he, with disbelief, forcefully commands me to read a paragraph. “Read this!” he says. I comply. He looks at me, ponders for a bit and then says: “Did you understand anything?”

  4. Jan, that is classic! Love the story.

  5. That really is unbelievable! I think you younger generation is less disbelieving, and I think the first person they meet with some good proficiency is like an ice breaker, and they are more accepting of it with the next person they meet.

  6. Yea Dan, I have definitely noticed a difference with the younger generation. I agree the very first person is the “ice breaker”, after that it probably gets easier and easier to accept.

  7. I hope so. If it is then the change is very slow In my 5+years in China I have not seen much change. I have dealt with new university graduates and each year their attitude. It took a lot of coaxing each year to get the new generation to accept the fact that my Chinese, while far from perfect, is quite OK for day to day and office life. Their disbelief was the same last year as it was 6 years ago. As the result, over these 5 years I acquired quite a bag of tricks on how to trick or force them to speak Chinese and in the process I have learned a lot of fine Chinese expressions 🙂

    I do agree with the observation that once you get through the barrier then the problems almost disappear.

  8. Jan, I would love to hear some of those “tricks”. Wanna guest post on my blog? I have never been successful. I just cave. It only with Chinese teachers I insist. If they cannot speak to ME in Chinese, how will they ever do it with their beginner students.

  9. Fascinating. I guess I haven’t gotten to the level of proficiency (far from it) where I could astound anyone that I could speak or read Chinese. I am at the point where they DO speak Chinese back to me, to help me to learn (well, together with some English), but they seem very nice… maybe they think it is kind of like helping someone train their dog to sit, stay and heel? like they expect us to be able to pick up a few words here and there (ni hao, xie xie) but never to have a conversation or read.

    I have had a somewhat similar experience in French here in Quebec, where I have had a whole conversations, in French with francophones who insist that anglophones never bother to learn more than a couple words in French, never bother to speak it, and always expect francophones to learn English to converse with them. This, despite they are having this argument with someone who was a unilingual anglophone til a young adult, moving from western Canada for university, and the entire argument is in French, disproving their case. Perhaps they saw me as the exception that proved the rule???

  10. My theory is that ever Chinese person has a special switch built into their brain which works like this. If you see a big nose then switch to English. If you see a Chinese looking person speak Chinese.

    My daughter had a visitor once form the US, an ABC who could not speak one word of Chinese. Whenever the three of us would go to eat out in Shanghai i would try to pick the dishes and talk to the staff. The waitresses would not even hear what I had to say but would immediately turn to this young, nice, Chinese looking guy and speak to him in Chinese. It would take many minutes before the total confusion on the face of the young man would bring them down to the fact that he did not understand a word. The belief that it is beyond the ability of any normal foreigner to learn Chinese (with a possible exception of Da Shan) is so deeply ingrained in the Chinese psyche that it would take quite a few yells on my part to have them realize that in fact in this party of three it is the foreigner who can communicate in Chinese.

  11. I don’t really think this is true in China these days at-least,maybe earlier on and maybe it is still true in overseas Chinese communities. I mean nowadays many Chinese are exposed to foreigners who speak great putonghua, just look at DaShan (Canadian whose Chinese is perfect), every Chinese person knows his name.

  12. I’ve been in Taiwan for almost 4 years now studying Chinese, and a lot of the time it is that people either don’t believe you can speak Chinese, or they want to practice English.

    EVERY time I go into a restaurant, I see the person behind the counter fumbling for the English menu under the counter and I have to refuse taking it from them, how would my Chinese ever improve if I used the English menu every time I went somewhere to eat?

    The other thing I find is that even after I start a conversion/interaction in Chinese, the other person will use English. It really makes it frustrating when you are trying to learn Chinese in a Chinese environment, and still can’t escape English. Although I’m tempted to blame the other foreigners who are just here to party and have no interest in Chinese giving us a bad name :/

  13. Hey Dave,

    I’m planning on going to Taiwan to study – so thanks for the heads up. I think telling people (in Chinese) that you came to Taiwan to learn Mandarin and that you are paying a lot of money will make people less trigger happy with their English. Suggest that if they want to talk all English you’re teachers fee is NT$1000 an hour, but if they want to talk in a mix then its free.

    I come up against this problem a lot and blog about my experiences of learning Chiense from the INCREDIBLE number of Chinese speaking international students in Melbourne at

  14. Thanks Dan, I remember one time I went into the Kaoshiung Film Museum here in Taiwan and the 服務員 insisted on speaking English even after I asked about 3 times if she could please speak Chinese to me instead. I ended up frustrated and she seemed angry I was almost demanding she spoke in Chinese and not English.

    Now I pretty must just continue in Chinese and if they want to use English then so be it 🙂

  15. that’s trauma. man i feel for you though. What might be a good strategy is to create a club at uni or on or a website people use. I run a language exchange group three times a week and most of the people it attracts are actually really interested in foreigners learning Chinese and often they are actually really happy and impressed that myself and other Aussies are learning as much as we are.

