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.
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.