Sunday, February 8, 2009

How good is 'soooo goood,' really?

"oh please... it's not THAT good....!"

Even though I find the process of learning Chinese quite tiresome and slow, I have to say that being and China and learning the language is kind of rewarding. Especially since the progress you make is so appreciated by locals.

In the beginning phase of learning Chinese, you absorb every single 'wow, your Chinese is so good-' comment you get from a local like a sponge. Even though you deliver the compulsory denial phrase: 'Oh, no no no... my Chinese is not good at aaaaalll!!!!!' you are secretly musing, thinking that 'hell yeah I am getting better! Even the locals are noticing!', forgetting about the fact that yesterday you ordered an apple juice and they gave you an orange.

But then, once you've spent some time learning, and some years in China, you notice that the whole 'ohhhh, your Chinese is really great!' isn't really about your Chinese being good or not. Rather, it is just a polite, break-the-ice phrase that people tell you when they notice that you can say more than '你好 Ni hao!' (hello) and '谢谢 Xie xie' (thank you).

A typical example of this is when having a chat with a taxi driver. The conversation more or less always follows the same pattern:

1. you tell him where you want to go, he ask you if he should take the highway.
2. You tell him no and suggests another route.
3. He tells you your Chinese is really great.
4. You politely decline the compliment by saying 那里那里-'Nali Nali' (=polite way of declining the compliment).
5. He tells you that really, your Chinese is fantastic.
6. You say '不敢当 -bu gandang!' (= you flatter me/I don't deserve your praise)
7. He cracks up, almost starts applauding and asks you where (such a smart) girl/ guy is from.
8. You tell him your country of origin.
9. He (normally) says something nice about your country/asks you something about your country, and then proceeds to asking how long you've been in China.
10. You answer. (the shorter you've been here the more impressed he will be seeing that your Chinese is 'soooo goood!')

Don't get me wrong. Sometimes it is really nice to have these conversations, especially when your 'learning-a-new-language-self-esteem' is low. Also, who doesn't love being told that their Chinese is good?! Yeah, that's what I mean. I've been that absorbing sponge. I still am on bad days.

But then comes that one day when you decide that you don't want to be told any more bullshit. When you've had it with nice words. When you want to hear the truth.

For me it happened during a foot massage the other day. I was sitting on a stool with my feet placed in a bucket of hot water and a massage guy rubbing my shoulders and neck behind me.

-How's the pressure? He asked in Chinese.
-It's OK. I said.
-Is the water too hot for you?
-No, the water is also OK. Actually, can you add some more hot water?
-Of course. And wow... your Chinese is really good!

(by this time the whole room was listening. Nothing out of the ordinary. Expect a large audience when you can speak Chinese and do it at a place where there are a lot of Chinese people)

-How do you know that my Chinese is good? I have barely spoken yet? Only answered your questions. 

TOUCHDOWN! You know that drum solo that they do in movies when someone says something really smart? Well, I was almost expecting that one. Because the whole room cracked up. 

-Yes, how can he tell, how can he tell?!? Came from an old lady getting her feet kneaded in the corner.

-Ah, what an intelligent lao wai! Said another woman.

Even the four other masseur guys were giggling although I could tell they were trying to hold it back.   

The only one who wasn't having a good time was the guy rubbing my shoulders.

-Well... Actually. I can just tell, that... you know.. that your Chinese is... well. I just know that you are good!!

Yeah, sure he did.

-Well, no no no.. I'm not.. 那里那里, 不敢当.... (And here we go again.)

Still, it was kind of refreshing to take a different approach rather than just being a sponge. I think I'll do that again sometime.


Anonymous said...

Ahaha, I'll try that next time someone tells me my Japanese is so good. Japanese people and Chinese people are exactly the same! I've had your "taxi conversation" countless times.

小超 said...


You remind me of a experience of mine.

Once some Canadian students came to our school for some activities. I was forced by our teacher to be a guide to show them around the school. One of them could speak Chinese but his sentences were so badly strung together...

In order to start our conversation , I told him "你的中文说的还不错!"(your Chinese is pretty good).

"一般般啦"(Just so-so),He replayed.

It's true that many Chinese people often start their conversation with a praise.

JustBreathe said...

LOL! I was just imagining my rides home in the taxi in Japan! Funny how some of these experiences are so universal, but you tell it with a sense of humour that is spectacular! Keep it up :-) Love it!

bkbj said...

I don't think the Chinese are just being polite - not a lot of Chinese people have encounters with foreigners on a day-to-day basis, and when they do, the foreigner usually try to speak to them in English. There's a big shock factor in realizing this "Laowai" can actually speak Chinese, or has an interests in learning at the very least. Your Chinese may not be where you want it to be yet, but already much better than many other "Laowai"'s, hence good enough for Chinese people to give you a genuine compliment.

