Thursday, January 22, 2009

Not what it looks like

Laowai and 'translator/'Guangzhou girl ' in Dalian 

Walking alone at Suzhou's main shopping street, Guan Qian Jie, attracts so much attention that I sometimes prefer catching the train to Shanghai and do my shopping there in order to avoid all the staring. Half of all the staring is probably all in my head, but well... there are still days when I simply cannot put up with walking on a street and having people pointing, sniggering and giving me shameless once-overs.

Sometimes I meet my Indonesian girlfriend for a day on town and this also results in curious stares. Mainly at her, then. Having the face of an Asian everybody thinks she is Chinese and takes for granted she's stuck with being my translator (as we communicated in a mix of Chinese and English). Forget about the fact that her Chinese is far from native-sounding, a lot of people actually think she's from Guangzhou. So, every time we head for, let's say a restaurant and want to order food, the waiters speak to her. It doesn't matter if I am the one ordering, or if it's me asking something about a dish. They just give me a pitiful look before they turn to her to explain. For her it's enough to just nod, do a little 'aaaa, ahhh ahhhh aaaaa' -sound, and they nod back, in some secret understanding?! (would never work for me, I am certain).

Last week we went to have a 15-kuai-manicure in Suzhou, and the girls polishing our nails both turned to my friend and started chatting to her, before one of them whispered: "By the way, that laowai, does she understands anything?!"
-Sure she does, I said, and they both stared at me. Still, they turned back to my friend and continued talking to her. As I hate not being included, I eventually said:
-Are you sure she's Chinese?
The girls looked so confused that me and my friend started laughing and explained that my friend's from Indonesia and that we are in the same Chinese course.
-Ohhhhh.. really?!?!?

Once this was out, I was suddenly included in the conversation. In fact, when the people around us heard us speak they formed a small circle around us just to listen to me speaking Chinese. It is kinds of funny that it still is considered such a 'wonder' to hear a laowai speak Chinese in China. Fair enough, it is a hard language to learn, but we are living in China... so it makes sense to be able to speak (at least a little bit of) the language of the country. But anyway, I was just happy to finally be a part of the conversation. Something tells me that if I hadn't revealed that my friend was Indonesian, rather than Chinese, I would have never got a chance to speak.

My Indonesian friend loves the fact that people take her for Chinese though. She gets a better price just by showing her face and rarely have to engage in 30-minutes-haggle-sessions like me. Her boyfriend's (the romantic guy) Chinese language skills are even better than hers (he sounds like a local) which he also benefits from when going shopping.

Once he was at an electronic market looking for some headphones. He stopped at a counter and looked at the headphones on display, asking the sales guy how much they were. The sales guy's reply:

-Oh, you wanna buy headphones? Well these ones on display are expensive, they are just for laowais. I'll grab some from the back for you. The same quality but cheaper.

Sad to think that regardless of how good my Chinese ever get, I don't think I'll get the same sort of treatment. Only for Chinese (fair enough) and Chinese looking laowais (unfair).


Anonymous said...

I so agree about how strange it is that people think it's weird to have a laowai speak Chinese. I HATE it! China is a major modern power built on an ancient, cosmopolitan civilazation! This kind of behavior makes people look so provincial (in the worst possible sense), and it's utterly unworthy of them! Last time I was in China (12 years ago), we called it "The 'Monkey Can Talk' Syndrome."

I also totally understand about the staring and pointing. I don't get them anymore here in Beijing (I'm a lot less eye-catching than you and Beijing is a different city), but I certainly used to. Once I got so fed up I broke down and cried on the streets of Tianjin. I was with a Chinese friend and I just loved the way she pitched into the guy whose stare "broke the camel's back." She told him he was losing face for all Chinese, acting like an uncivilized bumpkin, and didn't he realize we were all part of the same world (this was way before "One World, One Dream"), and so on.

Actually, I know this sounds strange, but I am often asked if I am Chinese. (I have browny-red hair, HUGE muddy-green eyes and a very big nose.) My language skills are definitely NOT that hot. The only good thing about them is my pronunciation, which is more or less native depending on whether I'm having a good Chinese day (rare) or a bad Chinese day (common). I am afraid you are right, you will likely never be mistaken for a local no matter how good your Chinese gets, but, if you would like to experiment with seeing how quickly you can reverse some of those attitudes, you might try focusing really, really, really hard on pronunciation for a while. I don't know, maybe you could even get a special coach if you wanted. I'm not saying that pronunciation is more important than actual command of the language (I don't think it is), I'm just saying that I know for sure kick-a** pronunciation, no matter how sucky your Chinese is otherwise (and mine is pretty bad), is a definite key to impressing the hell out of people. I'm not kidding about being asked if I'm Chinese. It's happened to me more times than I can count. And I promise you, I'm not being modest when I say my overall language skills, apart from pronunciation, are really pretty lame!