    By creating a group specific to your needs, you have a good chance of attracting the right people. mine is at

  16. @dan cheers for the tips, I just might set up a group

  17. Hey Dan,
    Ha, I run the Mandarin Meetup here in San Francisco. It is a great way to meet Chinese people who want to speak their language. I lived in Taiwan for 3 years, and strangely it is easier to find Chinese people here in the U.S. willing to speak Chinese. The reason is they are sick of English already and there is no thrill in speaking it. They have to use it all day long for work. I have a post on “How to Foil a Chinese Pirate” on skills I picked up in Taiwan to get people to speak their language with me. Another blogger ( says he just speaks Chinese and let’s the other person continue in English, but I don’t think that is a solution – how can you ever move your Chinese past a certain level if you are always listening to English? You’ll be in good shape though Dan by the time you get to Taiwan. Since you are already practicing speaking it’s much easier to break through the English Pirate barrier when you are at a higher level and comfortable speaking.

  18. By the way, Dan the Mandarin groups I run are:

    Mandarin Mixer Meetup (SF Bay Area)

    San Francisco, CA
    1,542 Chinese Speakers

    Nihao! Come on you Zhongwen speakers! Let’s have a drink, hang out and speak in Chinese. This group is dedicated to helping native speakers and learners of Mandarin meet and m…

    Next Meetup

    Monthly Mega Meetup

    Monday, Aug 25, 2014, 7:00 PM
    42 Attending

    Check out this Meetup Group →

    which I started and…
    which I took over

  19. If you are reasonably proficient in a language other than English and Chinese then there is another tried and true method to get the Chinese to speak Chinese.

    When they say something to you in English you simple look at them, slightly confused and say (this is just a German example) “Entschuldigen Sie bitte, aber ich verstehe Sie nicht. ” (Excuse me please, but I do not understand. My favorite version of this would be to say in Chinese: “Excuse me please could you speak Polish I really do not understand English”. My native tongue is Polish 🙂

  20. Michael says: ”I don’t really think this is true in China these days at-least,maybe earlier on and maybe it is still true in overseas Chinese communities. I mean nowadays many Chinese are exposed to foreigners who speak great putonghua, just look at DaShan (Canadian whose Chinese is perfect), every Chinese person knows his name.”

    Hi Michael. To start with, I think your term “foreigner” is very vague, who, exactly, do you mean by it? White people living in China? Canadians living in Canada? Japanese people living in China? Japanese people living in Japan? You confuse me. What a simple and unhelpful term it is you use.

    Also, your central idea seems to be that many Chinese are exposed to non-Chinese who are able to speak lots of putonghua. To point to a Westerner who has celebrity status because he can speak the language well doesn’t seem to do your argument much good. It’s like saying “The modern generation is very proficient with technology, one guy even visited the moon.” Such a statement doesn’t say much for the rest of us.

    People who talk to me about dashan and Kevin Rudd don’t enthuse me much at all. I tend to point out to them that the hu jintao and wen jiabao can probably speak a bit of English. Big deal.

    Westerners: You should know this… You have as much ability as anyone else to learn a language like Chinese. Any Westerner who is given celebrity status because of success in this area is actually undermining the credibility of the rest of us.

  21. James, Michael is essentially correct in my experience of Chinese coming overseas at least. Many young Chinese don’t flinch when I chat to them in Chinese. There has been a noticeable change, I chatted with a pair of older Chinese tourists in the UK today and a couple of younger Chinese in an English museum yesterday (they we workers from a Chinese museum) neither seemed surprised that they were talking in Chinese with a Westerner. I don’t think to fair to call part of his comment unhelpful the essential idea is correct Chinese

    Many Chinese are breaking the stereotype (that Asians often have excellent written English but poor spoken English when they go to English speaking countries). They break the stereotype by watching our TV listening to our radio on-line, by talking on Skype etc. For this very reason more and more Chinese accept that Westerners can do the same.

    The point is that Da Shan was made famous then for talking Chinese but it wouldn’t happen now, and to be fair Kevin Rudd was the only Western leader that spoke Mandarin (so far as I am aware).

    If an older Chinese pulls the Da Shan card on me I simply reply shan wai you shan, ren wai you ren (sorry can’t type hanzi on this computer. but basically “outside every mountain there is another mountain, outside every person there is another person” which in reference to the BIG Mountain is quite appropriate I feel. Not one single young Chinese below (below the age of about 25) has mentioned Da Shan in the last two years (from possibly about 50 I have spoken two).

    I have been learning Thai, a couple of the Thais I have talked to have complained that they come across quite a few Westerners who speak very good Mandarin but usually “they” only get to speak with Westerners that I a bit of holiday phrasebook Thai. I think the message is getting across.