Plus, being Chinese myself, I have to secretly admit that we are all egoistic enough to think Chinese is the most difficult language on earth. Any attempt to conquer it is worth a round of applause :P

bkbj said...

Oooo, or maybe you can try saying things like “那是!“ or ”是啊,我也觉得我说得挺好的。" to up the challenge next time ;)

Jonna Wibelius said...

Kanmuri -I bet :)

小超 -yeah I figured. It's not bad that they say it.. I totally understand. If someone would be trying to learn Swedish and say some badly put together phrases I would still probably salute their effort. Seeing how hard Swedish must be to learn for foreigners.

bkbj -I know they mean well!! :) U know what, some months ago I wrote about being tired of saying 'nali nali' every time someone payed me a compliment, and someone (was it you?!) suggested I'd say 'Na shi' instead of Nali... although I still haven't worked up my guts to do it! hahaha!

The Horrible People said...

I'm studying Mandarin at a University in Texas, and you are very right when you said the process was "tiresome and slow." Even more so when there aren't many people to practice with, lol. But even though I'm constantly working on my character workbook, I really do enjoy learning the language.

I hope one day that I can study abroad in China, and be able to converse with locals as you do!

Claire (酶小蛮)

조안나 said...

Wow... that's basically the same exact experience I've had in Korea. In fact the Koreans are impressed by even less. If you can say thank you and hello and good bye they sometimes jump in surprise. If you can actually make a coherent sentence they are completely astounded. It's great for the self esteem.... but sometimes I forget that my Korean isn't as great as they make it out to be until I actually need something that doesn't involve my extremely limited vocabulary....

Sir Mohaw said...

nie hao ma...., i hope, u can enjoy ur learning in chinese lenguage...,

Anonymous said...

very nice your blog..

Mark's Blog said...

Jag tror din kinesiska är bra, så bra är en relativ sak, beroende på stadium av lärande.

Jag lärande koreanska nu,
eftersom jag har många bra koreanska vänner. Asiatiska språk är verkligen helt annorlunda jämfört med Europa.

Anonymous said...

Damn you Jonna.

Damn you again!

I'm starting to notice more of the "Ni ge gua yu jen de hen hao" lately and thinking it was true praise, and now you tell me it's just bullshit!

I'm going to have to see my therapist now for psychological trauma.


ps:I'm sending you the bill.


Jonna Wibelius said...

Claire -i am sure u will! All the preparations u do at your uni in Texas will be worth gold once u get here! :) 加油!! :)

Jo-Anne -yeah, Koreans REALLY appreciate any language effort u make... I have a lot of Korean classmates in my Chinese class so one of them taught me how to say 'hello' in Korean (안녕하세요 -An nyoung ha se yo). I am teaching a Korean kid English over here so one day when I came to her house I greeted the kid and the mom by saying "안녕하세요 -An nyoung ha se yo". They both looked completely gobsmacked! haha! Now, that was maybe 5 months ago and the mom STILL compliments me for my 'fantastic pronunciation'... hihi. Really jealous of u learning Korean, I'd love to learn some myself but it seems so d**** hard! All the words seem so long?

Mark -va?! Hur lyckades du med det där?? Din svenska är mycket bättre än min kinesiska allaredan?! (google-translate?!)

Adrian -sorry to ruin your vision! Although maybe when they compliment you they REALLY mean it... like, really, really.....?! ;)

Anonymous said...

seriously, this cracked me up.

am so jealous of you being in china :] so very adventurous!

Anonymous said...

You deserve all the compliment. Most foreigners go to China just for buisness or tourism. They can hardly put up simple phases. Yet you can start a nice conversation, that's a lot different. I think many Chinese will shock when come across a Chinese speaking laowai.

Michelle said...

your blog is great, china seems like a real great experience!

Anonymous said...

wow cool , there are not many student especially from western can speak n understand mandarin .. but u can spell n write , awesome !!

Anonymous said...

如果我是那个按摩师的话,我会跟你说,你真是头脑简单,四肢发达,跟你客气你都不知道,咯咯· 开一个玩笑啦。

Layna said...

i know exactly what you mean when im signing. deaf people dont assume that i can sign well because im only in the first level at my school, but in all actuality, im pretty fluent

Admin said...

That was a very good post, and i think it is like that with every language. when i first moved to the US, people were like your english is sooooo good, and i was like all i said was "hi, how are you" lol

Ingrid Booz Morejohn said...

Hej igen, din blogg är lika dråplig och underhållande som vanligt! Har en fråga (från en som har svenska som andra språk), är inte det "svamp" som åsyftas i din text en tvättsvamp och inte den ätbara varianten? Att man suger åt sig beröm som en svamp, "like a sponge"? Jag har alltid tolkat det så, och nu är jag rådvill och vill veta vad uttrycket verkligen betyder på svenska. Se där, nu har din blogg expanderat till en trespråkig diskussion! Chengduhälsningar!

