Seven Ways to Talk to a White Man

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!

40 thoughts on “Seven Ways to Talk to a White Man

  1. I have experienced the “look at the Asian” dynamic with an MD before. I was stuck in the hospital for what turned out to be a three day stay. Into the second day I was freaking out a bit as I could not get my doctor to tell me anything about what I might reasonably expect the length of my stay to be. I told this to my step-father, who is also an MD. He suggested that my physician probably was simply not comfortable with the “people” part of patient care and that he (my step-father) be there during my doc’s next visit to my room and that I ask anything I wanted to know of him (my step-father) and he would re-ask it of my doc. This sounded kind of looney to me, but when we were all three in the room together it worked like a charm, albeit a freakishly odd one from my point of view. I asked a question using first person, my step-father restated it with me in the third person (without translating it into physician speak), the doc answered my step-father (also in third person), and my step-father restated the answer with me in the second person. My physician became almost a different person during the interaction—he sat down, made eye contact with my step-father, and volunteered some information and laughed a bit. I don’t know that it had anything to do with talking to another MD, though. If I remember correctly, my step-father never identified himself as such to my doctor.

  2. Very interesting piece, in so many ways. I did not have the language for “microagression” prior to reading this. Now that I so infrequently am able to return to my field sites, what some people may perceive as “microagressions” are opportunities for me to practice / revive basic conversational skills. Of course, I’m also lazy many times and take advantage of the fact that I can get by with English in many situations…talk about privilege! Thanks for pointing out other nuances of “how to talk to a white man.”

  3. Love it, Kerim!

    I have to say, though, that I have experienced many of the same responses (over the years) as a blonde woman speaking German! The most common being the catechism of why I speak German so well when:

    a) Americans don’t speak any foreign languages. Pointing out to Germans that many Americans come from all over the world results in a shrug and “I am talking about REAL Americans.”

    b) Turks don’t speak German ‘despite being in the country for 20 years’. This is also not true — especially when you realize that ‘Turks’ includes people born there.

    c) “Your family must be German.” Good luck trying to point out the contradiction inherent in being a ‘real’ American while at the same time retaining Germanity.

    I never would have understood essentialization at all, had I not been a ‘halfie’ — someone with enough insider cues to be invited behind the curtain. It is such a strong impulse! I know Japanese American and Japanese Brazilian friends in Japan to have suffered due to their lack of perfect fluency, which is expected when you ‘look’ like you should fit in. They have reported being treated like they are cognitively impaired as well.

    This should be something we all take to heart, and conscientiously work into our analyses, the ways in which our perceptions REALLY affect what we see and hear….

  4. Kerim, are there TV stars in Taiwan similar to the gaijin tarento “foreign celebrities” in Japan? These are non-Japanese people with no observable talent who become media pundits simply because they speak Japanese. The ever obnoxious Dave Spector is an example.

  5. Every country/communcative system has a place for the non-native speaker, whetehr they be from a privileged group, or non-privileged group, In Thailand, I had much experience you describe here. In Tanzania, where the language is Kiswahili though, the reaction is different. Swahili is everyone’s second language, and imprecise pronunciation, and strange looking faces (even light-skinned ones) speaking Swahili are more common. Race is of course an issue, but the role of language is different.

    In Germany (my German is strongly accented, and weaker than my Thai or Swahili), I appreciate the anonymity that my white skin gives me–until I open my mouth. When I don’t want to deal with the things Kerim describes, I will simply avoid conversations. Not a very friendly approach, but being able to melt into the majority is comforting, somehow.

    My Asian-American students who study in Asia of course have a very different experience than the white exchange students.

    Very nice blog!

  6. @Laura,

    Not so much in Taiwan. Much more popular here are Taiwanese raised in the US, who might speak Chinese with a bit of an accent but make up for it by embodying American cultural capital in an Asian body. On the other hand, in China there seems to be someone damed Dashan (Mark Rowswell) whose public persona seems to put off a lot of people in the foreign community, so much so that someone wrote a question on Quora about this and Mark wrote an interesting and lengthy reply:

  7. I’ve experienced most of these in China. It would be interesting to know what differences there are between Mainland and Taiwan–I’m not sure I’ve ever come across the ‘baby talk’ response.

