Picture this: you have just arrived in China and are excited to try out the Chinese you have learned. You pop into a local corner store and ask something simple: “这是多少钱?” (zhè shì duō shao qián; how much is this?). But to your dismay, the clerk merely stares at you blankly, before asking in halting English, “Can I help you?” So what happened? Was your pronunciation off? Did you use the wrong tones? Did you completely waste your time studying Chinese only to fail epically on your very first attempt? In fact, it may be none of these things.
This perplexing phenomenon has been experienced by many of my non-Chinese friends who live and work in China, who have also attained a fairly high mastery of the Chinese language. We have all experienced this type of reaction from Chinese locals in our daily lives, and have all been unsure about what, on certain occasions, made our spoken Chinese completely incomprehensible. After discussing the issue with a number of Chinese friends and colleagues, a possible answer emerged: according to certain Chinese people, many locals simply accept as fact that the Chinese language is more or less “impossible” to learn for non-Chinese, and therefore fail to comprehend when a foreigner actually speak understandable Chinese. In short, they expect foreigners to be unable to speak Chinese.
While I’m sure this is not the case every time a Chinese person cannot understand a foreigner speaking Chinese, it explains many of my own experiences, and also raises another interesting question: how much does the same thing happen to foreign visitors to China? How often do we unconsciously make a decision about a situation before we actually experience it? How often do we judge Chinese people before actually letting their words and actions speak for themselves? How often do we pass judgement before making any effort to understand Chinese culture or history? How often are our negative experiences in China the result of the influence of negative media coverage, or the negative stories of other foreigners?
My suggestion: anyone who truly wants to enjoy a positive experience in China should try to really listen and observe as much as possible, and try to do so in an unbiased manner. If we shut out those voices (e.g., our friends, parents, coworkers, politicians, the media) that are constantly trying to tell us what China is like, and simply try and experience China for what it really is, we may surprise ourselves, and discover a China we never knew existed.
Thanks for reading!
Do you have any comments or questions on communicating effectively in China? Do you have any stories you can share in which you overcame your assumptions when communicating with the Chinese people? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.
Follow the China Culture Corner to receive regular updates by email!
I can report the parallel for Japan: I have tried the phrase “biiru kudasai” or “Sapporo biiru ippon kudasai” roughly ten thousand times, very often in locations where the only thing for sale was beer, and about three quarters of the time the response has been like that of the Chinese in the article above. People whose full-time occupation is serving beer cannot believe that a foreigner knows that the word for beer in Japanese is “biiru”!
Sean, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I enjoyed reading it.
Thanks a lot Dai!
This has happened to me with Spanish. I appreciate your thoughtful explanation.
Carol, thanks for sharing, it’s interesting to hear that this phenomenon occurs in other countries/cultures too.
This has also been my experience . I am an OBC ( Overseas Born Chinese). My looks are totally Chinese. Apart from that, everything about me is foreign : my mannerism, my dress, the overseas accent in my Mandarin. When I initiate a conversation in Mandarin, I often get an English response 😦 I think that in the mind of a Mainland Chinese, too many foreign components will prompt the use of a foreign language in response.
Katy, thanks for sharing your own experiences. It’s possible that these types of assumptions have a much greater effect on people in the service industry – they deal with so many people on a daily basis that it’s possible they develop deeply ingrained habits that influence how they interact with different people.