Friday, July 8, 2011

Not Too Smart, Not Too Dumb

Update: my husband wrote another fascinating perspective (of course I think it's fascinating, I'm his wife) on his own blog that is definitely worth reading. Plus he said my Chinese was good several times, so, uh, thanks honey!

I came across this post on Laowiseass about locals asking you about your ability to speak Chinese.
Rather than leave a long, ranty comment I thought I’d post it here as a rebuttal.
Maybe, despite by blackened, cynical heart, I do have a redeeming beam of optimistic light shining through after all, but I like to think the best of people. The Taiwanese people, moreover, have given me so many reasons to think the best of them.
I absolutely do not get the feeling that, when asked about my Chinese, even at length, or complimented on it after a simple “ni hao”, the reaction of locals is one of either (a) being incredulous because foreigners are supposed to be to dumb to learn Chinese or (b) thinking Chinese is so deeply complex that a non-native speaker can’t possibly learn it.
I’m sorry, I don’t buy it – it’s a cliché I’ve heard before and I’m just not on board.
Rather, while it is true that most established long-termers do speak Chinese and often speak it well, the foreigners that many Taiwanese come into contact with, if they talk much to foreigners at all, are the transients – here for a year to teach English or take two semesters at Shi-da, and gone…or they’re expats of the “businessperson” variety, sent by their companies, who may stay for a few years but rarely learn much Chinese. Looking at my Taiwanese friends’ Facebook lists confirms this. For many, I am their only foreign friend. For others, they seem to be friends with one or two foreign colleagues who have visited and maybe a language exchange partner but that’s it (others have lots of foreign friends – it does vary somewhat). So while I am not denying that the established expats generally can speak decent Chinese, that doesn’t mean that the average local comes across them rather than, say, a cram school teacher or the resident expat in their office with whom they must speak English (as I do work in various offices, most of my Taipei acquaintances are white-collar office workers).
I also feel that the questions about my Chinese are more of a friendly variety – a conversation topic from someone who may be nervous and wondering what to talk to a foreigner about. Or a compliment, because other foreigners that person has met really couldn’t speak Chinese. Or just because they’re flattered that I have taken the time to learn their language.
Which is another point – for we Taiwan long-termers, this whole “learning Chinese” thing is normal, but it’s really only been in our generation (and even then not to any great extent) that we foreigners have taken a large-scale interest in studying Chinese at any level. Of course there have always been foreigners who have learned Chinese, but in my parents’ generation you generally studied European languages unless you were intending to move somewhere for work or become a linguist or anthropologist. Now it’s not that uncommon to have a non-Chinese or Taiwanese person who can teach a Chinese class or translate, but just a generation ago it would have been exceedingly rare. In the USA we don’t comment on how well foreigners speak English because (a) culturally it’s quite rude to do, but also (b) because it’s very common to meet foreigners who speak good English. It doesn’t necessarily hold true the other way – immigrants to the USA have been learning English for generations. It’s only been recently that there has been an uptick in foreigners coming to Taiwan and learning Chinese. You can’t hold them to the same etiquette rules or cultural background, because it is simply not the same.
So when I get a “you speak such good Chinese!” I take it as a “thank you for taking the time to learn our language and be interested in our culture, seeing as usually we’re the ones expected to take the time to learn English and understand the West”. I don’t take it as “Chinese is so hard / foreigners are so stupid”.
If anything, people I talk to will say that while writing Chinese is a bitch and a half (it is), learning to speak and understand it with its pared-down grammar and compact phrasing is, as they see it, probably easier for us than it is for them to learn English.
I’ve heard more “oh, no, English is what’s hard!” than “Chinese is so hard! How did you learn it?”
I have also not felt any assumption-laden comments implying that even if I studied Chinese at a university for four years, the second I graduate it’s expected that I’ll forget it all – if anything, living in Taiwan I encounter the expectation that once I show I can speak Chinese, that it is expected that if I can do so and have been here for five years that I had better speak it well, unless I’m lazy or don’t care.
Besides, how many of us learned a language in college that we have since forgotten? Taking classes in the USA or wherever you are from in a language, even for years, is not the same as actually living your life in and around that language. I studied French for seven years, spoke it very well upon graduation from college, and now can barely stammer out a sentence (although when I ran into some French travelers in India, much of it came back in twenty minutes of chatting). I think Chinese, which I have barely studied formally and mostly learned on my own, is much more drilled into my head because I learned it in an immersion environment. If I had gone to a French-speaking country upon graduation the situation would be different. It would not surprise me to learn that someone who had studied a language in college was not able to speak it even five years later. College classes are not an optimal environment.
So please, let’s dispense with tired clichés about how Chinese speakers view their language or view foreigners. It does nobody any favors and only widens the cultural divide.


J said...

I find it ironic that Jennings mentions culture- he clearly knows nothing about basic Taiwanese culture if he thinks people are trying to put him down when they fawn over his Chinese. Complimenting strangers, even if the compliments are a little ridiculous, is a way of expressing good will in Taiwanese culture, not arrogance. It's scary that someone with so little cultural knowledge is writing news wire articles that will effect the way thousands of people view Taiwan.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

And also scary that that post got linked to and as such has been read by many people...frightening that some people out there actually agree with Jennings, or will read his post and assume he's right.

When, as you know, he's not.