    My favorite example of disbelief happened to a friend who had a conversation with a lady on the subway. After some time conversing together in Chinese, the woman turned to her companion and said, “Wow, I didn’t realize I could speak a foreign language!”

  8. That’s funny. Amis 阿美族人 like to joke that they can speak “mei yu” 美語 (as English is sometimes called), meaning Amis 阿美語, rather than English.

  9. 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!”

    I heard this story from Harold Shaddick, with whom I studied classical Chinese at Cornell in 1968. Shaddick was stationed in Beijing, working with a relief organization, in the 1930s. In his version, he took a walk outside the city, lost track of where he was and, then, as the sun began to set, turned to two farmers in a field to ask the way to the West Gate of the city. After several different tries, asking the question in different ways, he gave up. Then, as he turned away, he heard one farmer say to the other, “I could have sworn that foreign devil was asking the way to the West Gate of the city.”

  10. It’s interesting to read this perspective, as I’ve often inhabited the “Asian” role in the “Look at the Asian” variety of disbelief you mention. As a Japanese-American in Japan, it’s often either taken for granted that I speak very good Japanese with an excellent accent, or acquaintances will sometimes remark in surprise, “Wow, your Japanese is a little off! I guess you really are American!” My white colleagues, however, can only impress, no matter how poor (or strong) their language ability actually is.

    Same goes with fieldsite access: whereas I often feel like an interloper until I have an opportunity to explain my presence, I’ve seen people go out of their way to welcome an obviously foreign visitor. Drives me nuts, and has more than once made me think I should have chosen a research project located outside of Japan.

  11. @Anthro Grad, I’ve heard similar stories from other Japanese-Americans in Japan. Interestingly, they felt much more welcome here in Taiwan, where there is a certain degree of Japanophilia. Although, interestingly, as their Chinese gets better it often gets harder for them to not get mistaken as a Taiwanese. I even had one friend who was scolded by a Taxi driver for not speaking Hoklo (aka “Taiwanese”) and had to explain that she wasn’t a Taiwanese-American. Also, my Taiwanese-American friends seem to have an easier time of it here than Japanese-Americans do in Japan. But, interestingly, for English teaching I know some fluent English speakers here who still get paid half of what their American and Canadian co-workers get. Some even lie and claim to be Canadian or American in order to get paid what they feel they are worth.

  12. @Anthro grad There can indeed be a benefit to not being or looking Japanese in order to do certain types of fieldwork. I was able to go into men’s aesthetic salons and hang around the front for hours talking to the receptionists. But a Japanese graduate student who wanted to follow up on my research was always ordered to leave immediately after she walked in, so she had to abandon the topic. There is an age factor here as well, I did this in middle age when they weren’t worried that I would see male beauty work secrets. On the other hand, I was at a great disadvantage doing research in women’s aesthetic salons because I didn’t look like white Barbie.

  13. @John Ha! I wonder how far back this story goes… I wonder if there are similar stories in Jesuit accounts?

    I wouldn’t be surprised. That said, the important historical datum here is that Shaddick told this as a story about his own experience, not an “I heard someone say” second-hand account.

    In a similar vein, my sagacious spouse has one about shopping in Puli, c. 1969-1970. An old man said to her, in Taiwanese, “Do you speak Taiwanese?” Being polite, she said, in Taiwanese, “No, I don’t.” The old man then asked, in Taiwanese, “How do you shop?” She replied, in Taiwanese,”I just point.” The old man then said to someone else, in Taiwanese, “This poor lady, she can’t speak Taiwanese. When she shops, she can only point.”

  14. And then there’s the one I heard from geographer Harm de Blij at Michigan State, c. 1966. He was doing research in East Africa and insisting on being spoken to in Swahili. After dinner at a Nairobi restaurant, the waiter asked if he would like what he took to be “some bananas.” He asked for five or six. The next thing he knew, all sorts of people were staring at him wide-eyed. What the waiter had really been asking was if he wanted a woman for the night.

