Learn a New Language from a White Boy

20160707_162819[1]By the time the WordPress robot posts this update, I will be on my second trip to China, sputtering through a four-week language immersion course in Harbin. Before leaving, I got a preview of it on my son’s field trip to our local urban Chinatown. We were part of a big group of elementary school students in a dim sum restaurant where the busy staff didn’t seem to be taking seriously the religious dietary restrictions of two students I was responsible for, so in desperation, I spoke to the servers in Mandarin. When our exchange was over and the servers were gone, there was a beat of silence, big-eyed kids, and the other mom at the table saying, “I was not expecting that.”

No. At the first few syllables, non-Chinese speakers hearing me hacking away at my not-quite second language usually look horrified, like I’m an idiotic monster trying to do some excruciating Mickey Rooney fake-Chinese comedy. They relax when they see my noise accepted by Chinese-speakers, and then I go from an idiotic monster to a unicorn.

In China, no one is surprised to hear unicorns blundering through the language that is not only local, but the most spoken language in the world. Most people nod at me, maybe smirk, maybe feel bad about discussing special pricing for foreigners right in front of me, correct my speech with cool matter-of-fact-ness, and when it’s over, they might say something about how I shouldn’t get too discouraged.

The reaction of Chinese-speakers outside an explicitly Chinese social context is different again. I was having ‘coffee’ with my professor and her baby in a suburban café, far from Chinatown, when she waved me to the counter and told me it’d be okay if I used Chinese to order a drink. The staff would understand. Ever the obedient student, that’s what I did. The café lady laughed at me. It’s a typical reaction. I didn’t think much of it, smiled, waited for it to pass. What was different about this encounter from the rest of the times I’ve spoken Chinese “in the wild” was that I was standing next to my professor–the person who, more than anyone else, is responsible for teaching me Chinese, who knows something of how difficult it’s been, how profoundly nervous I once was to do anything but read a script. She interrupted the laughter, telling me the lady was just surprised. What I’d said was fine. Later, I asked another professor why Chinese speakers in Canada laugh at me. He described it as “laughter of encouragement.”

These are the explanations of my teachers, friends, and mentors—people who nurture and protect my determination to study and learn Chinese. But it’s not all about me and they may be protecting more than that. I’m old enough to have seen Wayne’s World in its theatrical release and I remember the extended punchline of a joke that is nothing more than an ethnically Scottish North American (like me) having a conversation in Chinese. Hilarious, right? Mike Myer’s on-screen Chinese is strange and overwrought but the fact is, when Chinese is “toned down,” it’s unintelligible. I already walk a line too close to unintelligibility to risk crossing over it because of something like shyness. I can’t afford to hold back. I’m not making fun. I’m just trying to make sense.

There is one more kind of reaction I get when I use Chinese. It comes from a certain kind of person, always—always—an English-speaking man I do not know well. It has happened online and in person. I’ll mention I’m studying Chinese, that I’ve traveled there, might even say something about being a graduate student in a modern languages department. Then the man tells me he is interested in languages too, maybe even in Chinese. Am I using Duolingo? All of this is fine until, instead of asking me anything about learning languages, he shuts down my attempts to enter into a discussion and simply tells me about learning languages. I mentioned the laughing Chinese-speaker phenomenon to a man like this and he told me my lack of understanding of the tonality of Chinese pronunciation must leave me accidentally saying silly, laughable things. Actually, when he took a trip to China, he was praised for his near-native pronunciation of the half dozen pleasantries and place names he had learned to say. Guys like these tend to be the same ones who post memes about Ockham’s Razor, and the simplest answer to my observation about laughter was surely not a complicated, inequitable connection between the English-speaking majority in our community and the ambivalent relationships it fosters between local ethnic diasporas and their ancestral languages. No, the simplest explanation was that I must be foolish.

I was ticked off but still a unicorn. I smiled at white Chinese-language-mansplainer, and you can probably guess what I said.

你说中文吗?

It’s the Chinese equivalent of “Parlez-vous français?” or “Hablas español?” – the kind of phrase the barest of beginners ought to know.

He blinked. “Sorry, what?”

Mm-hm, that’s what I thought.

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