Saturday, December 13, 2008

Reluctant native speakers

Here I come?! Please don't speak to me in English.... :)

Yesterday I went to my bf's company Xmas dinner (which was held at a very Chinese restaurant, although they played Mariah Careys 'All I want for Xmas' non-stop, so we were all feeling the Xmas vibe anyways... ehum). Half of the people at the party were Chinese and the other half Scandinavians. When it was time to eat everybody mixed, rather than just having one Scandinavian and one Chinese table. Nice! The ordering of food was taken cared of by a Chinese woman, and I came with some inputs, suggesting some dishes in Chinese. Although I knew she understood me, she still replied in English all the time. Then, one of the Scandinavians heard us and told the woman:

-I think u can reply to Jonna in Chinese, she speaks it quite well, no?! (although quite well is a bit of an overstatement, I can see his point. Compared to him, who barely can say 'Yi ping pijiu -one beer, please' I speak Chinese quite well!)
-Ah yes, of course!! The woman said politely, and exchanged some phrases in Chinese with me.

Throughout the dinner, I tried to speak more to her, but it was useless. It became this one-person show when one is asking questions (where u from? What have u done before this? do you have a family? What's your job like?) and the other one is answering, and not asking anything back, or even making an effort to maintain the conversation. I strongly dislike these sort of conversations, so I quickly gave up and decided to try another guy (who was new to the company). He was a bit easier, and we chatted until he asked me something in Chinese that I didn't quite get (We were talking about Chinese traffic and riding a bike here and he joked and said something like: 'so I bet you ride your bike with your hands in your pockets?' -but I wasn't sure what he meant as first so I said: 'what?'), and, just like that, he switched to English in order to explain what he meant. And after that, it was impossible to get him to speak Chinese to me again. (And no, it wasn't as if he thought it would be rude to speak to me in Chinese since there were lao wais at the table. The Chinese spoke to each other in Chinese, while the lao wais spoke a great mix of Finnish, Swedish and English)

It's funny here when it comes to talking Chinese to a Chinese person who also knows English. Unless u get what they say straight away, they will immediately switch to English. Same with my language partners, something that annoys me. I don't have the best kind of hearing in this world (it is OK, but quite often I ask people to repeat themselves, regardless what language they are speaking), and just because u ask them 'what' doesn't mean that u are completely clueless and that they have to change their language. Although I have tried to explain this plenty of times to my them, they still do it, leaving me frustrated. Obviously a conversation in your third language cannot be smooth sailing all the time... you have to hit bumps and get over them, but if you take the easy way out every time there will be no improvement.

Actually, frustrated is the right word for me lately. It seems that every single Chinese person that I have spoken to lately wants to practice their English. I understand them, I fully do, because I am the same. But even though I am nice and say 'sure, we can speak some English first and then Chinese, OK?' and they say 'fine' they are still very reluctant to speak Chinese in the end. Or, they speak veeeeeeery fast Chinese, and when I don't get it, the quickly switch, making me feel as a dumb-ass.

It sort of makes me miss Dalian where no one tried to talk to me in English. And it sort of makes me think about something that I know my bf (and mom I bet) wouldn't be too happy about: going travelling alone in China. Packing a bag and heading for a place like Yunnan (I love Yunnan, so beautiful), visit small villages and chat to locals. I know that travelling alone would be ideal, as it would force me to just speak Chinese to locals rather than just enjoying the company of my travel companion. It shouldn't be too hard to get on by now if I do some reading about the place I will visit beforehand and have some sort of clue where I want to go. But is it safe to travel alone as a girl in China? I sort of think that it should be, seeing that China is so safe in general (and I am not going to visit Guangzhou or anything like that). Any girl reading this who has some experiences to share? I have read many newspaper articles about guys that rode their bike/motorbike/walked through China alone, but that's about it. It's always a guy. Obviously, I am not talking about doing anything as dramatic as that, I was more thinking about going away for a week or two.


Anonymous said...

Jonna why don't you just tell them that you don't speak English..

