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.


  1. Lighten up, GC. If they want to practice their English, be courteous. Smile. Say, “I’ll practice my Chinese and you can practice your English, OK?”

    If you really find such behaviour “quite irritating”, you should pull your money out of Chinese lessons and invest in some personal therapy.

    • Well, my next question would be if you actually speak much Chinese. Some people don’t, even after 10 years in China.

      In any case, let me remind you that I am not talking here about shy students who come up to you in a cafe’ and want to practice their English. I don’t mind that. I am talking about waiters or other service people who insist on speaking to you in horrible English when you have made it clear that you speak good Chinese and want to communicate in it.

      As a matter of fact I am not rude to them when this happens, and like I said I don’t blame them personally. At the same time, I do find it irritating. And judging from the other comments, I am not the only one.

  2. Total dick move. FINALLY, this poor person has an *actual chance* to use that English that they studied so hard in school. A real foreigner! And then this dick scowls and tells them to speak Chinese, dammit, because he studied Chinese hard and wants to speak it whenever possible. Moreover, he has weird-ass ideas about race that nobody in China has ever heard of, and by God this lowly serving person better not offend his sensibilities.

    • I said various times in the article that I don’t blame the Chinese for wanting to speak to me in English. How about you actually read the article next time before criticizing?

    • What the hell is wrong with you, calling me a racist? I am claiming that customers in restaurants should not be singled out and spoken to in a different language because of their skin colour, how is that racist? You must be nuts.

    • Exactly! I mean, I studied Chinese in college, and when I found a real foreigner in California to practice with, he had the nerve to speak to me in English! This foreigner (I never checked his nationality, but he was yellow, which means he must have been a foreigner) was being so racist, not wanting to talk to me in Chinese. I’m so tired of dickish foreigners coming to my country, and not letting me practice Chinese. If you’re a foreigner, your role is to teach me Chinese (even if your native language is Japanese… or you were born in the United States… point is, you’re a foreigner, and therefore are a Chinese teachers).

  3. I totally identify with this. And you don’t need any therapy. I’ve lived here eight years and my wife is Chinese. There are many instances, but here’s the most irritating for me…

    Ordering food at a restaurant: my Chinese is certainly not flawless, nor fluent, but it’s damn adequate at this point. No matter how many times I’ve tried, once I’ve said/ordered what we want, the server stops looking at me and then looks at my wife, expectantly. I can repeat the order, yet they look from me back to my wife. I give up in frustration and let my wife do the talking.

    I’ve decided that they are expecting English. Their brain and ears are striving mightily to make English out of Chinese, so they simply don’t recognize their own native tongue.

    • Yep, I have encountered the same situation, often my wife would say the exact same thing that I said with the same tone usage.

      They expected to hear English so when you spoke Chinese they got confused. I still get it even when I’m alone.

    • This is a really good point. When it happens it drives me innnsaaaaaane. I’m thinking, is my Chinese really so terrible that they have no idea what I’m saying even after multiple repititions? I’ve heard it helps to say something like “Hello, I’ve lived in Beijing for X years, I’d like to order in Chinese, is that alright?” and wait for them to answer so they’re prepared.

      I’ve noticed sometimes Chinese people will “translate” (repeat exactly what I said) for other Chinese people, which I think is hilarious. I think it’s the same concept: “voice does not match face, does not compute.”

  4. Ugh, totally understand this situation. Often I am in a hurry to get something done and bump into some guy who has awful English and wants to slow things down by insisting in trying to speak in English. I am all for giving people a chance to practice, but it needs to be on my terms, when I don’t want to be in English Teacher mode.

  5. I find that I often speak English and they reply in Chinese. I can speak and understand Chinese, but when in Starbucks I have the urge to use English, and most times will be spoken back to in Chinese. Maybe you’re visiting Element Fresh or Wagas too much…

  6. Totally identify with this. There are still big gaps in my Chinese vocab but my accent/tones are good enough that a Chinese person not looking at my white face often assumes I’m Chinese (hilarity ensues when they see me).

    Most days I will endure with some grace the slower conversation that happens when a person chooses to address me in English – I appreciate the effort that, though wasted on me, is helpful for others. I recognise that they are trying to do something nice. When I’m in a rush or having a bad day, though, patience can be hard to find…

    Still, now that my tones and accent are pretty good, this happens far less often. On multiple occasions I’ve had interactions that switched language half-way through – they spoke to me in English so I replied in English, until coming to something that just rolled off the tongue more naturally in Chinese, at which point they switched to Mandarin for the rest of the conversation.

  7. What an interesting post! At some point I even can’t help laughing. As a Chinese, it is the first time I hear this, perhaps the same for most Chinese, a waiter trying to speak English to you, and you find irritating, really?? How come?

    I read through the article and some replies above, I think I can understand the frustration. But these are just culture differences, and no need to feel irritated, not good for your health, brother!

    From the Chinese point of view, we are just trying to please our Laowai guests. Do you know that Laowai are usually treated as the special guests in a respectful manner that native Chinese may never be treated? in some situation we might use 崇洋媚外 to describe.

    I have been in the West for almost ten years, never had one west waiter tried to speak Chinese to me. I’d be happy if someone did.

    I guess we might just try too hard to please others?