  15. @John, Having come across a number of people who like to tell oft-repeated stories in the first person, I’ve learned to remain skeptical… although it is entirely possible that he is the true originator of this story.

  16. I think all monolingual cultures tend to have different expectations of foreigners learning their languages than cultures that are more poly-lingual. I’m currently living in Nicarauga, and my Spanish is poor to mediocre, so I’m either considered a bit dim or I’m complimented for being able to say anything in Spanish. Bi-lingual Nicaraguans tend to be a bit more understanding.

    The other thing is that people do use the language(s) they have — even when I’ve told people, “no hablo espanol bien,” they hear the Spanish and keep on going in Spanish. And often I’ll talk English at someone I know doesn’t understand what I’m saying either.

  17. Of course, sometimes you don’t have to open your mouth…In Australia, looking any type of East Asian can invite strangers to try out their single phrase of Mandarin or Japanese on you — even if you’ve already opened the conversation in English. Waiting politely for them to stop is no deterrent.

  18. @Kerim

    It is also possible, of course, that people in Guangzhou in the 1980s and people in Beijing in the 1930s had similar experiences, with the similarity highlighted by the shared motif of the two farmers, which appears in both accounts. Ain’t critical hermeneutics fun.

  19. I wonder, has anyone done research on the relation of body language and fashion to this issue? Living in Yokohama, where hearing people who are visibly Asia speak Chinese or Korean on trains or in restaurants is not at all unusual, I haven’t noticed the sort of interactions people are describing here. It could simply be, of course, that these public settings are not ones in which people are inclined to speak to strangers who look like themselves. But language aside, to me at least both body language and fashion sense make these Asian “others” easy to identify. Conversely I have also noticed that over time Ruth and I have come to be treated in pretty much the same way as Japanese treat each other. I suspect that this has something to do with the fact that, having lived in Japan for over three decades, we “act” Japanese, even if, especially in my case, the face and linguistic goofs indicate clearly that I’m not.

  20. Nice look at the issue.

    I think there seems to be some confusion over what a ‘microaggression’ entails in some instances, primarily because the neologism comprises the word ‘aggression’.

    As far as I can see, in the original sense of the term, it would definitely appear to cover the ‘哇!國語講得那麼好’ response after you’ve merely said ‘你好’.

    I think people object to the term as it sounds like one is implying that the utterer is being ‘aggressive’, when – in fact – it is almost the opposite with this particular response (being too nice and complimentary when it is not merited, which means it isn’t a compliment, regardless of whether the person utters it in good faith).

    I’d like to add another way of talking, which is actually not really talking at all and which often occurs when groups of youngsters bounce past you as you’re sitting somewhere. The ringleader shouts out ‘Haylooooo’ in a retarded voice, eliciting a chorus of guffaws from his lackeys. If you attempt to reply (not that I ever do any more except to praise their amazing English) they invariably blank you as they obviously had no desire (or ability) to engage beyond showing off in the first place.

    Occasionally, service youngsters (711) will do something similar in front of a colleague or bored girlfriend loafing in the shop. When you respond in a really over the top way with a compliment on their English, as Kerim said above (though with a different take on it than me) they usually get the message. That they intuitively understand that I’m being facetious makes it obvious to me that some of the language complimenters are not being sincere. You can usually tell by the tone I’d say.

    Anyway, once again: good stuff! I shall have to remember to pass by again soon 😉

  21. Kerim,

    i’ve personally experienced every one of these examples. but the daily experience that really gets me is the woman at the breakfast shop who wears a mask and mumbles the price to me, along with some cryptic hand signals. i cannot understand her mumbling (she won’t pull down the mask to speak to me), and the hand signals are meaningless, so every day her routine further confirms her belief that i cannot understand Chinese. one day, a woman standing nearby decided to translate for me. i told her in English that i can understand Chinese fine. i just can’t understand this woman’s mumbling with the mask and her stupid hand signals for money amounts. she seemed genuinely surprised by my reply.

