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.

How to Foil an English Pirate

First encounter:

Foreign National: 你好, 你叫什么名字?
Chinese National: Waaaaa, you Chinese soooo good!
F: 没有, 没学了多久.
C:  Yes, so good. Where you learn?
F: 我在北京待了差不多一年。。。
C: You must be very smart…

Has this happened to you? If so, were you thinking: 如我中文那么好你为什么跟我说英文? (If my Chinese is so good, why the heck are you speaking to me in English then?).  Yes, my fiend you have encountered what is known in the “lǎowài” community as the dreaded “English Pirate”. They come out of the shadows intent on stealing free English lessons; no matter what you say in Chinese they are always ready to respond in English. Finally, worn down, you lose the battle and switch to English.

Now, here is what I think the rules of engagement should be:

•    A student of your language in your country (they have traveled quite far after all just to learn your language!) should be addressed in your language.
•    If the person addresses you in English, and you know English, or the conversation cannot go further because they do not know your language well enough, fair enough to switch to English. But give them a shot!
•    Likewise, in the U.S, if you are a student of Chinese, you should not try to use Chinese expats as a tool to teach you Chinese. They may be here to learn English and you should help them out.

More importantly, how does one foil an English pirate? Aaarggh!

•    Try as long as you can to stick to Chinese… they may give up before you do.
•    Identify the English pirates in a social group and avoid them.
•    Fix your attention on people who are interested in you as a person, and not you as a free English lesson.
•    You can try to pretend you’re from a country that does not speak English (ashamed to say I have done it a few times), but it’s not honest and doesn’t feel good in the end.
•    You can be upfront and say “I came here to learn Chinese, would you mind only speaking in Chinese with me for a while?”
•    All in all, the best way to avoid one is to identify one and retreat. There are plenty of Chinese nationals happy to speak their language with you.

The thing with English pirates, as is with anyone more interested in getting something out of you rather than knowing you, is they probably won’t pan out to be your best friends. Ironically, I found the people most willing to speak to me and other lǎowài in Mandarin in Taiwan spoke more English than the pirates in the end. As they became a part of our group, naturally we all switched to English at times.