As for travel, if you wanna know more about Han history and culture try central china, such as Shaanxi陕西 and Henan河南 province. If you prefer more natrual beauty i'd recommend Yunnan云南,Tibet,or Xinjiang province(also see the diversity and "controversy" of PRC).The Shangri-La in Yunnan Tibet border is simply irresistible :P

As for travel safety, the anual number of crimes against westerners within whole china can be counted with one hand, it won't be dangerous as long as you follow the common rules of safe travelling. needless to mention that you have better strength and stamina than most local chinese men :D

Unknown said...

I guess that if your Chinese is better than their English, the conversation will turn to Chinese. Otherwise it is easier to communicate in English. This is what happened to me and my ex-girlfriend.

And by the way, with sensible precaution, a woman traveling alone is safe in China.

Anonymous said...

bad idea

Anonymous said...

It is just about using common sense. And I guess you are a tad stronger than the average chinese man anyway.

If you really want to, you can always find some scary stories from any kind of place, but in general is it extremely safe (if you are not thinking about transportation) to travel in China.

I strongly recommend visiting Yunnan, and maybe a trip to some random mountains in Fujian. If you like bicycling, (which is the best way to experience anything :P) then I know tons of places which is just really nice to visit.

Amanda Kendle said...

Jonna, I sympathise completely. It was the same for me when I lived in Japan and wanted to practice Japanese, I was allowed a sentence or two but once it got complicated and I dared to pause, then they would switch to English. It's really hard to (politely) get what you want!

As for travelling alone I don't have any experience of that in China but I'd still say go for it!!

Anonymous said...

Hey Jonna. Boy, do I hear you. I think it is abominably rude to switch languages on people unless there is a clear reason to do so. (As my hearing isn't great either, I can even relate to that part of your experience.) This is one area that makes me pretty intolerant. I mean, I've stopped even trying to do a "mutual recognition of cultural differences" type thing. I just say, "You know what, conceding the inevitable exceptions, this is an fantastically unattractive part of Chinese society. Period. I'm not going to try to understand their point of view. It's rude and selfish. That's it." I ALWAYS answer people in the language in which they have spoken to me, unless I don't speak it, in which case I ALWAYS apologize for not being able to speak it.

I do think there is a reason for this pattern of behavior, though. There has basically never, in living memory, been enough to go round in China. People jostle for what they want. It's part of survival. So, I think the way people act will probably change as their circumstances change.

As for travelling on your own, I have done it and do not recommend it. I did it many years ago, when I was slightly younger than you are now. I was never as eye-catching as you are (not tall and blond -- when I wear a hat and sunglasses, people often think I am Chinese) but I definitely attracted an exhausting amount of the wrong kind of attention. Back then it wasn't unsafe, just unpleasant. I think it might actually be unsafe now.

Little Tiger said...

Those situations sure are tricky.

I think there could be more than just wanting to practice one's English involved.
Perhaps they don't want you to think their English is not up to scratch or they may want to prove their English being in that kind of half half environment.

And you (rightly so) may want to show you made the effort to learn their language and are more than just a laowai who can order beer!
So I guess you could say it's more like a conflict than a conversation going on!

I suggest you make a compromise from the start, they speak english and you speak chinese (strange, I know but I have been doing this with my flatmate for well over a year now. Yes we got strange looks while out in public....but who cares?? :)
Or else find another way to get them to repeat without coming across as not having understood anything (as you probably would have got the gist of what they were saying).

As for the traveling I don't think you should let your fear get in the way.
I met many young women traveling around on their own (mostly Dutch or for the most part tall and blond :-p ) over the years when I lived in Africa. So in comparison China is extremely safe as long as you take the obvious precautions.

Steph said...

Hi Jonna. I often read your blog and enjoy hearing about your experiences, particularly with learning Chinese - something I'd like to have more time to do.

I'm currently teaching English in China for the second time. I've travelled in China a few times by myself. I never went anywhere really 'wild' but I did go to Dali, Lijiang and up to Tiger Leaping Gorge (where I met some Germans who I did the walk with).

I never had any problems and never felt unsafe. Obviously, I took obvious precautions - like you would travelling by yourself anywhere.

I'd say go for it - you'll find it a lot easier than me as my Chinese is basic, to say the least!!


Anonymous said...

