Friday, November 13, 2015

I believe every foreigner attempting to learn Chinese goes through four distinct phases with regard to the inevitable "Ni zhongwen shoude ting hao!" 你中文说的挺好! ("Your Chinese is so good!") 
These are: absurdity, appreciation, acceptance, and annoyance. 
1. Absurdity: You manage to utter a "Ni hao" ("hello") or a "zai jian" ("goodbye"). Or perhaps you manage to speak one or two number words without completely bungling them. "er-shi-ba kuai yuan ma?" ("Is this 28 yuan?") Not truly impressive, but some Chinese pretend that you're the US Ambassador to China.
"Ni zhongwen shouode ting hao!"
C'mon, man, you're just being too nice. I spoke five syllables without completely embarrassing myself, and you're giving me some sort of prize for that? Give me a break! I appreciate the kudos, but really... no!
2. Then there's Appreciation, which comes usually when you speak just enough Chinese that you're sort of full of yourself about it. This is an early stage. It comes when you can order food from a menu without ending up eating bugs, and ask for directions without winding up in the wrong city.
A call this "Appreciation," because this is the phase in which you're lapping it up. "Ni zhongwen shuode ting hao." Yeah! It is kinda good! I worked damned hard to get to this point! Thanks for noticing! 
Of course, at this point you conveniently forget that the same people used to sing the praises of your Chinese language skills when all you could say was "Hello" and "Goodbye." Now you're singing your own praises: "Yes, I am fluent in Chinese!!!" When in fact you're really just minimally conversant. But really, who cares?
Stage 2 is partly illusory, but that's fine, because the high you get from Stage 2 is what propels you to reach Stage 3.
3. Then there's Acceptance, which comes when you really are basically fluent in the language, and "Ni zhongwen shuode ting hao" is the equivalent of "blah-blah-blah." Great, thanks, but let's get on to whatever deal we're transacting here. This is a brief transitional stage on the way to Stage 4, Annoyance.
4. "Annoyance" comes when you're thoroughly over the pride of having grasped this crazy language, and you really just want to get down to business. Then the "Ni zhongwen shuode ting hao" is just an interruption. 
This is also when you first start to focus on the implicit insult embedded in "Ni zhongwen shuode ting hao." It contains an assumption that foreigners can't possibly speak Chinese.
Yeah, I've got a pinkish-white face, my belly is round, my nose is larger than yours, and I'm covered with monkey-like hair. Oh, and you probably think I smell like a sheep, because that's what most Chinese think about foreigners. Nonetheless, I am capable of speaking the language of China, The Middle Kingdom, the center of the universe. Please get over it, and talk to me like a normal human being!
The good thing is, they do. When you finally get to this point of understanding the language, you actually start to learn what Chinese people think. 
Most of the time, when they're speaking to you in English, they're giving you the "politically correct" version of their thoughts, or the "tell me what you think I want to hear" version.
But when you're sitting in the back seat of a taxi, and a student is babbling at you about politics and history and current society as if she couldn't quite gasp in enough air to say everything she wants to say, and you're understanding maybe 80% of her Chinese — you're still getting a whole lot more truth than you would get if you understood 100% of her English.
A friend of mine once said that English is the language of classes, and formal lectures, and therefore of "What we're supposed to say." And remember that, in China, you tell the professor only what you're supposed to say. There's none of this Mortimer Adler, University of Chicago, discussion-based method: it's pure obedience.
On the other hand, Chinese is the language that students and Chinese professionals speak while drinking too many beers and shooting the shit at the restaurant a mile away from the university. If we're going to criticize our own government and talk shit about contemporary Chinese culture, we're definitely going to do it in Chinese, not in English. If you want to know what we Chinese really think, you'd better know at least a little of our language.
Mine ain't great, but it's good enough that I've started to get a little bit of personal "vibe" from some of my Chinese acquaintances. I really need to work on it, though, because man, I'd really love to learn what they really think down at the root. It's fun when you start to actually be able to have conversations in this language!


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. How long had you been living in China before you could get to step four? Did you have Chinese courses prior to going to China? Respect for sticking with the language.