Saturday, July 9, 2011

Of Languages and Expats

Based on conversations I've taken part in and seen online among expats, I predict this will be the most controversial thing I've ever written. So be it.

This is sparked mainly by Laowiseass's post:

When a Chinese person asks 10 or 20 how-could-it-be questions about a foreigner's Mandarin skills, one of two reasons lurks under the veneer or omigod-you're-so-amazing fawnery.
Incidentally, I've never met an established foreigner in Taiwan who didn't speak some degree of Mandarin. Most speak it well.
Reason No. 1 (insult): Foreigners are presumed to have severe brain problems. The poor fools study Chinese for years at universities in China or Taiwan. A lot of local people know that's going on. But somehow after the foreigners walk off with the language course completion certificate, nothing sticks in their heads.
Reason No. 2 (sense of superiority): The dumbfounded Chinese believe their language to be so complex that despite any amount of study or use over a long stay in a greater China, foreigners still can't grasp it well enough for real communication. Similarly, foreigners aren't supposed to get the social or cultural subtleties around them, meaning they're easy to cheat or at least get snickered at when they follow the posted rules while everyone else is going to the bank by breaking them.
For some people, a simple lack of exposure to foreigners explains the incredulity. But why assume can'trather than can, or simply reserve judgment with an open mind?

My wife, whose spoken Chinese is better than mine, has already written her response. Here's mine. It's not so much in response to Laowiseass, as it is a response to what I hear from the expat community in general.

The Language We Speak

I am entirely of Western European ethnic heritage. Taiwanese people generally do not automatically assume my Chinese-language skills are nonexistent. In fact, if anything they routinely overestimate my Chinese level. I find this surprising because my ability to understand Mandarin is much better than my ability to speak it. (When I lived in Korea, I spoke the language better than I understood it, so it seemed natural when locals thought my fluency was better than it was.)

My Chinese is not very good. In fact, it is shamefully bad for the amount of time I've lived in Taiwan. My wife, who if anything is even whiter than I am, is a much better conversationalist. From what I have seen, Taiwanese people do not generally react with shocked amazement that she is able to speak coherently. She does get an awful lot of 'Ooh, you speak Chinese really well!' She hears that constantly, in fact. But I don't think that's shocked amazement. I think, from a Taiwanese culture point of view, they're being polite.

I didn't say 'they think they're being polite', or worse, as I've actually seen on an expat online forum, 'they don't know they're being rude'. That's just demeaning. As if Asians aren't ready to be as cultured and urbane as us Westerners yet, but as long as they're making an effort, we should give them a big, patronizing Good Job! and a thumbs up!

The Language They Speak

You often hear Westerners complain about Taiwanese people speaking English to them for no apparent reason beyond their visible racial features. Many Westerners, even many Westerners who aren't bothered by it, believe Taiwanese people do this because they assume the Westerner doesn't know Chinese. The logic is clear. It is blindingly obvious.

Here's the contrary view.

You're a Taiwanese person in Taiwan and you speak decent English. You have reason to initiate verbal communication with a Westerner. You are perfectly aware that there are Western-looking people in your country who speak decent Chinese. You may even be aware that some Westerners act a bit insulted if a local initiates conversation in English.

But let's talk probabilities. What is the probability that the Westerner would rather be approached in English, versus the probability they'd rather be approached in Chinese? Based on a sampling of all Westerners in Taiwan (not just you and your friends), speaking English will almost certainly be the most rational choice. Assumptions like 'they couldn't possibly understand Chinese' don't have to enter into it.

You could counter that it's not right to let a person's visible ethnic features affect the way you treat them at all. I'm of two minds about this. The correct response in many people's minds is that willful race blindness is very much a Western innovation, one which we ourselves usually don't live up to. Imposing it onto expectations of what people in other cultures should do is silly. That said, I'm not such a cultural relativist that I'd necessarily think there is anything wrong with saying 'Wouldn't it be nicer if people in other cultures did XYZ?'

There's also the fact that some 'I shall speak English with this foreigner' conversations probably come out of a desire to grab this opportunity to practice English. I am not sure how often this happens in Taiwan. It happened all the time when I lived in Korea, and it was usually perfectly obvious what was going on. It doesn't happen to me much in Taiwan, although that might be partly due to my habit here of going about in public with headphones in my ears.

