Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The "sudden" use of English when I show my face around

"Beautiful day today, huh?" "Yeah, sure is!"

Fellow laowais in China, is it only me, or do you guys also notice that sometimes when you are at a public spot (like a shopping mall, or if you’re taking the bus, or waiting for the bus or something) Chinese people around you start to speak English to each other? The first time I noticed this, some 2 years ago on a bus, I simply thought it was a coincidence. There I was, sitting down at the back of the bus when I suddenly realized that the young couple behind me were discussing polite greeting phrases in English:

-So, they say: “hello, how are you today?” when we say “ni jintian hao ma?” (你今天好吗?) said the guy to the girl, and the girl repeated: “hello, how are you today?” and then they both giggled.

“How funny that they are speaking to each other in English just when I sat down” I thought to myself, until it suddenly happened again. There I was in a mall and suddenly I heard two young boys chatting next to me:

-Today it is raining outside. Yes, today the weather is bad.

Hm… right… well they weren’t looking at me, so I figured they were speaking to each other, although it didn’t really sound as if English was their first language.

But then it started to happen more frequently, like at our yard. Parents that walked behind me with their children would say things like:

-One, two, three! Say hello!!! How are you? (to their kids, though. I guess I look too giant-like and scary to be talked straight to)

But as soon as I entered my new university, I realized that the “sudden” use of English when I was around simply couldn’t be a coincidence. During week one I entered the big lunch square around lunchtime, and everywhere I turned people were saying things like:

-It is a beautiful day!

-Hello, how are you today
(followed by a giggle –I still don’t know if this was meant for me, because they didn’t look at me when they said it, although I was the only laowai around so I kind of would like to think they were talking to me).

-Hello, hello, let’s eat lunch!

And then yesterday when I was having some language exchange with a young, Chinese girl at the university cafeteria, a fellow classmate of the Chinese girl suddenly showed up and had a “half English/half Chinese” conversation with her classmate, shooting curious glances at me every now and then.

I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with what they are doing. I think it is simply a way for them to seek contact. Or, maybe they are thinking something like: “maybe if she hears that I can speak English she will talk to me and I can practice my speech?” –seeing that a lot of young Chinese people are keen to practice their English today, but feel that they have a lot of chances to do so. But it’s still kind of funny, especially when they throw in comments about the weather or say things like “what a beautiful day it is.” Maybe next time I should reply something like: “it sure is.” I’m curious to see if they actually want to talk to me, or if they are just throwing phrases around for fun.


Chad said...

That's awesome!

We had something similar in Japan. Except instead of talking in our general vicinity, people would come up to us, sit with us, shop with us, anything to practice their English. It was a very fashionable thing, I think.

I would just answer in Spanish if I didn't have the patience that day to talk to people. Sometimes in Japanese. I'm not sure which got stranger looks.

mantse said...

Just like when i go Europe, they trying to say xiexie instead of thank you after i bought something from them... so common and a nice try.

Mountaincat said...

Yeah, it happens also in Japan to me. Probably they think white person = English teacher.

Maya said...

This happened also in Shanghai while I was living there. People talking random phrases here and there, giggling and looking at me. I never really understood what it all meant or whether I should have responded. I simply placed the whole thing in my "Odd things in China" -box and never really thought about it :)

Annie Hall said...

That happened to me all the time too! I usually just ignored it, especially if I had somewhere to go. Sometimes, people would just approach me on the streets and ask me (in English) if I was from England or America. Usually those conversations ended in "So, can I have your phone number? By the way, what's your name?", so I usually gave them a confused look, and then replied (in Chinese) that I'm German (which is 50% true), and that I don't speak English. ;)

Anonymous said...

Hi Jonna,

What an interesting phenomenon. I only heard about chinese going up to laowai's to practise English. I think it's a sign of your own influence on China. They have all heard of your blog and want to be featured on it.

Oh, I want to say I totally understand what you mean in your previous post about the speeches. We only had to give 10 minute talks, not 1 hour (that's like , crazy!), but we all also got lost when people started using specific words, not just social chatting words. One guy started writing up the new words with pin yin before his speech and soon everyone was doing it- so many new and difficult words to learn!

Take care and keep smiling!


Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.