Saturday, September 22, 2012

What’s Not to Understand?

I’ve said it before: traveling with Gary is a blast. He the best traveling buddy anyone could ask for. Not only is he fun, but he takes care of securing lodging and food and gets one-on-one with the locals to find out what is particular to the region that a couple of backpackers should experience or see.

Traveling alone I find that I am more than able to manage on my own, from a practical perspective. Extra bonus: doing so helps my ever-developing language skills. It does have its downside, though. As a foreigner traveling alone, I’m more likely to be cheated. My destinations, lodging and food choices are limited. I am restricted to tourist venues, not everything any given locale has to offer. It is assumed, by my very foreign-ness that I am only interested in major tourist attractions so, even if I ask for help from a native of wherever I’m at, I am directed to monuments and memorials rather than to minutiae.

I’d rather travel with Gary. However, traveling alone is better than not traveling at all. It all works out in the end.

When I first came to China it was my pleasure to speak English with anyone who so much as said ‘hello’ to me. Since then, it has gotten to be really tiresome. By being everyone’s pet foreigner I am left with little time and energy to enjoy my outing and take in the sights. Even when out and about in Wuhan, a city filled with students who have all been instructed to latch on to any foreigner they meet and work their language skills, I get fed up. How to find balance?

As I see it I have an obligation to help my students, or, more broadly, the students at my university learn English. I do NOT have an obligation to help every single person in China develop their language skills, especially if it detracts from my own peaceful, pleasant outing.

Last time Gary and I traveled I hit upon a solution: tell people I speak French. We got to try it out, but only met with minimal success. This time I meant to work the French Connection with a vengeance.

As I see it, if I approach someone in Chinese, I should be responded to in kind. Remember my assertion in the Speak Chinese entry posted January 2011 that I agree with the sentiment of most Americans: once you migrate to a country speaking a language other than yours, you should adapt to that country’s speech and customs after a reasonable adjustment period. Thanks to the help of friends, my students and a whole lot of studying on my own, I’ve made great strides in being able to communicate in Chinese.

The only thing that is confusing to me is that some people understand me from the get-go and others can’t make out what I’m saying. I put that down to the visual phenomenon: I look foreign, therefore I must be incapable of speaking Chinese. That theory has borne out several times. When talking on the phone, or if the person I’m speaking to does not look directly at me, there are no comprehension problems. One particularly memorable time came while interacting with a vendor selling wallets. As I approached I could see her nudge her coworker and nod in my direction while saying ‘waiguoren’. After selecting a wallet I asked her how much, and so the bargaining ensued. Upon completing my purchase she expressed her relief at my being able to communicate in her language.

So, I find it doubly irritating when I speak Chinese and get a response in English.   

Two occasions of note during my sojourn in Qing Dao, the first being that restaurant I ate noodles at – First Noodle Under the Sun. I walk in and inform the hostess in Chinese I would be dining alone. She asks me, in English, how many people in my party (not that eloquently).

“Shen me? (What?)”

“How many people with you?”

“Oh, I’m sorry!” I exclaim, with the light of understanding dawning on my face. “I am French. I do not understand English.”

Apparently not grasping my meaning, or possibly thinking I must surely be joking, she seats me and proffers a menu written in English. Remember: I approached her in Chinese and informed her I don’t understand English. I don’t know how I could have made myself any clearer.

Perhaps she thought her English skills were so deficient that she could not make herself understood. She called a waiter over who again offered up the English menu. Again I explained that I do not understand English because I speak French. Finally the message came through loud and clear that, no matter how many waiters assault me in English I would not understand. I was then offered a menu in Chinese, made my selection and asked that it be packed to go.

I heard the waiter explain to his colleague as they walked away that I did not speak English.

Instance #2: looking for Snack Street. In Chinese, I asked those youths on the bus what stop to get off at. One of them answered, again in English, that they too are tourists and thus could not help me. Again: “Excuse me? Oh, I’m sorry! I’m French. I don’t understand English.”

Responses to my ‘French assertion’ range from confusion to discomfiture, with confusion taking a definite lead. The boys on the bus were embarrassed. I felt bad for deceiving them.

Am I being cruel in practicing that small deception? I don’t think so. By looks alone I could be German, Turkish, Hungarian, Latvian, Russian, Polish… any manner of nationality, even French. How does my being Anglo-Saxon guarantee that I must speak English? For some reason, all foreigners in China are assumed to speak English. That bothers me. Besides, my little fib is not an outright lie: I was born in France and do speak that language fluently.   

I feel that there is a lesson to be learned here and I’ve taken it upon myself to teach it.  The more China opens to the west, the more diverse their foreigner population is likely to become. The sooner people open up to the idea that not all foreigners are English speakers, the broader their language and culture studies will become. For a nation that loves to learn, that can only be a bonus.

Aside from all that, I too had a lesson to learn. I should not assume every person who is Chinese in any given locale is a resident of that area. Maybe they too are tourists, and would not know how to arrive at a certain destination. Now I now preface my questions of direction with: “Excuse me: are you indigenous to this area?” On their affirmative I then ask: “Can you tell me how to get to…”
To a limited extent I still maintain the ‘celebrity foreigner’ act while at tourist draws – posing for photos with people I’ve never met and who have no interest in me personally. But usually I only do it when I’m out with a companion. Mostly, when I travel alone I duck that obligation altogether. Not only does it guarantee me the freedom to enjoy my outing but it does give me a chance to polish my language skills, both Chinese and French. 

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