    Now I start to wonder how laowai will think my rubbish English, irritating? hehe 😉

    • Min, even if what you say is truly what is in the heart of the waiter (or whomever), it’s 太客气. If the foreigner has just arrived in China, and has bags of tourist kitsch, a wrist with a Mao watch on it, and an unwashed “不到长城非好汉” t-shirt on … then perhaps it can be excused as a polite attempt at courtesy being extended to a “foreign guest”.

      But that assumes the waiter has absolutely no sense of attention at all (which is quite possible judging the level of service here in Hainan), because the moment the foreigner speaks Chinese, is the moment a little light should flick on along with a loudspeaker shouting, “Uno momento… this ‘foreign guest’ speaks my language pretty damn decently…. maybe he lives here… or maybe he didn’t understand what I said because I was speaking English and actually there is no mythical place called ‘Foreignlandia’ where everyone is rich and speaks English.”

      To flip it around, can you imagine how terrible it would be for me to walk up to some Asian guy in SoCal and burst into, “你好。 怎么样? 吃饭了吗?” and him turn to me puzzled and say, “dude, what are you on about, I’m 4th gen Korean.” It’s not just embarrassing for me to assume he is/speaks Chinese, it’s insulting as it’s a racial assumption. Likewise when someone Chinese assumes white = English. So, in your example where you say you’d be happy if someone came up to you and started speaking Chinese … would you be just as happy if they came up and started speaking Japanese?

      What’s more — to return to the 太客气-ness of it — the greatest courtesy that can be extended in Chinese culture is no courtesy at all, as that’s how family are meant to treat each other. When a waiter (or whomever) pushes English, when English is clearly not the easiest language for communicating in that situation, it is as if the Chinese person is insisting that we are and always will be foreign, and could never really be part of this country. Which, however true, is annoying to have shoved in your face when you’re trying to order a bit of chuar.

      • Ryan, the poor waiter is not a mind reader, plus he is not well educated as you. All he did perhaps just follow what he was trained to do. He, and his manager, may never know that this can be irritating to those foreigner guests who can speak decent Chinese.

        About the race assumption, I did meet people talk to me in Japanese, not only once, not in restaurants, but in the street, say “ku ni qi wa” etc. And some people think I am Korean. I don’t know how other Chinese feel about this, personally I don’t feel angry or feel anything related to race (or race discrimination). But perhaps it is just me, I don’t take this too seriously. 没有必要动不动就上纲上线吧。:)

        Back to the topic, I hope Chinese restaurants can learn from this post, (not sure how likely this can be), adjust their service to suit the foreigners’ situation, like Gabriel / jixiang says to be aware when to speak English.

        On the other hand, hope foreigner guests understand the circumstance in China, because there are still lots things need to improve. But no matter what, trust me, foreigner guests are always welcomed. (funny do I sound like a Chinese official here?)

        Final word, 理解万岁!

    • I think Ryan already answered you quite well, but I would just like to add one thing.

      I am sure that if a waiter spoke to you in Chinese in the West, you would be delighted. But how many people in the West speak any Chinese? If a waiter in China tried to speak to me in Italian, a language which I also speak, then I would also be delighted and impressed.

      However, we are talking about English here. Someone who can speak a bit of English is just routine almost anywhere in the world. It’s not impressive or unusual, it’s just normal (unless they can sepak with a Cockney accent). Am I supposed to go “wow, my god, you speak english? Did you live in England?”

      • Min, I know the waiters are not as well educated as me. I also know that they usually have no experience of the world outside China. That’s the main reason why I don’t blame them.

        I really doubt Chinese restaurants will learn from this post, since the chances that their managers read this site are pretty non-existent.

        And I think I am pretty understanding of China’s problems. But yes, you do sound a little like a government official when you say that foreign guests are always welcome in China. I’m glad you realize you sound like them! Unfortunately the truth isn’t quite as simple.

    • Min,

      That’s pretty funny and very interesting to hear the Chinese perspective for once.

      I don’t see the big deal with it. Most foreigners in China don’t speak Chinese, so it’s not crazy for them to try to speak to foreigners in English. Also for some of them, it’s the very first time they’ve ever talked to a foreigner and they are often very nervous.

      I speak Chinese pretty well, and most Chinese find it easier to speak in Chinese with me. There’s one guy we play basketball with, his English is bad but he insists on speaking it to me. All the other Chinese guys tell him your English sucks, speak Chinese but he insists. I have no clue what he’s saying but it doesn’t bother me.

  8. That annoys me to no ending. I have also been living here for 8 years and my wife is chinese.

    Although it happens way less now. It might be that my chinese is better than I thought? Only places I encounter this nowadays are in foreign owned restaurants, which I seldom visit. To top it off, I am spanish.

  9. Just chill it you guys. Here.s what I have to say:
    In many cases, foreigners who think they speak Chinese too well get irritated because a Chinese person could not really understand them clearly, I’ve lived in China for 4 years and I’ve witnessed that enough times.
    And then, you have those people who just don’t bother learning Chinese, this type of people think that no matter where they go, other people must speak their language, i.e. English, and they get irritated when other people can’t understand English.
    So, after taking all of the above into consideration, try to put yourself into the shoes of the waiter who may have come across a few foreigners getting irritated over these same reasons they cannot understand.
    GC, perhaps it’ll be easier if foreigners who want to be addressed in Chinese just tell the other person you want to be addressed in Chinese. I’m sure once told, he/she will most likely not speak to you in English. I’ve tried that and it worked every time. Maybe it’s your turn to give it a shot before getting irritated over nothing.

