On the Chinese vs. foreigner language wars

Please Speak Mandarin T-Shirt by Sinosplice's John Pasden

Please Speak Mandarin T-Shirt by Sinosplice’s John Pasden

After my last post for Lost Laowai, where I expressed my annoyance with the irritating and pointless public announcements in Chinese public transport, I will now move on to another aspect of life in China which I find irritating: the tendency of the Chinese to address foreigners in English even when it would be easier for both to speak Chinese.

This particular irritation is perhaps not shared by all the foreigners who reside in China, but I think those who have learnt Chinese will know what I am talking about. The others are probably just relieved when they find someone who speaks enough English to communicate.

Any foreign-looking person in China who speaks decent Chinese will have had this experience: you walk into a restaurant, usually in an area of a Chinese city where lots of foreigners reside, and you address the waiter or waitress in Chinese. The waiter understands, nods, and replies in shaky English, which although understandable is not nearly as good as your Chinese. This leaves you with a conundrum: do you stick to your ground and go on replying in Chinese, ignoring their attempts to speak to you English? Or do you switch to English yourself?

On the one hand, according to the unwritten rules of international communication, it is really the waiter who should have stuck to Chinese. While it might be understandable that they should greet you English before you open your mouth, once you have spoken to them in Chinese it is another matter. After all, you are in China, you have made it clear that you know Chinese, your Chinese is clearly superior to their English, and the only reason the waiter is speaking to you in a different language from the other customers is because of your skin colour.

You might not be from an English-speaking country, and not even know English that well yourself. You might even belong to the tiny minority of people with foreign parents born and raised in China. But still, just because of the way you look, you have been singled out to be addressed in English, when it is clearly easier for both to just use Chinese.

At the same time, try and see it from the waiter’s point of view: they have probably never travelled abroad, they have not grown up in an even remotely multicultural environment, and they don’t have the slightest clue about the rules of international communication. The idea that making assumptions about you and singling you out from the other customers because of your skin colour might not be right hasn’t even crossed their minds. They are proud that they can speak a bit of English, and want to show it off to you.

Perhaps they also want a chance to practice their language skills. They have no way of understanding that you find it annoying; in fact, they genuinely think that they are doing you a favour and pleasing you by speaking to you in “your” language (because in their mind, any person who doesn’t look Chinese or Asian certainly speaks English as a mother tongue). By sticking to Chinese, it might seem like you are not appreciating their effort; it might even seem like you are telling them that effectively their English is rubbish.

In fact, for foreigners who have gone to the trouble of learning Chinese (and it really is a lot of trouble) and have lived in China for years, such behaviour can become quite irritating. The irritation isn’t just to do with the fact that it would be genuinely easier to communicate in Chinese. It is something deeper: it is as if you were being told that, no matter how much you try, you are always nothing but a foreigner who might as well be fresh off the boat, and never just another individual in Chinese society. You can live in China for thirty years and speak Chinese like Dashan, but you will still get waiters addressing you in rubbishy English just because you look like a waiguoren.

And if I find it annoying, I cannot imagine how it must be for the handful of white foreigners in China, often Russians, who don’t really speak English and still get people trying to speak to them in it all the time. The obvious unfairness is also glaring: Koreans, Japanese and Chinese-Americans who can’t speak much Chinese at all still get addressed in Chinese every time, even when they don’t want to, just because they look Chinese or at least East Asian.

One of the most frustrating things about the Chinese speaking to you in English is that usually, like I argued, you just can’t really blame them for it. Naivety and misplaced helpfulness are probably the best words to describe their attitude. They may get very few chances to ever practice their English with a foreigner. They think it is entirely normal to make assumptions about nationality based on skin colour; and after all, the number of white or black people born and raised in China (excluding Hong Kong) is infinitesimal, and the number who hold a Chinese passport much smaller still. Never having lived abroad, they cannot imagine that constantly having people address you in a broken version of your own language is nothing but irritating, and in fact can make you feel unwelcome rather than welcome.

Of course, one also has to be aware of when it really is the time to speak English. When you are dealing with a Chinese colleague who speaks English much better than you speak Chinese, insisting on communicating with them in garbled Chinese may come off as patronizing, and as wasting everyone’s time. My current boss has got a PhD from an American university, and speaks fluent (although far from flawless) English, which is definitely superior to my Chinese. If I insisted on talking to her in Chinese, I think she would find it either ridiculous or annoying.