Hi Jonna,

I guess it's easier for the English speaking Chinese person to simply speak English. It's annoying from their point of view if you have to keep interrupting the conversation every few minutes to explain something. It disrupts the flow of conversation, and to be honest, most people you speak to wont want to teach and coach you along, even if that is the ideal situation for us (like you, I'm also not fluent in Chinese)

One thing that determines if the other person is patient with us is their exposure with those less fleunt. If they arent used to us, then they will revert to the easiest language.

They also wont be used to speaking slightly slower, or choosing simpler words for our benefit.

About travelling solo, I've always found that to be two edged.

I agree 100% that going solo allows you to focus on learning other langauges. You can read many blogs on solo travelling adventures.

But when I tell people I went to such and such alone, I always get asked "Who did you go with?", and when I say I went on my own , to Tokyo, Hong Kong, whatever, I get "oh", in return, like there's something wrong with me!

Ah, the joys of travel :)

Do you think your bf would be ok with you travelling solo for a short time, like week?


ps: you have been learning writing, right? May I suggest bringing along pen and paper so you can write, if they dont understand what you say, or they can write, if you dont understand them? Being able to write helps you show off too :)

Jonna Wibelius said...

Interesting that the opinions about travelling alone go apart... some think it should b fine while others don't. Well, I don't think it would be any huge problem. Like 2 of you pointed out, I am probably bigger and 'stronger' (or at least faster) than most of the people I will come across.. hahaha!

Zhou -yeah, I have actually been thinking about that lately, that I'd just act clueless when they speak English. Worth a try! As for travelling, Shangri-La is on top of my list! I have already been to Yunnan once but not to Shangri-La or Dali.

Harry -I guess u r right. Can't wait for my Chinese to improve!

Emil -Yunnan is gorgeous yes, I'd love to go again. Not sure if I am brave enough to ride my bike there though....

Amanda -I hear you, sounds like u r in the same situation as me. Really frustrating because u feel u have so much to say but once u mess up a little bit, the opportunity to speak is gone.

flyingfish -sounds like u and I have shared a lot of similar experiences. I guess I have to go and do some ear candling soon... :) But I really cannot wait for my Chinese to improve... then, I am going to be the 'annoying one', switching from English to Chinese all the time... or maybe not. Let's see first if I can ever even get to that level! When u travelled alone, where did u go?

Little Tiger -I think u r right about the fact that it becomes a bit of a conflict. The Chinese wanna show they can speak English, meanwhile I wanna flare my Chinese skills. one of my language partners suggested that she would speak English all the time and I would speak Chinese, so we have been doing that for a while, although the only thing that isn't so good about it is that I don't get to practice my listening skills.. So in the long run I don't really like that method either. (although f course it is better than speaking English all the time). Finally... u've lived in Africa?! Gosh, u r an adventurer!! That must have been amazing.

Steph -thanks for sharing your experiences! From what u wrote it sounds like travelling alone would b great. What I love about travelling alone (I did it back in 2002 in Indonesia) is that u start to talk to so many new people that u would never chat to if u already had a travelling partner. It's a great way to meet new people.

Adrian -yeah, I think u r right. I guess I just have to be patient and wait for my Chinese to improve a little bit more... although u have to agree that it is frustrating! Are u going to continue to study next year? As for travelling alone, I don't think my bf would be thrilled if I decided to do it, but he knows that I have done it before so I don't think he will disapprove.

Kate said...

Jonna, I totally sympathize. This was the case between me and my Chinese roommate this entire semester! Half the time I'm off in my own thoughts and I have to ask the Chinese person speaking to me to repeat what they said because I WASN'T LISTENING and DIDN"T HEAR THEM, and they just assume I didn't understand and switch to English. Urrrgggh!

I think you'd be fine traveling alone, but as an alternative, consider doing what I did- I joined a "join-in tour" in Yunnan with a Chinese-speaking guide. I ended up not speaking English for the whole week because all the people on the tour were Chinese and most of them didn't speak any English at all. I wasn't bored like I might have been at times if I were alone, I never felt unsafe, and I had a fantastic time and made a lot of new friends and my Chinese improved a lot just in a week. :) Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Jonna - With me it usually works like this: if my Chinese is better we speak Chinese and if their English is better we speak English. I thought that was how it was always. Which is why what I hate MOST is a laowai speaking Chinese to me. We might be in China, but if we're both going to be struggling when we both have English as a first language, I won't bother with Chinese.