    • I think in the article I made it clear that I do try to put myself in the waiter’s shoes, and I don’t blame them. I know they can’t understand my irritation over such a matter, so I don’t let it show.

      At the same time, I don’t think I am really getting irritated over nothing. What I am getting irritated over is the fact that, like I say in the article, “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.”

      What it really comes down to is that in China having a foreign face means that you are always an oddity, a curiosity, a chance to “practice oral English”, but not just another individual.

      • Dude, I find this post hilarious because I am a native speaker of both Mandarin and English so I can see both sides. I guarantee that no matter how well you think you speak Mandarin it sounds funny if not downright horrible to a native speaker. I have never met anyone, not one single person, who learned Mandarin after childhood who sounded good. That goes for everyone, even Ivy League professors. You may be understandable, but so is Fran Drescher. It’s like nails on a chalkboard.

        This is what I do when a non native speaker speaks Mandarin to me – I listen to how they are producing their tones and then mentally calibrate them so I can understand what they are saying. I’m used to doing it. But a waiter who has never spoken to a foreigner will not be able to do it. Your chinese probably sounds to him like his english sounds to you.

        There is definitely a thing where they just don’t want to deal with your weird sounding chinese. I am half caucasian half chinese and I look quite european. Usually chinese will assume I am a foreigner until I begin speaking. There is a way to speak Mandarin accurately in tones, but also inflection ( the rhythm is very important too). If you don’t get these right then many chinese cannot understand you and frankly, I’ve heard many of you guys speaking and it is painful.

        The thing here is not to get huffy because you will lose face and he will lose face and it all goes tits up from there. Instead say that you want to improve your Mandarin and could the waiter please speak Mandarin with you and you would appreciate his help. Remember in China, to get what you want you don’t give head, you give face. The more face you give the more you get.

        • I usually don’t give head and also don’t give face. I don’t adress the matter directly, but I will keep answering in Chinese even if the waiter insists on speaking in English, UNLESS they happen to have incredibly good English which would justify speaking it rather than Chinese.

          As for you other points, I don’t quite believe that every foreigner who learns Chinese as an adult sounds horrible. Yes, you always sound like a foreigner, but that is the same with every language. Sounding foreign does not have to equate to sounding “like nails on a chalkboard”, even in Chinese.

          I would agree that speaking Chinese without the tones sounds quite bad, but then a lot of foreigners do make an effort to use them, or to some extent even pick them up automatically.

          As for the inflection, I don’t doubt that my Chinese inflection is unnatural. This is normal with any second language. For example, my mother is British but she’s lived in Italy 30 years. She speaks Italian, but her intonation is always unnatural, which means that she always sounds foreign. She also never really uses the interjections and expressions Italians use. But you know what? Italians don’t care, understand her perfectly and speak to her quite happily. Perhaps Chinese is somehow different from Italian, and uniquely hard to understand unless you speak it perfectly. Or maybe it’s more that the attitude of the Chinese people is different, and they are less exposed to foreigners and less ready to accept the idea that they can talk normally to a foreigner in their own language.

          In any case, you are exagerating the extent to which the Chinese can’t understand foreigners. I have had conversations with Chinese who had almost never spoken to a foreigner before, and they understood me alright. Waiters can certainly understand my orders in context. In fact when they answer in English, they do so in a way which makes it clear that they have understood me, so your argument is invalid. What’s more, it is quite definitely NOT easier for them to speak to me in English than to deal with my weird Chinese, and this is not the reason they do so.

          • Look, you can go around whining about how chinese people aren’t like you or you can roll with it. That’s pretty much what you are complaining about ” why isn’t every single person just like me?”
            I’m sure you have run into this problem in other areas of your life without the language barrier.

        • Late to the party but here goes: i both agree and disagree. Yes, a lot of foreigners overstate their ability in Chinese. Yes, intonation and inflection are just as important as tones, if not more so. But it’s absolutely untrue that all foreign speakers sound horrible.

          Good foreign Chinese speakers are really a dime a dozen these days. They do not have the effect of ‘nails on chalkboard’, and I would be willing to wager that if you spoke with them on the phone, it would take you several minutes to realize they aren’t native speakers.

  10. Ha, I’ve only been here for 2 years and my Chinese is still barely “intermediate”, but as a white Westerner I’ve already felt and experienced this! Great post – GC, you hit the nail on it’s head!

    Imagine what China will be like when this is no longer an issue…!

  11. First, if you don’t blame them you wouldn’t be writing such a long article about it.

    Second, how do you know your Chinese is really that good? It is very possible that the waiter could not really understand your Chinese even though you think you can speak it well. I have a few foreigner colleagues who think they speak Chinese very well simply because they’ve been in China more than six years but in fact all my Chinese colleagues told me their Chinese is terrible. And those same foreigners would get really irritated when the locals can’t understand them.

    Third, if a Japanese or Korean goes to America, don’t you think most Americans would automatically assume they are Chinese because they look Chinese? If American waiters could speak Chinese they would most likely have done the same as those Chinese waiters.

    As for those of you who have Chinese wives and get ‘ignored’ by the locals, well, you should try witnessing a Chinese who speaks perfect English but married to a black/white person going to a restaurant in the west. One of my best friends has a Chinese wife who speaks perfect English, but every time we go to a restaurant in the west and she orders, the waiter will still look at the husband just like the Chinese waiter looks at the Chinese wife of a westerner in China.