Agog Yugun said...


Jonna Wibelius said...

Ingrid -det har du helt rätt i. Klart det ska vara 'like a sponge.' Nu när jag läste det så insåg jag direkt att jag skrivit fel. Det är min svengelska som spökar.

Ingrid Booz Morejohn said...

Tack för upplysningen! Jag gör själv sådana fel hela tiden, men i mitt huvud låter det helt rätt! Nu ska vi inte starta en blogg om svengelska eller hur?...;-)

Jonna Wibelius said...

Agog -"内容更新的也很快" -对,我觉得天天写一下是跟好。 让你们每天回来, 看一看。

darcanion said...

Your story just gave me a great laugh--almost had tears rolling down my cheeks. Thanks.

By the way, you're writing is pretty good... No really! Hope you keep it up.

Jonna Wibelius said...

darcanion -hearing that my writing makes someone laugh really makes my day, so cheers for that! :)

Unknown said...

how funny! you make me want to go to China just to see this stuff.

Lost in Americana said...

Interesting. Now you know how Chinese people feel/think when they're in the West!

Mark's Blog said...

Jonna- Yeah, it was google.

Your blog is so interesting that I am becoming interested in Sweden now, lol.

And it is a great way to learn some new words of Swedish, although I do not know how to pronounce them yet and google always make grammatical mistake,at least as far as English/Chinese is concerned.

For example
你中文说的不错=>turns out to be
"Chinese Say your good"

I sort figured out

But I am still trying to sort out how to put them together in the right way.

Stace said...

I really understand this feeling... When I first moved to Japan everyone told me my Japanese was 'really good'!

Then, a couple of years later, when it really was pretty good, I stopped hearing that and instead I got, 'So what are you doing in Japan and when are you going back to your country?'

I also got told when I'd mixed up my transitive and intransitive verbs... So the learning curve was quicker when I got better.

I guess you'll know your Chinese is good when you stop hearing the compliments.

Unknown said...

I think the chinese were being polite and also it's a show of appreciation that you have learned their language. If not fluently at least it was an appreciation of pronouncing the words correctly or spoken correctly by a 'laowai'. I alway think there's a double standard in expectations among different cultures.

Put yourself for a moment being Chinese hoping into a yellow cab in new york city or walking up to someone in a convenience store to ask for help in finding a product on the shelf. Your english isn't fluent but at least you were be able to convey the idea that you were looking for something while speaking broken English to someone with a heavy Chinese accent. Your typical response from here is usually not pleasant for the fact that you don't speak fluently or proper english without an accent and being chinese speaking little english people would make fun of you. (i've heard ching chong this ching chong that, go back to your country, you're in the US speak english damn it). As people would expect to you know the language in this country. I have yet to meet someone here who would go up to a Chinese and say 'golly your english is so good'. My point's great that you receive these compliments and i'm sure you've master it quite a bit since you've moved there. We should understand that there's a difference in culture and your are seeing the better part in the people who would appreciate one in learn their language or at least trying.

Anonymous said...

Why not accept the fact that your language skills are in fact good for them? They probably have not met a whole lot of people who can communicate. I think it's better to just say thanks, than to embarrass someone who is trying to give you a compliment.

Jonna Wibelius said...

D& Anonymous: I don't mean anything offensive with this post. I know that they appreciate my effort and most of all; I see how genuinely HAPPY they are when they notice that I understand what they are saying. It's just funny sometimes that it is enough to say 'yes, I understand' for them to applaud my language skills. I guess I am not used to that... at all!!

Jason said...

I think your chinese is good enough

GWENNN. said...

i like this post ,it's like so reeeeeaaaal life in China(i'm a Chinese lol)

and i like the way you keep notes of every detail things;
i'm gonna follow your blog,so happy that i found you[:

Anonymous said...

I had the same experience in Argentina and Mexico with my Spanish. I think in countries where they are so used to having foreign visitors who do not speak their language, or mangle it beyond recognition, it is a true wonder when someone can make a sentence. I guess maybe you'd feel the same if someone spoke a few sentences of Swedish? Or maybe not.

so_yummy said...

I experience the same thing too...
I'm learning Turkish now in Istanbul...
But i've never thought about that, maybe I should do that next time...

Anonymous said...

Give yourself more credibility.

Since you are not born Chinese, any Chinese speaker that can talk past the usual common phrases is considered good. You must understand in China we get foreigners with the arrogant attitude expecting everyone to be able to speak English.

So in that respect, a lot of times those compliments are genuine, dunno about he taxi ride though haha that might be generic.

If Chinese people compliment you then that means you are already above the expectation.

Nonetheless, keep improving and sometimes self criticism is good if you feel that it will push you forward. At the end of the day you are competing against yourself.

This is from a Chinese :P