Tuesday, July 16th, 2013
Overheard on the Beijing Subway When People Don’t Think I Speak Mandarin
By Ember Swift
When People Don't Think I Speak Mandarin © kk9k
Now that I’m the exclusive English-language source for my daughter in our home, I do a lot more talking than I used to. Every new language brings out a different side of our personalities and I’ve discovered that I’m a bit less chatty in Chinese, not to mention a lot less funny! (It took my husband travelling back to Canada with me to realize that I have a pretty good knack for making people laugh. He believes me now.)
In fact, before my daughter was born, I would sometimes realize that five or more days had gone by during which I hadn’t communicated in my native language, verbally. I’d then hastily make a coffee date with an expat friend here or arrange a Skype date with a friend back home so that I could hear English roll off my tongue, smooth and unrestricted by clogged grammar or tripping tones. English felt like caramel; Chinese felt like hard granola without the milk.
These days, my Chinese is much better, but I’m actually speaking it less. I organize a lot more time with English-speaking friends and their children and when I chat to my 17-month old for the purpose of continuous English around her, I’ve learned to ignore my Chinese environment, for the most part, and push forth with English in all my interactions with her, no matter where we are.
My husband generally guesses what I’m talking about or ignores my chatter. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, has occasionally been frustrated to be excluded by English. She once challenged me on my daughter’s comprehension, but its source was her own inability to understand, coupled with her difficulty comprehending that a small baby had already absorbed more English language skills than she had in the five years of knowing me. That was a short battle that I won, very distinctly, when I proved my daughter understood my instructions and was every bit the budding bilingual offspring we have intentionally been raising.
Recently, I was on the subway and chatting with my daughter, Echo, quietly in English about where we were going and how many stops were left, etc. (I never said that I’m always interesting when I’m chatty, but the words in her ears are key.) Two women in their late forties stood near to where we were sitting and began to discuss us very openly, as though I could not understand Mandarin.
The first lady commented on my daughter’s round head shape. In China, most children sport a rather flat back to their skull. It’s just a physiological, ethnic difference and my daughter inherited the Western head shape from her mommy. She said, “Look at how round her head is!” to which the other woman replied, “Oh, she’ll grow out of that. My son’s head was a bit too round when he was a baby too. When she gets older, she’ll get prettier.”
“She barely has any hair!” the first woman remarked with a clucking tongue. “She must be lacking in some nutrients. She’s almost bald!”
It’s true that my daughter has, unfortunately, inherited my fine hair rather than her daddy’s shock of thick, black locks. But, I was bald until I was nearly two years old, so she’s already better off than I was. I’m hopeful that her overall mane will be at least a little thicker than her mommy’s.
The other woman had a response to this too. “Oh, foreigners don’t eat a balanced diet. Too much starch and white flour, fast food, etc. We Chinese really know about nutrition and that’s why we have lots of hair.”
I tried not to sigh too openly at this point. After all, I was getting quite the show and I didn’t want it to end! I whispered into my daughter’s ear, in English, “Oh, how they don’t know how much of your grandma’s food you eat and love, eh? Or how much hair you already have compared to your mommy when she was your age. They just don’t know how lucky you are, sweetie pie!”
Seemingly able to accept every word of “wisdom” coming from her friend, the first lady, who was clutching a blue sequined purse, turned slightly to let someone on the crowded car pass. The purse caught Echo’s eye and she reached out and stroked it. At this point, the purse holder began speaking directly to Echo. “This is called a ‘purse’” she said, repeating the word slowly. But the other woman cut her off at the third repetition and said, “She doesn’t speak Chinese! Didn’t you hear them speaking ‘foreign language’?”
I’m going to pause for a moment here for a brief rant about the expression “waiyu” (外语) or “foreign language” in Chinese. The existence of this noun to blanket describe any language that is not Chinese is perhaps a good indicator of the xenophobia stitched into the very framework of this society. The fact is, most Chinese people don’t feel the need to differentiate between languages and cultures when referring to “outsiders.” We’re just “foreign” (外国人) and we speak “foreign language” (外语). In other words, there are Chinese people and then there are non-Chinese people, or “others.” This invariably rattles my multicultural Canadian cage.
But, back to the subway story, the first woman got off at the next stop, waving goodbye to Echo and trailing the sequined purse behind her. Echo waved back, smiling and reaching, clearly wanting that purse, I could tell. The second woman then sat down beside us in the space that had just opened up.
We were two stops from our destination but Echo was getting a bit antsy in the carrier, fussing and wanting to get out and move around. I took out a few crackers from my bag to distract her. The woman beside us continued to interact with the baby and even began speaking with her, despite her friendly advice to the contrary a few moments earlier.
“Oh, are you getting a snack?” she asked Echo. “That’s so nice for you. You should give your Mommy one to eat!” But then she quickly added, “Oh, but of course you don’t understand what I’m saying.” Right on cue, Echo responded by shaking her head defiantly and launching the cracker directly into her own mouth. I laughed. The woman sucked in air and exclaimed loudly, “Oh, you do understand this country’s language!”
“Of course she understands,” I said to her in Chinese. “She is bilingual. We both understand every word.” Then I smiled right into the woman’s eyes. The woman looked back at me, stunned, and then looked down at her phone and began fidgeting awkwardly. We stood up to go just moments later.
Prior to this chatty mommy situation, I rarely heard people discussing me in Chinese while I was in earshot. Once you learn the language of the land in which you live, I think it’s common to almost hope that someone will say something derogatory so that you can ream off your second language skills in defense of your person. Too many foreigners speak Chinese in Beijing, though, so most Chinese people wouldn’t dare say anything adverse while we are in proximity. Yet, it’s the auditory presence of another language—perhaps even more so the presence of a one-way conversation between a mother and her baby—that seems to melt this politeness barrier and usher in a transparency that I quite enjoy, actually.
How else am I going to know what people really think of us here?
So, this chatty mommy will continue her task of perpetual English around Echo, not just to instill the language in her daughter’s mind. Its secondary function is the social survey of popular opinion regarding foreigners in China and, already, the data is fascinating!
Clearly, chatter matters!
© 2013, Ember Swift. All rights reserved.
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