    Last thing I am going to say is, how the hell would the waiter know you want to be addressed in Chinese when 99% of the foreigners he has come across would let him struggle with his broken English?

    You call those waiters naive, yet all that you had to do to avoid all the unnecessary frustration and irritation was to tell the waiter you want to be addressed to in Chinese. Now who’s naive?

    • Isn’t it obvious why your last question doesn’t apply? What differentiates me from all the foreigners who want to be addressed in English is that I speak to the waiter first in Chinese. That should be the signal. Why would I be addressing them in Chinese if I don’t want them to reply in Chinese?

      My Chinese may not be “really good”, but I do know that I speak it well enough to be understood when ordering in a restaurant. Sometimes I will ask a question in Chinese, and the waiter will reply in English, but in a way which makes it obvious that they understood.

      I know what you mean about foreigners who think they speak great Chinese when in fact it’s terrible. I am not one of them. I am aware of my limitations, and I am also aware when people do understand me. It is a rare waiter who doesn’t understand if I say “一杯绿茶” while pointing at the item on the menu. And yet sometimes they will still reply in English “big or medium size?”. This is the kind of thing I am talking about.

      If Americans all learnt a bit of Chinese in school, perhaps the same would happen to Asians in America. That wouldn’t make it better, especially if Asians who were born and raised in America still got addressed in broken Chinese. I think that would be quite rude, and people with any sensitivity wouldn’t do such a thing. I also do think that quite a few Americans at least have the intelligence to realize that not all Asian tourists are Chinese. In any case, since I would criticize such behaviour in America, why shouldn’t I criticize it here?

  12. This happens all the time in Starbucks especially for some reason. I am fluent in Chinese, though my writing and reading are terrible my speaking and listening are very high level. But time to time (maybe once per year) I get these people who just cannot understand what I’m saying no matter what. Some people are just so uneducated and ignorant that they turn the brains off to the possibility of being able to understand you. Thankfully these people are actually very rare and are certainly the vast minority.

    At the same time, I think it’s wrong to get all pissed off that they assume white=english.After all, English is the “reserve language” of the world. It’s okay for them to use English because it’s used as a medium language.

    But of course at the minimum it is very strange to be replied to in unintelligible english for a 2nd or 3rd time after expressing yourself in Chinese. Chinese have a certain perception that their language cannot really be learned by non-Chinese, though this perception is changing. For example many Chinese teachers do not correct foreign students’ tones because they (ignorantly) assume that they do not have the ability to learn them. This is also based on a superstitious blood/deep-rooted difference between “races” (but of course we know race does not exist, scientifically speaking)

    Anyway, with the worst offenders I usually just respond in rapid, nuanced English that they can’t possibly understand. That usually ends the conversation right there.

    • Yes, I realize that English is in practice the world’s “reserve language”, and that it is natural that the Chinese should try to speak in English with foreigners who don’t know Chinese.

      Having said that, there is an ignorant assumption that any white (or black) person speaks English basically as a mother tongue. I know Russians in Beijing who speak Chinese and not English, and god knows how many times Chinese people still try and address them in English, and won’t even listen when they say in Chinese that they can’t speak it.

      And yes, the perception you speak about that foreigners are unable to learn Chinese also exists.

    • When you initiate a conversation in Chinese and they still constantly respond to you in English, this is what you do,

      you stop them in the middle of the conversation, and say:

      你在笑我吗?你在笑我的中文吗?我讲的话你听不懂啊?你是日本人阿? 讲中文!!

      that will wake them up…trust me.

      • You’re Mandarin is perfect. I’m impressed and I’m sure the wait staff hearing this will be as well. My Mandarin is also very good and I too get irritated when some service person trying to help me dares to assume I’m from an English speaking country is actually taking away my chance at impressing them and all the people within earshot with my Mandarin skills. Even though many foreigners (where ever they’re from) seem to use English as the go to language to communicate with each other, how dare use English on them as well? So frustrating. I just want to impress everyone with my Mandarin. Why won’t they let me? This comment applies to the author of this post as well. I’m with you guys 100%

        • Do I detect a touch of sarcasm here?

          My Mandarin will never be perfect, but that is not the point. The point is that my Mandarin is much better than the English of these waiters who still insist on going on at me in English, even once they have heard me speaking Mandarin.

          I don’t want to impress anyone, I just want to communicate in the easiest way there is, and I don’t want to be constantly made to feel like a foreigner who’s fresh off the boat when there is no reason to do so.

          What part of this reasoning don’t you get?

          • I want to add that the thing Dashan ( I know many of you hate him) gets right is not only the tones but the inflections, the pauses, the colloquialisms, the body language … in short the spirit of the language which is as much about what you don’t say as what you do say. He is very good. I’ve listened to him with my back turned so I can only hear the voice and he is very good. But he does make a mistake every 5 minutes or so that a native speaker would NEVER make. But he is easy to listen to. It does not hurt your ears.

            Your waiter is listening for these cultural cues because they constitute the philosophical framework of ‘language’ for chinese people. Even if you are understandable and your tones aren’t bad, many chinese people won’t consider you to be speaking chinese because you’re not getting all the other stuff right.

          • Personally I don’t hate Dashan at all, I admire his skill in speaking Chinese, although he has never used these skills to broach any topic even a tiny winy bit sensitive with Chinese audiences, but that’s beyond the point.