  22. I have an example which would indicate that this is not a strictly monolingual phenomenon. I had been chatting with one of the Lahu performers at the Minority Nationalities Village outside of Kunming (an ethnic theme park). We conversed for a few minutes, and in mid-conversation (I cannot remember what triggered it, or even if I noticed what triggered it) he exclaimed “You speak Lahu!”. I think he must have thought we were speaking some dialect of Chinese, which was not possible since I do not speak any form of Chinese at all.

    I was invited to join the Lahu cast of the village show for lunch at that point. Interesting that there would be a difference between “Chinese speaking middle aged white woman” and “Lahu speaking middle aged white woman”. Lunch was lovely, too, mostly dishes I know well from Lahu villages in northern Thailand.

    I was once in a variation of the “talk to the Asian” conversation that was kind of fun, as well. A Thai government official wanting to know what I was doing in a Lahu village started out with me in Thai, but a Lahu friend came up and began speaking to him in northern Thai (the difference between phasa klang and kam muang has been compared to the difference between Spanish and Italian). So the Thai man and the Lahu woman used northern Thai, the Lahu woman translated into Lahu for me, I replied in Lahu to her and she replied to the Thai official. It was very helpful as I got to hear the questions twice and think about my responses, but the triangle was initiated by my Lahu friend. It seemed to me, in some way, to be an assertion of my state as a potential asset belonging to the village. Not sure I’ve lived up to my potential in that…

    Thank you, Kerim, for starting this train of reminiscence. Great essay!

  23. Judy, have you read Moerman’s book Talking Culture? He had similar experiences with Thai officials and his Lue friends, also involving the putative inability of foreigners to eat “sticky rice.”

  24. In 1970 I was stationed in Taipei. Standing at a bus stop, I flagged down a taxi. The door opened and I told the driver in Mandarin where I needed to go. He pulled out into traffic and we were on our way. A couple blocks later we hit a red light and stopped. I watched the driver look in his rear view mirror at me and then up at the red light. Immediately he looked back at me in the mirror and then turned around with an absolutely amazed look on his face. In English he said, “I thought you were Chinese.”–the best compliment I ever got! The best way that I found of dealing with those who think you cannot speak their language is to start off with a comment that they would expect you to be able to speak–a greeting perhaps. Then move the conversation to the point or question you are trying to make.

  25. @Martin & @Leslie, I’m very curious about this. What countries have you been in where you’ve had such similar experiences? Personally, when I was in France both my wife and I found the experience entirely different from Taiwan. I’ve forgotten most of my high school French but people were very patient with it and did not remark or otherwise comment on it. And when people wanted to speak in English or thought I might be an American they would often first say “Excuse me, but do you speak English?” Although, interestingly, one time someone tried to speak to us in Spanish. And it was a long time ago, but when I was in Indonesia I found people were very eager to speak in English. Several times I had conversations which consisted entirely of 1st year textbook questions, like “Do you have a pencil?” Something that has never happened to me in Taiwan. I also found Japan to be quite different. There people seemed even less willing to talk in English than in Taiwan, unless their English was quite good, but at the same time, they didn’t have any expectation that they should speak English, so I didn’t encounter the “foreigner panic” that I see here. Moreover, I’m not sure what you mean by a “universal phenomenon”? Part of the point of this post was to point out a variety of different response patterns even within Taiwan.