As for travelling, forget what everyone else says and JUST DO IT. I think it'd be a great experience and honestly, I can't see how travelling around China could be any less safe than say, the US or Europe. And yes, I know a few girlfriends who have done it and one who's doing it right now for 6 months and is having such an amazing time that I am envious.

The only "trouble" she's had is that the owners of the hotel refuse to let her leave without throwing a big farewell party for her, she got so drunk and missed her flight so had to stay one more day.

Hang said...

Travelling alone is relatively safe in China. Actually, I often do solo travelling in China and I've met many Chinese girls who travel alone, particularly in Lhasa, Tibet and Lijiang of Yunan. Your common sense will help avoid the unpleasant or the potentially dangerous.

Lhasa and Lijiang are my recommendations for solo travellers, they are the favourites of young Chinese backpackers, where you can always make some friends.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jonna,

Yes, I'm going to continue studying next month. But I'll be working full time too while studying- mei yo chien

Sooner or later money rears it's ugly head. :)

That's also something I imagine both of us experience, right?!



Anonymous said...

Jonna, when I travelled before I went to Sichuan. Having read more of the comments from others who have travelled on their own, or who know other women who have done so (and in much more adventurous places than I've gone), I'd like to revise my comments. I think my suggestion that you avoid going on your own was based on outdated information (foreigners were a much bigger deal back when I did it) and I think I was also biased by my stamina problems (which are significant). These problems make attracting a lot of attention really hard for me to deal with sometimes. An adventurous character like you, an athlete with plenty of stamina, should certainly be able to cope with whatever comes up and have plenty of fun into the bargain. Good luck!

Jonna Wibelius said...

Kate -that is actually a quite good idea. Alone, but still not. Do u have any agency u can recommend, or did u just search online? was it expensive to go on a tour like that? I just hope the group don't see me as their opportunity to practice English... hehe.. well, I guess I can always lie and say I don't know how to speak.

Woai -from reading yours and other people's responses I see now how annoying it must be for someone who is a native Chi speaker to have to lower their level for someone like me (who constantly wanna speak Chinese in order to practice) to follow... I just have to hurry to get better! Or speak more to people who don't know so much English...

Adrian -I hear u... I am also thinking about looking for a job, but only part time.. Not that easy now with the credit crunch and everything though. Most f all I'd like to work for a company where I could practice my Chinese... but I don't know what kind of job that would be.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jonna, if you can't get a part-time job, how about volunteering?

Anonymous said...

I remeber when I went to Shangri-La back in 2002, just after they openend their airport and before the road there was openend. We went with a bus from Lijiang and the roads were terrible, and we saw massive construction work everywhere in the valley on the way there. I think we were among the first foreign tourist groups to ever go there, because when we got out of the bus the mayor and a lot of other guys met us and gave us silk scarf and some strange alcohol. Then we had to walk a couple of km as some sort of parade and along the whole way the streets was filled with people clapping for us. It was one of the wierdest experiences I have ever had.

I went there for some running competition, but it went bad. Running on altitude over 3300m completely ruined my shape after I got back home.

Dali was also cool, it got some really nice trails in the mountain for running.

Kate said...

I did mine with dreams travel (, which actually had some problems but in the end arranged a really wonderful tour for me and was quite helpful in rectifying the problems. my travel agent was named Harry. But i found them by just typing in "join in tour" into google, so if you search around in the internet a little bit I am sure you will find a good one. The people I was touring with definitely didn't see me as a way to practice English, but took teaching me a lot of new Chinese very seriously :) it was considerably cheaper than a private tour, USD 335 included flight from Chengdu to Lijiang, 2 nights stay in Lijiang and the 4 day tour (which was slightly an odd arrangement because Harry sort of dropped the ball on the 6 day tour I had originally paid for but the one he ended up arranging for me was splendid anyway, better than the one I had picked first I think). so not "cheap" but not expensive as far as tours go.

Anonymous said...

Simple: If they switch to English, switch to speaking very quickly, using lots of slang, and random code switch with other non-Chinese foreign languages.

Perhaps it's rude, but I always reply in non-English languages when people speak to me in English. 不好意思,一點都聽不懂啊...