            In any case, it is simply unfair to expect adult learners of Chinese to get “the inflections, the pauses, the colloquialisms, the body language … ” etc… Getting all those things right would involve consciously adopting Chinese culture, and people cannot be expected to do that in order to speak understandable Chinese.

            No Chinese learners of English get those things right, but it’s not like I refuse to listen to them or fail to understand them because of it.

            If Chinese people don’t consider me to be speaking Chinese because I don’t get “the other stuff right”, then they should adjust their attitude, not me. I think such attitudes are born out of a complete lack of experience in dealing with people from other cultures, and can be overcome.

            And by the way, what about Tibetans or Uyghurs who learn Chinese relatively late in life and always sound a bit like foreigners? Are they also not considered to be speaking Chinese? How fun it must be for them to never be able to speak the official language of their own country.

          • They should adjust their attitude? Who do you think you are, huh special snowflake? You state that you do not want to consciously adopt Chinese culture in order to improve your mandarin, that means you intend to only speak 50% of the language and you also want to be treated as if you are speaking 100%. Your waiter cannot understand you because he is not used to the way laowais murder the language. That is not his fault. If you bothered to read any of the other posts other people have written you will have noticed that they also mention that these problems disappeared when their pronunciation improved.

            Uighurs would never have this problem because they don’t eat in chinese restaurants because they are not halal. Things may have changed since I last spent time in Xinjiang but Uighurs avoid dealing with Han chinese wherever possible. And they do have a very strong accent that I found difficult to understand at first.

            You are the experiencing the intersection of 2 problems – one is that your pronunciation is not good enough. If it was, you wouldn’t be having this issue. Two – you are filled with narcissistic rage. I’m sure this seeps into your life in other ways that may not be as obvious. I’m not sure which is harder to cure. Perhaps there is a Buddhist temple near you where you can go for meditation or advice about how to control the ego.

          • I am sensing a certain racial resentment behind your words. What, does it bother you that a Westerner comes to China and doesn’t just accept all the Chinese nonsense 100%? Is that why you are calling me “special snowflake” and accusing me of being “filled with narcissistic rage” just because I appreciate it when waiters reply to me in the language with which I have initiated the exchange?

            And by the way, waiters do understand my Chinese without trouble, when they can’t speak any English they quite happily reply in Chinese and understand me fine, so this has nothing to do with my pronunciation.

      • This is very interesting, I have been studying Chinese for 8 years here in America. Chinese people in America react the same way, insisting in talking to me in English and not there native language. I receive some positive responds.

        Are the Chinese people under pressure to speak English to non-Chinese people? if so why?

        I am Spanish Jew and I believe the Chinese people are the LEAST discriminative Nationality in the world. I believe there is a deeper issue. I ask the Chinese people to please respond to my post. I ask the Chinese people to be honest with me. As long as it’s coming form the heart I want the Chinese people to tell me. What is it? What is it really ? I ask the Chinese people to be a little bit more expressive.

        • Hi, Milagros, I am a Chinese, but I am not clear what you want to find out.

          Are Chinese under pressure to speak English to non-Chinese? well, yes and no, it depends on individual. Not everyone is shy. It also depends on the English level, how confidence s/he is, how long s/he has been in the West? how much does s/he know about the West culture….So guess it is hard to be generalized.

          Hope this answers you question 🙂

          • Hi Min, thanks for answering my post, Your advice really helps. Apologies, if I was not clear.

            Do Chinese people feel awkward to speak Chinese to non-Chinese people?. (This is what I meant to ask). My Chinese is pretty good, I really got the tones down.

            And your right, Chinese people are not shy at all, however it is difficult to understand how Chinese people feel and think when there number one discipline is reserving there own personal emotions.

            I am starting an Asian business, what would be the best way to befriend, establish or to begin proper communication with the Chinese people?. As a non-Chinese, do non-Chinese people need to establish an extra proper introduction?.

            I hope have a chance to answer my post.

          • Hi, Milagros, glad that you find something useful.

            “…when there number one discipline is reserving there own personal emotions…”

            Not always, depends on how close they are. Between close friends, Chinese can talk very very casual and open.

            Making friends with your Chinese coworkers or neighbors should not be difficult, as long as you are genuine and friendly. Speak good Chinese definitely helps. In the West people respect privacy, normally won’t ask personal stuff at beginning. In China, you may find Chinese talk personal things directly. That’s the way Chinese communicate, no offence though. Better don’t take it personal.

            “…to begin proper communication with the Chinese people?…”

            Do you know back to old days, there was a traditional open line for Chinese greeting is to ask “你吃了吗”? You can talk food, weather, family, friends… There are no particular rules, the same as in the West, finding some common topics to talk, that’s it.

            “… do non-Chinese people need to establish an extra proper introduction?…”

            If you want to make “friends” for business reasons, then the extra introduction would be helpful, sometime it can be important.

            But for any case, the best way to socialize or establish something in between, perhaps is to eat together, that’s the way Chinese would do.

            Hope this helps and good luck!

        • Hi Milagros,
          I am Chinese. Thank you for the question.
          Here is my piece of thought:
          From my point of view, I think the deepest reason for the reply-in-English thing is that, Chinese people spent so many years learning this global language that is totally different from their native tongue, and they want to practice it everywhere to earn the cost back (cost is the time wasted on learning English)

          Chinese culture is full of comparison and judgement.
          And Chinese people are always eager to be better than other Chinese people.
          If a Chinese student studying abroad come back to China without good English, he will be mocked.
          So yes, there is pressure.