    Now granted I find Chinese speaker to talk to in the UK but it is easy and there are a number of tricks to get them to talk to you I Chinese. I don’t doubt I could do the same same quite easily in Taiwan or China (pay for my ticket and I will prove it to you ;)).

  22. sorry the first paragraph in the last comment was a bit disjointed, I submitted it too early.

  23. I hear this complaint time and time again from learners and I can honestly say this has never really been an issue for me in the 12+ years I’ve spoken Chinese. Maybe I’m extremely easygoing/naive/ignorant, but I’ve never felt like a Chinese person has bullied me into speaking English.

    I have many Chinese friends with whom I enjoy a variety of relationships – as students, translation clients, language exchange partners, online buddies and of course friends – and only my ESL students (with good reason, obviously) speak to me only in English. The others, well, either a) we’ve developed a natural rhythm where we start off talking in one language then switch to the other when the other person starts getting lazy or b) they can’t be bothered speaking English and just ramble off their life stories in Mandarin. Either way, I enjoy meeting new people and learning new things, both culturally and linguistically. I’m in Melbourne though (like Dan – hi!), so it could be a location thing…

    I understand why Mandarin learners – especially those in the beginning stages – feel like every opportunity to practice should be grabbed by the balls, but at the end of the day you’re both human beings and there’s a point where you have to stop seeing people as language tools and instead as people. I’m not saying the learners here are necessarily doing that, but it’s something to be wary of – after all, your goal is to have fun, isn’t it? Otherwise why else would you do it…

  24. I was visiting a showroom in Shenzhen and my agent pointed out a young girl and said that she would be helping me with my selections (I am a buyer for a department store). So I turn to the girl (maybe 18 or 19 years old) and say 你叫什么名字? Her eyes got really wide and then she grabbed her head and bent over at the waist! I asked her laoban if she was ok and he laughed and said it was her first day. She was from the countryside and he didn’t think she had ever met an American and certainly did not expect me to speak Chinese to her.

  25. In Taiwan I (with a western face) would ask directions in unmistakeably clear Mandarin and the response would inevitably be directed at my traveling partner who had a Chinese face but couldn’t speak a lick of Mandarin. This conversational “ménage à trois” would last for several minutes.

    How about the opposite situation, where natives would compliment me on how well I speak Mandarin even before I have the chance to open my mouth? This has got to be part of the same mentality, but just from a slightly different perspective.

  26. Nicholas Kristoff, a NYT columnist, recently helped a Chinese lady lost in JFK. As Nicholas speaks Chinese well, he addressed her in Chinese. The result was amazement, disbelief followed by relief 🙂

  27. I love reading that columnist. Read him all the years he covered China (20 years??); and now Africa and beyond. He is above the curve for most things. Thanks for sharing. I’ll look it up.

  28. Twenty years ago when I went to China for the first time, Chinese people would address me in Chinese and weren’t surprised that I answered in Chinese. I assumed that because Mandarin in the Lingua Franca in China, they expected everybody to speak Chinese, even foreigners.

    Four years ago I also went to China and people would freeze when I started talking Chinese to them. 我听不懂他的英文, they would say to the nearest Chinese.

    It’s pity this changed.

  29. […] In fact, I ran across a funny post about this on another blog – […]

  30. Great post. I like to dumb it down and then whack them with it when they’re least expecting it… well, only the rude ones.

  31. so interesting!

  32. I think that it is quite normal to assume that foreigners cannot speak your language, and to think that they will never master it. The sentiment certainly exists in Japan. In addition, I note that you are speaking Mandarin to Cantonese speakers in San Francisco. That is akin to speaking French to Italian waiters in London. They will probably not be fully comfortable, and may not really be sure that you are speaking correctly. In China, I have heard Putonghua speakers say that they have heard foreigners speak flawless Putonghua – ie that often you don’t realise they are foreigners until you turn round and look at them (with the added observation that they are typically better than Hong Kong Cantonese people speaking Putonghua).

  33. Funny. Most Americans always think that everyone speaks English and that everyone can and should learn English 🙂

  34. Most Chinatowns in North America are Cantonese and secondarily Mandarin. Many Chinatowns ( Boston and New York for sure ) use to have Toisanese as the most common language before the 1980s. At the Cantonese eatery I frequent ( Yummy Cafe on Hancock St Quincy Massachusetts ), I order in Cantonese unless I do not know the Cantonese words for the dish. I default to English since I know that is the next language they would prefer to hear unless they know Mandarin better. The customers are often surprised that a tall nose like me knows any Cantonese and tell me so. [ They also tell me that Cantonese is too hard for a tall nose to learn and that Mandarin would be a better choice for the language challenged — at which I point out that almost everyone here is speaking Cantonese ] ( I also do comedy there when I say something wrong or when my reaction to a fast string of Cantonese is “Mutt-yeah ?” ).

  35. Nice input Tom.

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