Anonymous said...

just so you don't feel too many, chinese people that are not local to the place also gets ripped off just as much.

Anonymous said...

This needs to be said. Youd turn alot of heads in many cultures. I think there is a tendency from men of one culture treating women of another rudely. To make a long story short I know foreign students on college campuses dont integrate that well with local students. Foreign students also are distant from other students of different cultures or even their own. I saw this again recently. Im on public transportation and there is one African already on the bus. Another one gets on by a university. They end up sitting across from each other. They dont speak English but I can tell one is asking for directions. That is the end of the conversation. They still were strangers when one got off. Youd think there would be more commonality in a chance encounter of someone speaking your native tongue. Nope, it was like they were riding buses in their own country. Ive gotten over any reticence when I go shopping in Russian, Arabic, Chinese stores where the only common language is the dollar. A college mathematics professor friend of mine is the big man on campus when he comes from out of state and I take him shopping in the local Arabic stores. He hands his cell phone over to the store clerk who does all the shopping for one of his Arabic speaking students at the other end. Once again a matter of business and nothing more from what I understand.


Anonymous said...

The feeling is mutual for Chinese living in the West. That is just the way it is. We are so physically different that people generalize about us. Sad but true.

Anonymous said...

Was there a time when you were treated better than Chinese in China?

Anonymous said...

2 things:
-Chinese is not hard to learn, try learning Greek! Yikes!
-15Yuan manicure! Ok I am coming to Suzhou just for that!
-While one thinks Chinese can be a little snobby towards foreigners, they are really just shy and not sure how to talk to foreigners until they know there is something in common.

Damn, that's 3 things not 2...

Anonymous said...

Hi, Jonna,

Love your blog. I've been reading it for a while, this is 1st time I leave a comment. :-)

This entry brings a couple of memories back to me.

1. I'm a Chinese living in UK. A few years back, I went to Japan with a British colleague to attend a trade show. People always came up to me to speak but ignored my colleague. Every time I had to turn to him with a confused expression and look for help. Cos he is the one speaks Japanese, lived in Japan for 8 years. We had a good laugh about that afterward.

more later

Anonymous said...

2. Again a few years back, I attended a training course in Northern Ireland. One of the item was orienteering. At the beginning, my group mates completely excluded me from the discussion to solve the problems. When I tried to join in, their response was a bit dismissive. It was word game at 1st, so fair enough, I'm not good at it, so kept quiet. But soon, the questions changed. I was able to solve one after another. Oh, it was fun to watch their faces. I recon this was because they were a bit young, mostly fresh out of local uni, probably haven’t worked with foreigners before. Just a bit of ignorant, more contact with foreigner will fix it for most of them no doubt.

By the way, I always tell my British friends that Chinese is easy, especially the grammar. The verbs do not change with tense. The nouns do not have plurals or singular form. Not to mention no gender related variations. The tone might be a bit difficult to get used to at the beginning, but there are only 4 of them. To write the characters might be the most difficult. But with time it will come, 1000 characters can read newspapers.

I find Japanese is relatively easy for me to learn. English is not too easy. I still make a lot of grammar mistakes after living in UK for many years. French is difficult, so is German. I gave up very quickly on learning French and German.
Some Chinese think Chinese is difficult to learn, I think it’s because they haven’t try to learn other languages.


BigRed said...

UGH the staring. I encountered the same problem in small towns (mostly in the Yunnan Province). we would go to shops and the shopowners would snap our pictures, and then call friends, and then when we left the shops there would be a small crowd waiting for our exit.

More than a few times I would be working at an internet cafe, and people would just walk over and stand behind me and watch what I was doing on the screen. I would give them my dirtiest look, and make a "shoo" gesture with my hands.

It can be very trying for laowais.

Jessica Rhodes said...

Hi there. I'm just randomly reading your blog : ) I lived for a year in Japan so I understand how you feel. There was not a single place I could go in the whole country and not get stared at. My Japanese was always laughed at- not beause it was bad (which it probably was) but because it was coming out of a white face. So weird. In America, I just assume that everyone speaks English and that everyone living here is an American. I just don't have that concept of foreigner/not foreigner... : ) Good fortune to you in all of your travels. I'll be back to Asia soon, I hope... Thanks for the wonderful pictures.

n.aka.zephyr said...

Hi there!
I am from India and I can assure you that if you were learning Hindi and tried to speak the language people in India would have the exact same reaction... It is a wonder for us when a foreigner, especially any western speaks our language.... I love it when my British flatmate tries to speak in Hindi... I think its so cute! :)