          And I think it is not only applied to Chinese.
          Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese will be the same.
          English skill is treated as assets, like wealth, degree, salary and house in East Asian societies.

          • Hi, Ricky

            Whoa! Chinese people want to be better than other Chinese people!, I did not know Chinese people were so extremely competitive with each other.

            Want the cost back on wasted time in learning English!. In learning Chinese I am not looking for cost back, because I don’t believe my time is being wasted, I prefer to see it as my time being educated. I always felt the Chinese language was beautiful. I guess Chinese people and Non-Chinese people may see language and wealth differently. Learning anything thing that is healthy and educational will always seem to be an outstanding addition to any family, society, or even country.

            As for comparison and judgement, let’s leave this to the higher power, I think that one is a little bit above and beyond for all of us.

  13. I can relate to this article but it’s something foreigners must accept in this country.

    Sometimes I like to make a game of it. I will order in Chinese, the waitress will of course immediately look toward my wife for verification. My wife will not respond and then I will proceed to tell the waitress that my wife is Korean and cannot speak Chinese! This more or less forces the waitress to deal with the white guy speaking Chinese, whether she likes it or not.

    When alone it is sometimes an enduring battle, with the clerk responding to my questions which I ask in Chinese with their English. I will then respond in Chinese. Fully understanding what I have said, she will still reply in English. I’ve more or less stopped caring about this. DaShan probably even recieved this kind of ignorance from time to time. China may have changed rapidly in the past four decades, but old stereotypes and mindsets are slow to change.

  14. First of all, I think Harland was totally out of line calling the writer a racist. I know this is an internet comments board but can we be a little nicer to each other, please?

    I, too, find this annoying. Like with a lot of ‘cultural differences’ in China, a full understanding of the reasons behind them doesn’t make them any less annoying!

    • Thanks for the support, Danny.

      And like you say, understanding the reasons behind this particular sort of behaviour you get in China does not make it less annoying.

  15. I don’t know if this is a fair assessment but I often think I get better service when I speak in English. When I speak in Chinese, which I have studied for almost 6 years, I am fluent enough to be understood and even have a Beijing accent. However, often times- the reaction can be dualistic- I will be praised and welcomed or I will be seen as an anomaly, a black sheep. English speaking for many Chinese connotes education and being cultured.

  16. Dear TS,

    Your post was written perfectly and echoes my feelings accurately.
    I have been living/working here in china on a permanent basis since 2003. I am a native English and am fluent in Mandarin speaking, reading and writing but still face the same frustrations mentioned in your post on a regular basis.

    One way to bypass this Strange behavior is to type the following message in your mobile phone and show the waiter/waitress (or whoever it may be) … 不好意思,我的英文很烂,你会说中文吗?
    The look on their face after they finish reading the above is priceless, then the rest of the conversation is always in Chinese. Problem solved without any fuss.

    Writing this reminded me of a similar experience from a couple of years ago. A good friend of mine is from Mongolia. He looks just like a Chinese, but of course his native language is Mongolian. He can only say the usual few commonly spoken words in Chinese, such as; 你好,谢谢,好的,对,不是,是的,等等… Well, please try and imagine the sheer confusion on the faces of all of the Chinese sales guys an gals in the Shenzhen electronics markets when me, this big white foreigner was the translator of this Chinese looking guy. . . I’m actually laughing whilst typing this. Great memories.

    All the best

  17. They should adjust their attitude? Who do you think you are, huh special snowflake? You state that you do not want to consciously adopt Chinese culture in order to improve your mandarin, that means you intend to only speak 50% of the language and you also want to be treated as if you are speaking 100%. Your waiter cannot understand you because he is not used to the way laowais murder the language. That is not his fault. If you bothered to read any of the other posts other people have written you will have noticed that they also mention that these problems disappeared when their pronunciation improved.

    Uighurs would never have this problem because they don’t eat in chinese restaurants because chinese restaurants are not halal. Things may have changed since I last spent time in Xinjiang but Uighurs avoid dealing with Han chinese wherever possible. And they do have a very strong accent that I found difficult to understand at first.

    You are experiencing the intersection of 2 problems – one is that your pronunciation is not good enough. If it was, you wouldn’t be having this issue. Two – you are filled with narcissistic rage. I’m sure this seeps into your life in other ways that may not be as obvious. I’m not sure which is harder to cure. Perhaps there is a Buddhist temple near you where you can go for meditation or advice about how to control the ego.

  18. I find this really interesting, I’m a chinese girl living in Spain, although I’m bilingual in spanish and chinese, the people here just keep on speaking with me in English as I don’t have a western face, haha. I guess this is just international, what I do always is speaking spanish all the time, although they reply in English. Normally after a few sentences the person will switch back to spanish, but there are quite a few stubborn people. What can we do about it? Just calm down, and leave it, hehe,
    Cheer up and enjoy speaking chinese while you can, there will be people who can understand your intention.

    • Yeah, this phenomenon doesn’t only happen in China, that’s true. I criticize it wherever it happens.

