I speak Chinese. I’m by no means fluent and yet sometimes all it takes is for me to say 謝謝 (thank you) in my ‘standard’ Chinese accent and I get gushes of ‘哇，你講得很厲害！‘ (Wow, you speak Chinese so well!). On these occasions (twice today) all I’ve said is ‘xie xie’ and in return, received congratulations. It’s so strange. On no occasion would I applaud a foreigner in an English speaking country for correctly saying ‘thank you.’ Infact, I expect them to be able to say it, unless of course they can’t talk. But it’s just simple manners to be able to thank someone in their own language.
Obviously if I’ve been chatting away about the growth of a certain farmers crops in the back fields of some Sichuan village, then I can happily accept a little praise. Or if I find myself expressing my feelings about love and life and fate, which often happens when I’m stuck in traffic in the back of a taxi, then I can’t help but feel a tiny bit smug if the driver applauds my vocabulary.
In those instances feel free to shower me with appraisal. But if I say ‘ni hao’ (hello) or ‘xie xie’ (thank you), let’s just let that float by. Sometimes I’m not sure how to take it? Am I being fawned over because I am a simple foreigner and I couldn’t possibly be able to utter Chinese words? Or is the praiser actually really that amazed that I can say one or two phrases without mixing up the tones?
Oh, don’t get me wrong, it can back-fire too. Those moments when I get a bit overly-confident and try to tackle a difficult topic. Usually the receiver will be like ‘你說中文說得還好…’ (Your Chinese is alright…). That makes me want to scurry out of wherever I find myself, and wonder why my Chinese is only ‘alright’ after 9months of intensive study.
Today, for example, I had lunch with my Canadian Taiwanese friend. We both study Chinese at the same school (she’s at a more advanced level though) and yet only I got told that my Chinese was amazing. Well, to put it simply, because of my foreign face. The same thing happened again at dinner tonight with my roommate. He is from New Zealand but of Hong Kong descent, so once again, only I got praised for my Chinese, and actually all I said was ‘好吧’ (OK).
I’m curious to see if it’s just here that it happens, or if it will also surprise Chinese people overseas. I think when I go home and spot some Chinese people, I’ll whip out my Chinese tongue and see what reactions I get. Well, assuming I don’t forget all that I’ve learned as soon as I leave this beloved land…