Yesterday when I was having lunch, a western guy and a Chinese man came in and sat down some tables away from me. I couldn’t hear exactly what they were saying, but one thing did I grasp, and that was that the western guy spoke PERFECT Chinese. I was so impressed I could barely eat. I almost considered going up to him and just telling him how inspiring it was to listen to him. Then I realized that If I did, I would (more or less) come across like some sort of ‘Chinese language groupie.’ So, instead of continuing eavesdropping, I straightened my back, plugged in my computer, and got on with my own stuff.
I find westerner who can speak Chinese well very impressive/inspiring, because you know that they must have spent a loooot of time learning it, and that they (unless they are some sort of language geniuses) must have at least gone through SOME of the ups and downs of learning Chinese that I am currently going through.
Unfortunately, there are also an annoying group of Chinese speaking laowais, who not only love showing off their skills, but who are also ‘competing’ with other Chinese learners.
My friend Anna (who speaks Chinese quite well, but who is quite humble about her skills) bumped into one of those guys in a bar. She was standing in the bar, and said something in Chinese to the bargirl. The western guy standing next to her picked up on what she said and asked her (in Chinese) if she could speak Chinese.
-Yeah, I am studying, Anna answered (in English)
-So where are you from? (In Chinese?)
-Finland (In English). And you?
-England (in Chinese).
Anna was starting to feel a bit weird. Why was this English guy chatting her up, IN CHINESE at a bar? However, the guy just kept doing his ‘thing,’ and went on by telling Anna (in Chinese) about his studies in economics, and how he was in China to ‘do business’ (aren’t they all?).
Once he finished he gave her a questioning look.
-Am I speaking too fast? Is my language too hard for you? Do you understand everything I am saying? He said, in a very slow, condescending way (still in Chinese).
-I understand. Sounds great, and good luck with your business, (way too polite) Anna replied, obviously fed up with his one-way-conversation.
-But really, do you understand the word 经济 (jing ji –economics)?
-So what does it mean?
-Wow, I am impressed! Most foreign Chinese speakers don’t understand hard words like ‘economics.’ You must really understand Chinese. Why don’t you speak a little so that I can listen to you?
-Eh… no… I’d rather not…like, my Chinese is not that good.
Triumphant smile from him before he proceeded by telling her about his business in China, about how he had learned Chinese and nowadays relied on it completely… After 5 minutes of monologue he suddenly asked: do you want to go out sometime?
-NO! said Anna. And left.
When Anna shared this story with me I was laughing out loud. Seriously, what sort of person does something like that? Sure, you are happy that you can speak Chinese, but come on… there’s a time and a place for everything, and I don’t believe that trying to chat up a fellow loawai, IN CHINESE, is going to make you lucky. Also, I personally have a bit of a problem with people that are so eager to show off their skills that they don’t even wait for the right moment. (Maybe that’s because I am so humble about my own Chinese –I would never dream of trying to chat to another foreigner in Chinese if we could both speak English and if no other Chinese/non-English speakers were around).
I have noticed that there can be a bit of a ‘competition’ between fellow Chinese studying laowais, especially at a place like the university where everybody are learning. People want to know ‘how good you are/how your pronunciation is/how many characters you can read and write’ and compare themselves. It’s easy to get sucked into it all and start comparing yourself to others, however, I try not to since I am not learning to get a high score, but rather, learning for life.
Also, I find the whole ‘comparing yourself with fellow laowais’ kind of useless. For starters, I feel that laowai-Chinese and Chinese-Chinese isn’t the same thing (it is like some months ago when the Koreans in my class made a joke in Chinese and only the other Koreans and the teacher laughed. Me and my Japanese classmates looked at each other, completely confused as we didn’t get it. “Don’t worry,” the Korean student then said. “Remember that we speak Chinese with a Korean accent! Only Koreans understand!” And then we all laughed), and secondly, at this point of learning the language, I still feel that my pronunciation gets worse when I speak to non-native Chinese speakers (like my classmates). I don’t know why exactly, but it is the same when I speak English. I believe that I sound much better when I speak English to native English speakers than I do when I speak English to… let’s say Finns or Germans. I think I subconsciously concentrate a bit more, and also aim for sounding less ‘Swedish’ and more ‘English’ than as usual.
Any Chinese-learner out there who understand what I mean?