      All the same, I must say I am pretty sure that in Spain this doesn’t happen as often as in China. I have been to Barcelona a few times, I can speak Spanish fairly well, and I almost never got people insisting on talking to me in bad English. It did happen, but rarely. And I don’t think it matters if your face is “Western” or not. If you are obviously not Spanish or from a Spanish-speaking country, the reaction is the same.


  19. Nice post!
    I totally identify with this, based on my experience while I was studying in China.
    I am from Brazil and I am white ( almost half population of the country is white), still everytime I told them I was from Brazil, they say: “But people from Brazil are black”.
    About the language stuff, I found it pretty annoying too, they DO think outside Asia everybody speaks english as mother language, my opinion is the reason for that is nothing more than ignorance, pure ignorance, they are focusing too much on learning english and not on studying or countries and cultures.
    Another think I find pretty annoying is for example, you are on the subway you say “下车吗?” and they would all be surprise like it was impossible for a foreigner to learn a 3 word chinese sentence, the daily complents about your chinese ( SPECIALLY in english) can get boring too.
    On the other hand, it made me see the world from another perspective, so now if I see a foreigner in my country I always adress in portuguese first.

  20. It baffles me as to why anyone would wish to communicate with Mainland Chinese anyway. There are exceptions, but by and large they are a disgusting bunch.
    When I go out to a restaurant I just point to what I want on the menu and dismiss the cretin. Earphones always in, mind on other matters.

  21. MIN!


    that’s it!, it’s PERFECT! and it’s so simple!


  22. Hi

    I’m currently enrolled at the IOE in London to become a teacher of Mandarin (IOE is ranked No. 1 in the world for Education).

    My Chinese is NOT perfect but obviously it must be pretty good if I was to be enrolled ahead of other native speakers who were at my interview.

    I met my Chinese course mates the other day and there is a girl opposite me who is Chinese. When I speak to her in Chinese she hardly bothers to initiate or continue the conversation with me, however when I speak to her in English, she lights up and asks me questions about my life and so on – am I the only one who finds this a little strange? I just don’t see why it is a problem for her to speak to me in English.

    As for my course mates, they are training to be Chinese teachers but somehow insist on speaking English with me or when they do speak Chinese, they add in lots and lots of English words. What’s more where they would speak Chinese amongst themselves, as soon as I try to join in the conversation, they switch back to English and start talking to English with each other! hahaha.

    I can’t help feeling this to be very strange and baffling. It’s also a little frustrating considering that I live in England now and my opportunities to practice are very scarce (considering the time difference). It seems that if I want to get a Chinese person to speak to me only in Chinese, I must either arrange an exchange with them or pay money!

    The blessing and curse of being an English native…!

    Can anyone offer their opinions on this matter? I’d be particularly be interested in what Chinese people have to say about this!


    • Unconsciously, Chinese people are biased to believe that race is linked to language, so when they notice that you can speak mandarin, everything they believe, and grew up believing is falling apart.
      In my opinion, what your classmates are doing is pretty rude, even if their real intension is to help you.

  23. I just remembered another thing that left me very confused and actually speechless.

    Back in 2012 I went on a business trip to Guangzhou. Whilst at the company I visited the conversation I had with their senior sales manager (Mr Liu) switched from business to a more general topic on life in the city.

    I asked, “are there many foreigners in and around the area?”

    The reply I got was, “not many foreigners, but there are thousands of black men”


    A very similar thing happened recently in shanghai, but this time the conversation was in Chinese.

    I was in a bar called the spot and was chatting with a waitress. I told her the live music in the bar is great and asked her for a few name cards. She went and came back a few moments later with 5-6 name cards. So far so good!
    She told me the owner of the bar is a german guy and said he owns 2 bars in the city. I then asked her if there is ever any trouble in the bar with customers. She replied that from time to time the security have some trouble with people selling drugs.

    It’s better I write the final part of the conversation in Chinese:

    ME: “外国人吗?” (foreigners?)

    Waitress: “不是外国人,都是黑人”
    (Not foreigners, all were black men)


    Based on the above analysis, in the mind of Chinese people, are black people not classed as foreigners?

    If so, then what is the reason for this?

    • First, to disqualify myself from really being able to answer this — I’m not Chinese, nor am I particularly fluent in Chinese. However, I suspect black Africans are not always called “外国人” for the same reason NE Asians are rarely called “外国人” — the term doesn’t accurately reflect the connotation. It’s tonally similar to how the terms “foreigners”, “immigrants” and “Europeans” have been utilized in North America in the past.

    • Quite simply, the Chinese sometimes use the word 外国人 specifically to indicate Westerners or white (-ish) people. Then again, it can also be used for black people. It is mostly rarely used for Koreans or Japanese.

  24. There is a courtesy afforded to foreigners in Taiwan which I never experienced on the Mainland where a waiter or shopkeeper will ask either in Chinese or English if you can speak Chinese. Then the conversation begins. It’s not every time but it’s a pleasant reminder of what is possible in this situation.

  25. This is so painful to read people justifying the actions of people not speaking Chinese to non-Asians who obviously speak Chinese.
    To make it simple, just turn it around. Go to Australia (where Asians are a huge minority) and insist on replying to them in Mandarin when they talk English. Japanese, Koreans, whoever – just speak Mandarin and see how they like it. Then you get a better picture.
    Some of us ‘laowai’ come to China and either intentionally or otherwise this becomes home. You don’t want to be treated as an outsider at home. The insistent English isnt because people are desperate to speak English (teach an English class in China and see how unenthusiastic people are about English). It is about painting you as the ‘other’; insisting you don’t belong and will always be foreign.
    China doesn’t have a good record with minorities and is yet to create an inclusive culture.

