Chinese is a hard language to learn, and I’m the first to admit that I have a long way still to go. But for the past six years I’ve been teaching in Chinese and so I’ve achieved a certain degree of fluency even if nobody who spoke to me for more than five minutes on the phone would mistake me for a native speaker. In the United States there is a general assumption that everyone should and can learn to be a fluent English speaker, no matter where they are from. People are sometimes even fired for not speaking English at work [also see this]. But in Taiwan it is the opposite, there is an assumption that nobody who isn’t ethnically Chinese can learn to speak the language. For this reason, when someone sees a white person walk into a store or restaurant the first assumption is that there will be a problem communicating with you.
Of course, this happens in the US as well. I once read of a study where different groups of students were played the same audio lecture but with different photographs of the supposed speaker. When the photograph was of an Asian person the students performed worse on the test, actually retaining/understanding less of the lecture than when the photograph was of a white person. I don’t know if this study has been replicated, but I do think that expectations of communication problems are a self-fulfilling prophecy and result in reduced comprehension. This problem is compounded in a society like Taiwan which has relatively few non-Asian immigrants. But not everyone responds to a foreigner in the same way, and over the years I’ve compiled a mental inventory of the various ways in which people respond to the challenge of having to talk to a foreigner. What follows is a list of seven ways strangers react when they have to talk to me.
First, there’s “foreigner panic” which is often evidenced when dealing with service people who fear having to use English in order to do their job. I’ve seen salesgirls hide behind coworkers who speak better English. I’ve had people standing right next to me turn around as if looking for signs of intelligent life because the very idea that they might be able to talk directly to me never crossed their mind. And I’ve seen people practically bang their heads on the ground apologizing for not speaking better English. Fortunately, a few words in Chinese, no matter how badly pronounced, is usually enough to calm the panic and establish a more routine service encounter (when dealing with young women, this is usually only after some giggling and additional apologies).
Of course “speak in English” is a common strategy as well. Many Taiwanese have lived and studied abroad and speak excellent English. Unlike other countries I’ve been too, like Indonesia, where people often jump at the chance to improve their English by practicing with a foreigner, Taiwanese tend to shy away from speaking English unless it is already at a certain level. But not always, sometimes one is stuck in a conversation that would go much quicker in Chinese but the other person refuses to switch. In such cases I’ve learned a trick, which is to compliment the person on their English in Chinese, asking them how it got so good, etc. I find that this effectively allows the conversation to switch to Chinese.
“The compliment” is actually a technique I picked up from being on the receiving end. This happened to me much more when I was first starting to learn Chinese, but it still often happens that one can barely get three words in before the person you’re talking to compliments you on how well you speak Chinese, asks you where you learned it, how long you’ve been in Taiwan, what you are doing here, etc. Some people view such behavior as a form of “microagression,” but I don’t see it that way. Of course, it does sometimes feel like that—especially after the 10th conversation of the day gets derailed by having to explain why a person who looks like me can speak Chinese—but I think people are usually just expressing genuine surprise and curiosity, no matter how ill-mannered it might seem.
What I think is a genuine form of microagression is what I call “foreigner talk” which is when people talk to you using a parody of a foreign accent. Usually only done by young boys (even students), this involves flattening out one’s tones, a trick that the boy doing this thinks will be noticed by their friends but not by the foreigner. They are also usually unaware of the long history of racist caricatures of Chinese accents in the United States, like this one from Rush Limbaugh.
Fifth is “disbelief.” Sometimes one’s interlocutor is so convinced that they won’t be able to speak to you that even evidence to the contrary doesn’t help. Sometimes, after about five minutes the realization that you might be speaking Chinese will slowly dawn and the person will look at you and ask: “Do you speak Chinese?” as if you’ve been talking to them in English all this time. I once heard a story of a scholar in China in the 80’s who was fluent in Cantonese and asked two farmers in Guangzhou for directions to XX village. They just stared at him, silent. Eventually he gave up and walked away, only to hear one farmer say to the other: “Funny, it sounded just like he was asking directions to XX village!”
“Look at the Asian” is a variety of disbelief. It is when, even though you are the one talking, the other person insists on replying to the Asian person sitting next to you, even going so far as to refer to you in the third person. In some cases this has been particularly absurd, since the Asian sitting next to me didn’t have sufficient Chinese ability to understand what was being said to them. But when they are a native speaker it can be very difficult to get them to look at you while talking. (Female friends have described something similar happening to them. Not in Taiwan, but with particularly patriarchal men who will insist on talking to the man they are with rather than replying directly to them.)
The seventh and final strategy, is “baby talk”—the one most common in rural areas like where I live. Baby talk is when your anticipated lack of Chinese ability is assumed to mean that you are also suffering from a mental handicap. It is often accompanied by the assumption of your complete incapacity to perform the most basic daily tasks, such as eating with chopsticks, and genuine surprise when you perform such miraculous feats. I totally understand why some might experience such behavior as a form of microagression, but in my experience here in Taiwan it is usually the least educated and least likely to encounter foreigners in their daily life who act in such a way. Still, when this happens I think I understand a little what it’s like to be at the other end of “mansplaning.” Although I readily admit that being a white male in Asia is associated with certain kinds of privilege as well, it can also teach you a little bit about what it is like to be patronized just because of the way you look.
UPDATE: Added link to study I couldn’t find earlier. Thanks Matt!