Living behind the language barrier

View from our old apartment.
View from our old apartment.

My Chinese isn’t great. The most I can say is that it’s inconsistent. For example, I’ve managed to have a conversation with a woman who explained to me that she met her husband late in life and they were only able to conceive after a few rounds of in vitro fertilization. And then I order “shoes” instead of “shrimp” and the waitress claps her hands at me like I’m a gifted parrot.

However, the most frustrating occasions are when my Chinese is on point and I know what I’m saying and and some silly bitch starts barking, “Hot-tuh, hot-tuh? Cold-duh? Cold-duh?” at me like I’m not only a foreigner but also someone who shouldn’t leave the house without an escort.

I have a friend who’s lived her twenty years and is married to a Taiwanese man. She speaks Chinese to her husband, to his family, to their kids, to all her Taiwanese friends. She knows the language, right? She told me that once when she tried to initiate a conversation with a stranger in Chinese, he said, “I’m sorry, no English.”

She told him in Chinese, “No, but I’m speaking Chinese to you.”

“No English!” he said, turned, and fled. (I like to imagine that he ran down the beach waving his arms above his head while my friend stood there with her mouth open and her eyebrows furrowed.)

I try not to get angry because so many foreigners here really don’t speak Chinese. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and I can’t expect to be treated like a unique special snowflake every time I rock up when 9 times out of 10, some grumpy foreigner is going to stand in front of the counter at 7-11 wagging his index finger and saying “Marlboro Reds” like the clerk is stupid instead of not bilingual. Also, if you’ve never heard your language being botched by someone who isn’t a native speaker, you might not have an ear for my American-accented Chinese. (I’ve seen foreigners struggle to understand Chinese accents. I have a friend with an Australian accent so thick it takes a committee of Westerners to figure out what he’s saying.) Fair enough.

Also, I think a lot of people who reply to me in English know that they studied English for years in public schools here and assume that I didn’t study Chinese until I was an adult, which is true. It’s humbling to have a local person here apologize for his/her poor English without complaining about my bad Chinese.

Can you imagine how that would play out in the US or Canada? Yeah…

My favorite strangers are the ones who listen to what I am saying and toss out predicates like candy at a parade whenever I am struggling to complete a thought. They can get past my accent, they get the gist of what I’m saying, they’ve even figured out that I can understand a lot more than I can say. I love you people. I promise to start studying again because I owe it to people like you to stop being such a lazy dead-weight.

Shout out specifically to the nice lady at the dentist office and the nice lady at the bank who have called me up personally to have me come in and sort something out. It’s not their job to give me one-on-one attention, but they call me, struggle through what usually starts off as a very weird conversation, and get me in there to sign documents or whatever. After the hours I racked up waiting in lines watching customer service employees and government clerks berate immigrants in Small Town, Virginia, I know that Americans won’t always go out of their way to help people who don’t speak the language. (Okay, I knew that already.)

now speak English :(
This is America (Philly). In Taiwan, they just have English menus. Or picture menus. Or a young person who’s been studying English since s/he started school. We’ve even had a whole family of customers come and help us order from a seafood menu when I was struggling.

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