  26. It’s more than just in China. I’m an American married to a Chinese, we live in the US. Every so often I have to stop my wife and point out that the person she’s talking to probably speaks Chinese a lot better than they speak English and that she should try it. Hey, they look Chinese, English is clearly a second language, doesn’t that suggest that Chinese is their primary language? For some reason unless we are in a Chinese business she simply never considers the possibility.

  27. So my baby girl is half french half chinese.
    When i go visit my chinese famly people talk to her using broken english like ‘Hal-lo” or “Cuta baby”.

    It irritates the hell out of me because:
    – Her mom is chinese she grew up in the area and talks in chinese to the baby
    – I am French. I speak to my baby in French she has n idea what Hal-lo”means.

    It’s one of these things that doesnt make sense.
    If i see an asian person should i talk to him in Japanese ?

  28. I’m in Taiwan, and a similar situation applies here.
    And I have a simple solution. Instead of getting into some sort of mutually passive aggressive tussle with the waiter, just say ”請跟我說中文,我要讓我的中文進步”, with a smile. Bingo, now
    a) it’s a customer request, not a language tussle
    b) there’s no risk they’ll feel you’re insinuating their english is not up to scratch
    c) it works even if your chinese is not so good


  29. Google-stumbled on this today as I was frustrated over this exact thing (happened to me twice in a single hour). I know the blog post is old by now, but I would like to add that I completely sympathize with the author and understand more or less what he means and why it can be so maddening at times.

    Yes, there is this “other-ing” effect that is quite annoying. I think it’s particularly annoying (and understandably so) for those who have devoted much of their lives (years, decades) to China and the Chinese language(s). At the same time, like the author pointed out, it’s not really anyone’s fault – not only are there major cultural/mentality differences, but the number of waiguoren in China who speak intermediate-or-higher-level Chinese is (unfortunately, IMO) quite low, so the pragmatic reaction is to address a foreigner in English. I think this is something that we just have to grin and bear as best as we can, and to let it slide. That being said, I completely understand people venting about this situation, and consider post replies that read along the lines of “you just need to relax” a bit unfair and demanding.

    On a positive note, I have noticed more frequently people addressing me in Chinese from the onset (and I don’t look Chinese at all), which may be a sign that things are slowly changing – perhaps because the number of Chinese-proficient waiguoren is increasing.

  30. This article is accurate.

    To those saying it’s because the foreigners just have bad Chinese and cannot be understood, that’s a very weak argument considering I and others can have conversations on the phone with the other person never realizing I am non-native, or even if they do then never misunderstanding anything, mentioning it, or attempting to speak English – yet when I go to Starbucks (especially) I repeatedly encounter the ludicrous situation of having the entire conversation conducted with me speaking exclusively Chinese and them exclusively English. Does our Chinese suddenly deteriorate when the other person can see our face? Besides the fact they respond to my questions and statements in English show they understand my Chinese fine. Many Chinese have far bigger problems understanding the broken Mandarin mixed with local dialect of someone from out in the sticks than my basic but standard fare.

    Depending on my mood, I will do the same as a previous poster mentioned – deadpan 什么? repeatedly until they cut it out, give up and just nod when I get the inevitable reply in English, give a blank stare and pretend I don’t understand English, or lose my cool after about the third very acceptable Chinese sentence in a row that gets a reply in crap English and give a small speech asking why they are insisting on speaking in English when I have not spoken a word of English since this exchange began. It’s really getting to the point that I might stop going to Starbucks because of it.

    Foreigners have bad Chinese is not the explanation, a pig-headed ignorance and underlying xenophobia to the whole culture is.

    On a more positive note, taxi drivers are usually pretty good for chatting to you in Chinese with none of this BS. Possibly with a ‘Hello!’ or ‘Ok’ thrown in at the start. Generally any countryside people with low education are much better and will gladly chat to you in Chinese. This may be a bigger problem in Shanghai, where I now live, as people here think they are sophisticated.

  31. Ni hao,
    Way back when I taught english in BeiJing I asked this question to the bar staffs in san li tune. Yes, back in the day (pre Olympics) that’s where foreigners hung out. The answers I was given were: 1. Company policy was to speak to anyone non-chinese in english. 2. International business is generally conducted in English and U.S. dollars. 3. An opportunity to practice a skill they have worked every had to learn (even if its an epic fail). 4. They are trying to be welcoming and polite. Think “ni chi le ma” 2.0. 5. I don’t really have a five… but y’all know about the number 4.

  32. Not surprisingly, with China being so big, it’s hard to generalise about….getting any English out of people in Wuhan, for instance, is nigh impossible because they’re afraid of making mistakes and hurting their “face”. They generally resort to laughing, body language, or calling one of their mates. I lived there from 2006 to 2009, and back then the place had, for almost all intents and purposes, no English. In places like Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou you get the behaviour you’re talking about, but many other places, like Xi’an, Nanjing, Yangshou, Guilin, Nanning, Zhengzhou, and pretty well all over Jiangsu province (I was based in Nanjing for six years, so I saw a lot of Jiangsu), they’re happily shocked to find that you can speak Chinese and are overjoyed to speak to you in it….well that’s from my experience.

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