Humans Have a Right to Be Batty

Lurking within the psyches of Western expats in Asia is the dark figure of the local who has absolutely no clue how to deal with the fact that there are foreigners living in their country. Most often this takes the form of a local who is absolutely determined not to understand anything a foreigner says, even if the foreigner does an excellent job speaking the local's native language. Rather like the running gag in the movie Anchorman, where Will Ferrell's character can't understand Hispanic people speaking English, because he 'doesn't speak Spanish'.

I don't deny that such people exist, although I do suspect they are rather less common in real life than they are in expats' imaginations.

Here is my plea:

Let those people be batty, illogical individuals. Don't smear their individuality all over the culture they came from. Don't use some variation on 'Oh well. People in this country haven't had much contact with foreigners.' Everybody has a right to have foibles.

Thank you.

NOTE: I live in Taiwan and I have lived in Korea, but as far as I'm concerned the above also goes for China and Japan and probably all of East Asia, although areas that are very multilingual or have a colonial history of English will almost certainly have their own situations and contexts that I'm not familiar with. Even here in Taiwan, a foreigner speaking Chinese will be perceived very differently from a foreigner speaking Taiwanese, but that's a whole 'nother story.


blobOfNeurons said...

I spoke the language better than I understood it

This makes me conclude that you were at times unable to understand your own words.

Brendan said...


It means my listening comprehension would have been quite good, if only Koreans had spoken to me in the non-native-speaker speech that I myself used.

Jenna said...

Brendan's happens when someone has a lot of ability to communicate, but not necessarily fluently - using other words, substitutions, examples or just odd ways of explaining something - and has not yet matched that in their ability to listen to the language as it is normally spoken.

John Scott said...

I agree with your probability theory. I am not insulted when a Taiwanese person wants to start a conversation with me. Mostly because I was raised to be polite and courteous, but also because I am not proud or overly-sensitive. At least I don't think I am. Besides, I have met some nice folks that way. And, as you point out, it is just a fact that an obviously-foreign person is going to be perceived differently in Taiwan than in more multi-cultural countries. If I saw a Chinese-looking person on the subway in Stockholm, for example, I might want to intiate a conversation with them in Chinese, but I probably wouldn't, for fear they would be insulted, or take it as a racist encounter. They might be from Panama or Wisconsin, for all I know!

But what I have no patience for, is when I initiate a conversation or transaction in passable Mandarin, and the Taiwanese person responds only in English. Am I being too proud or stubborn or something? If they are understanding my Chinese, why do they think I would not understand their Chinese???

J said...

A lot of the expat complaints you bring up have more to do with the expats themselves than the locals. My theory is that when it comes to opinions about other cultures or even just individual people, people don't think they need actual evidence, they just choose the explanation that's most appealing to them. My guess is "I'm being racially discriminated against" is a very appealing interpretation to Westerners, since we get to reverse an accusation often made against us, and it provides a strong sense of moral superiority.
Anyway, main point is people like Ralph Jennings don't bother actually researching the culture itself for a reason, rather they just provide an explanation that they think fits best. No good reason is ever given for dismissing the idea that Taiwanese people might actually mean well, or are being polite according to their own cultural standards. The idea that Taiwanese find us rude when we think we're being polite is not even contemplated.

Cecilia Ting said...

Gah! I am so excited to see a blog post like this! (I stumbled across your blog via the Lao Ren Cha blog, which I found accidentally while in search of some linguistics-related information.) At any rate, I have to say that there is an incredible desire for Taiwanese to approach Americans/Westerners in an effort to practice English in a social setting. As an ABC, I try to think of the whole "a Westerner can speak Chinese? How shocking!" thing as a mix of cultural pride/curiosity. I think Chinese are very proud of their culture and fear it will be taken away, making strong efforts to conserve it: Perhaps in a manner somewhat contrary to traditional Western imperialism? Which leads to their curiosity: Something along the lines perhaps of "is there some less than benevolent purpose behind this individual using our language?" I'm not entirely sure this directly addresses your blog post (it is currently approaching 4am and I should be studying for final exams) but in any case, just wanted to express a gladness at finding such topics being addressed online!