  26. As a sometime resident of Taiwan (1966-68, 1979-80) I found most of the examples quite familiar. I too heard the story of the two farmers sometime back in the 1960s, though I can’t recall from whom. Harold Shadick is certainly a possibility, but there are others – my initial guess was the anthropologist Maurice Freedman, who liked jokes and was a good story-teller. What’s probably significant is that it’s a very good story, which rings true for many people and hence has diffused widely.
    A point worth making is the distinction between a second language, a lingua franca, and a native tongue. In Taipei circa 1966-67 Mandarin was a second language for most of the people using it in the market and on the street, and people were experienced at coping with varieties of pronunciation and usage. Even most of the Mainlanders who came with the KMT armies in 1947-49 were more likely to speak Shanghai or Cantonese at home than the speech of Beijing, on which standard Mandarin is based. But, when I tried to do fieldwork in a small provincial city in central Taiwan which was 99 percent Taiwanese (Minnan, Hokkien) – speaking, it was much more difficult. The point, I eventually figured out, was that they had no experience hearing their native language spoken by an alien, so if your tones were a bit off or you flubbed an unvoiced consonant the result was liable to be blank incomprehension. Most people in their 20s or early 30s had learned Mandarin in school and the army, but hearing the stories of the old days from men in their 60s usually required the translation services of a younger relative or the guy I eventually hired as a field assistant. Oh, and when I did eventually master some spoken Taiwanese, I, quite reasonably, copied the local accent. Which Taiwanese in Taipei or Tainan found hilarious – the equivalent of a foreign student speaking English with a strong regional accent, such as that of Hope, Arkansas.

  27. Donald brings up a great point! When I lived in Japan from the late1970s to the early 1980s, I often visited Taiwan as a tourist. I actually had studied Mandarin as an undergraduate student in addition to Japanese, but people in Taiwan rarely understood Mandarin at that time. But anyone over 50 understood Japanese because of the colonial era, so they preferred to speak to me in Japanese. On a trip to Taipei in 2005 I was at a temple outside the city, and one of the Taiwanese locals wanted very much to speak to me in Japanese (as a mark of his distinction or age?)

  28. Thanks for dropping by @Donald. I would add that “Taiwanese Mandarin” is itself quite different from what most foreigners learn in school – even Chinese language schools in Taipei. When I first came to Hualien to do fieldwork in 2000 it took me between 6 and 12 weeks to adjust to the Mandarin that was spoken here.

    @Laura, my Amis teacher speaks Japanese at home with his wife. It is still quite common among older people in many Aborigine communities. One interesting thing I’ve heard is that many Taiwanese use various politeness forms in Japanese which have since been abandoned by most young Japanese (at least in everyday speech). For this reason Japanese seem to find Taiwanese Japanese very quaint.

  29. @kerim

    at some point, particularly when speaking hoklo, people started asking me if my parents were missionaries. so taiwanese notions of nativity might not be completely thought of in racial categories.

    @donald. usually speaking in hoklo with the lokkang accent serves as a form of counter-microagression, particularly if one has a betel habit.

  30. @DJ, I would add to that the assumption that if you live hear and speak Chinese you must have a Taiwanese girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband.

  31. A fascinating topic, and I can relate to many of these anecdotes and situations.

    There are two things that come to mind regarding the question of which people are likely or unlikely to understand my Chinese in Taiwan.

    One is tones.

    As someone indicated previously, one of the obstacles that most Taiwanese have in comprehending foreigners who are speaking Chinese to them, is that they very likely have never heard a foreigner from anywhere trying to speak a tonal language. As native speakers of a tonal language, they are probably not aware of how essential tones are to comprehension—unless they have themselves tried to learn another tonal language.

    So, unless a foreigner’s Chinese (of whichever dialect) is quite good, many Taiwanese people will stare dumbfounded. This can be frustrating when you think your Chinese is plenty good enough to handle daily situations. If your tones are not “native” enough, then instead of trying to guess what you mean based on the context of the conversation (coffee shop, juice stand, etc.), they may instead be intensely trying to make some sense of the words they THINK they are hearing, based on the less-than-accurate tones the foreigner is putting into a sentence. People like this will get very confused!

    Now, find anyone who (for whatever reason) has some experience listening to foreigners’ bad Chinese (like my Chinese teacher!), and they can understand exactly what you are saying, because they are using context clues to decode the exchange.

    When I was learning Swedish (and even as a beginner) Swedes could understand me, even though they often thought my grammar and pronunciation was amusing. But Swedish is not tonal, although it does use many sentence-level prosodic patterns and melodies which carry quite a lot of the meaning.

    The second is a factor I don’t have a name for. It might fit into the category of Panic mentioned previously.

