Say, What? Advice Learned the Hard Way for Cross-Cultural Communication


Expatriate language proficiency is one of the things which has changed for the better in Beijing over the past 15 years or so of my residency. When I first arrived, anything beyond “Ni Hao” was greeted with such overzealous compliments of linguistic proficiency they would have made even a young Matteo Ricci blush. Now you get kids off the plane who have been studying Mandarin since third grade and are busting out chengyu in between their craft beer orders. I have no problems with that. Makes Beijing a better place.

But the general upgrade in the language skills of the expatriate population can also result in awkward moments. You know what I’m talking about. You go to order your coffee. The barista says, “Hello.” You say, “Ni hao.” She says, “Ni yao shenme,” and you say, “Double Latte, no foam,” and the conversation descends into the depths of linguistic anarchy.

Now you get kids off the plane who have been studying Mandarin since third grade and are busting out chengyu in between their craft beer orders

My rule has always been: Speak Chinese unless the other person uses English first. Then use English until communication breaks down and everybody switches back into Chinese.

Why? Well, many of the people with whom I interact each day, whether for work, going out, or just life in general, have been studying English for a long time. In many cases, they got the jobs they have because their English was better than the next person off the bus. I know how it feels to speak a foreign language and then have the person I’m speaking to just switch to English. (I’m looking at you: Every person I have ever met in Paris.)

I figure the young barista or the person I’m meeting for business deserves a shot to use their acquired language and, in many cases, their English is much better than my spoken Chinese.

The curse of the historian: We learn Chinese to read documents written by people who don’t give a poop-encrusted scrap of parchment about what our tones sound like

I’ve also seen — too many times — the awkward moment when the fresh-faced eager Laowai language student responds to a simple “Hi! How are you!” from a girl at the bar by breaking out his latest chengyu-laden phraseology masterpiece only to have said girl roll her eyes and tell him that she’s Korean-American, grew up in Los Angeles, and is in the same language program as he is and, in fact, sits right next to him in class.

Head shot. In the front. Out the back. Chris-Kyle-from-2100-yards-away style. Man Down! Man Down! Man Down!

I don’t want to be that guy. Ok. I don’t want to be that guy again. So, I’m pretty careful these days when it comes to responding in whatever language is presented to me. There is one situation though which still annoys the ever-loving shit out of me.

Check this:

Go to a restaurant. Get a menu. Waitress is straight off the bus from Hebei. She’s speaking Chinese and I probably should too. My wife — brilliant woman, excellent podcast host, general badass — can’t order off a menu to save her life. Love her to death but when I’m hungry I want to order my food in a timely fashion, like before the restaurant closes for the night or gets bricked up by the Po-Po.

So I’m the one ordering and I’m doing so in perfectly comprehensible Chinese. I know my spoken skills will never inspire Zombie Confucius to rise from the dead for an afterlife attaboy, but I can order tofu, pork, and some rice.  The waitress writes it all down, then takes her order pad across the table and, in a conspiratorial not-quite-stage whisper, repeats my exact order to my wife who has been looking at her phone the whole time. She has no idea on God’s Green Earth what I told the waitress. Good times!

I know my spoken skills will never inspire Zombie Confucius to rise from the dead for an afterlife attaboy, but I can order tofu, pork, and some rice

I know I should be patient. The poor girl probably has not had a lot of contact with foreigners (or she’s banging Stephon Marbury nightly but I like to think the best of people) and probably her experience has not included many oversized long-haired foreigners who looks like a scientific experiment to fuse the DNA of a human and a Tibetan Yak went horribly awry.

Nevertheless, the situation still irks me.

So my updated rules for being a good linguistic citizen in Beijing now look like this:

1. Whatever language is spoken first, go with that

Until the time if/when communication breaks down, and then pick a new language. Preferably one both parties speak with some degree of fluency.

2. When folks in China react to me speaking Chinese like they’ve just heard a grizzly bear enunciate a Shakespearean sonnet…

Have patience. Most Beijingers are used to expats and their 老外话 (Laowai-hua). Not everybody has had that privilege and it takes some getting used to.

3. I need to get back together with the four tones of Mandarin

We’ve had a rocky on-again-off-again relationship for years. Third tone and I haven’t spoken since 2009. I’ve just started exchanging texts with fourth tone. We’re going to get a beer next week, see where it goes.

Word to those studying Chinese: Master the tones early. Make it the first thing you do.

Learning how to write the perfectly stroked character is nice. Knowing a bunch of chengyu is awesome. But if you don’t get the tones right, nobody is going to understand you. Trust. Me. On. This.

Onward on my journey to linguistic semi-competence. Zaijian.

Cover photo: il Cartello

Jeremiah Jenne
    Jeremiah Jenne is a writer, educator, and historian based in Beijing.
    china.wav LA

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