    In many situations, I have found that two factors that determine who understands me in Taiwan are age and social/economic class.

    Here’s some examples: People in my age (40s) or younger, who are middle or higher class may have a harder time, because they instantly feel ashamed that their English is not good (even when I am speaking to them in Chinese). They probably had to take English class all through middle and high school, without ever imagining that they would ever actually use it outside of school. They experience it as a “losing face” situation.

    On the other hand, I often meet older folks or working-class people who understand me just fine. Why? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that they can approach the conversation without any feeling of shame or failure– because no one ever expected them to learn a foreign language. The old folks finished school long before English became a priority, and many of the working-class people either didn’t finish high school, or went to schools where English was not a priority.

    For anyone studying Chinese in China or Taiwan, I’d say look for opportunities to practice speaking with older folks and working class people.

  32. This is really interesting- i had similar experiences in Guatemala. I remember one time trying to buy a newspaper from a streetvendor who insistently disbelieved that I spoke any spanish, and was actually told by other customers “she’s speaking spanish fine what is with the weird hand gestures” (i was also buying a newspaper in spanish).

    I also remember getting to a point where I was unable to determine what language someone was speaking to me in, like people would make a point of switching to english and i just wouldn’t notice and would continue speaking in spanish, or else switch to english and similarly not notice.

  33. This is a wonderful post – thanks so much. I don’t think this is a monolingual situation at all. Happens to me here in Lahore, a very multi-lingual place, several times a day. I’m constantly bewildered when, after long conversations, I’ll be asked if I know any Urdu or “what all phrases have you learned” – as though the entire conversation up till now were memorized!

    I always assumed this came about because I do my work in a former English colony. I also assumed this sort of thing wouldn’t happen in China, for instance. Very eye-opening to know that’s not the case.

    Oddly enough, while some seem unable to process that I speak more than English, another set of people will pick up on a single panjabi phrase and switch over to that language immediately!

    I’ve been searching for a way for a long time to try and get dysfunctional conversations back on track by moving them away from English (only when necessary, of course.) I’m going to try out this trick and see how it goes!

  34. Enjoyed this. In the mountain communities near Cusco I noticed at one point that making sure to employ the Quechua gender marker of pitch (much, much higher for women) seemed a good way to convince listeners whose primary language was Quechua that a gringa was speaking actual words, whether in Spanish or Quechua. And, if other gringo/a researchers in the region received stares at even simple inquiries/statements, I’d suggest pitching their voices according to gender, and it seemed the same words repeated higher or lower suddenly would become intelligible to the listeners: like seeing people respond to what they’re struggling to hear when the volume helpfully is turned up or the static turned off. Some people who’ve grown up multilingual have told me that whatever language it is in which they first start speaking with someone becomes the tongue they more comfortably use whenever seeing that person again, as if a face/name is a mnemonic or trigger to code/language-switch and changing that can be challenging. But, I’m not sure that is true for everyone in all parts of the world, since in some nations we’ve switched back and forth to keep the conversation going while in others the people with whom I’m speaking simply appear to find the fact of who they perceive me to be an obstacle that even their native language skills can’t get past.

  35. @john scott. i’ve also found that people where i do fieldwork (either a small ‘amis village on the east coast or in lukang) are more likely to express relief that we can communicate; my experiences of having to give a brief digest of my life history happen most often in taipei. thanks for reminding us that class practices and expectations might figure into this phenomenon.

    my ‘amis friends, ever playful when it comes to interactions with the dominant ethnic chinese population and tired of over curious tourists who interrupt us, encourage me to make up fantastic stories based on their fabrications: “he was an abandoned baby–look how he turned out! we were surprised,” “his missionary parents died in a terrible accident, and we adopted him,” or my favorite, “oh, he just lived here a couple months. that’s all it took us to teach him!”

  36. @John Scott
    Really liked your examples of the panic that some Taiwanese people feel when approached by (caucasian) foreigners.

    I have a zillion experiences where the person that I was speaking to directly didn’t understand a word I’d said but others standing in the near vicinity could repeat what I’d said verbatim for their troubled countryman.

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