Overheard on the Beijing Subway When People Don’t Think I Speak Mandarin


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!


  1. Working full time. I get an hour window before my 13 month old goes to bed. That’s not a really big window to chatter in English. So far, no mama not dada, zip. In Chinese she knows xie xie, zai jian, hu die and will bark like a dog when the ayi says “xiao gou” and twirl when the ayi says “tiaowu”. It’s actually quite bizarre seeing this little blondie speaking Chinese without one utterance of English. Any advice? Do you think it will just come when she gets older? I do have weekends with her.

  2. I loved this story. When I stayed in the Philippines, I too was subjected to being ‘thought-of’ as NOT knowing the language, when in fact I had a damn good grip of it (Tagalog). It’s interesting to hear what is being said, when the locals think you don’t understand anything but ‘swear/naughty’ words, because, that is what is unfortunately taught first to most foreigners.

    Good one! Loved it! I was waiting to read something like this, being that you have such a command of Mandarin. And Echo having a good one of English. My brother and sister-in-law just returned from Beijing a few weeks ago. Their eldest son is practically fluent in Mandarin, as they are too. I will see them this Saturday in Kingston, Ontario. It will be interesting to hear of their stories of 3 years abroad in China.

    Keep up the great work. Always a pleasure to read your stories of living in Beijing. Best to you all!

  3. To Vanessa, PLEASE don’t assume that English will come easily to your daughter. So much depends on the amount of interaction you have with her and how much English is exposed to. Make sure you only speak English with her whenever you are home. My Chinese husband and I (American) have had full custody of his daughter since she was 3 and a half. She is now nine and still doesn’t speak English. I just dont get to spend enough time with her and I have the bad habit of slipping into Chinese to talk to her because it’s easier. It is a huge barrier in our relationship and I’m really stepping up my effort lately because sometimes these things just don’t come as naturally as we think they will.

  4. I’ve been in both your shoes and the Chinese woman’s shoes – so I sympathize with both of you.

    Sometimes it’s annoying when a “local” assumes you don’t speak their language. But I’ve also spoken loose-lipped around foreigners who I assume to be tourists… until they drop fluent Thai to let you know they understood every word.

    And likewise, I’ve had all kinds of variations on the false language assumptions in multiple countries. Never make assumptions that your conversation is private just because you’re speaking what you assume is “foreign” language to those around you.

    Also, we can’t make assumptions about children’s language abilities. While children are linguistic sponges and given the right conditions they can become fluently multilingual in even several languages, there are so many factors at play. For example in Thailand, you may meet intercultural children who speak fluent English but almost no Thai, OR fluent Thai but little English, OR fluent English and basic Thai, OR fluent English and Danish but no Thai, OR fluent Thai and English but not the native Japanese of one parent, OR etc. etc. etc.

  5. Ember, the ancient Greeks considered those peoples who could not speak their native tongue, “Barbaros” originally meaning stammering. Barbaros may be imitative coming from Sanskrit “barbara-s,” also stammering for non-Aryan speakers. Stammering would include the difficulty of speaking in a tongue that is not native. Echo will have the neurophysiological structure to speak in English and Mandarin. This should present many opportunities to bridge the gap between different nationalities. The “Gap” is an interesting phenomena in Sanskrit in which each expression (sound) manifests from a field of silence and jumps the gap into manifest sound or expression. All languages originate from a field of silence. “A rose is a rose is a rose by any other name.” One time I came out of meditation and began listening to “English” as a foreign tongue. It was incomprehensible and funny the sounds and expressions. Keep smiling. Blessings.

  6. I’m not sure I would consider the phrase 外语 is necessarily xenophobic. For many Chinese, they have never left the country, seen the world. They have far less exposure and experience with the other languages and countries of the world. Perhaps that does breed a certain type of phobia, but otherwise, it is a word that the Chinese appropriated to suit their language. It’s not too unlike that a computer is an “electric brain” – it’s a pretty direct translation to their best ability. While there are thousands of characters in Chinese, to create a word is far less common than in English or romance languages. The same derivatives simply don’t exist and they have build from a more limited resource. While I do find the women’s chatter to be impolite, I think there are some cultural differences that get lost in translation.

  7. I LOVE this story. It seems it happens quite a lot, both with foreigners that speak the local language when the locals assume they don’t, and with foreigners talking in a language they think locals don’t understand (and some do).

    In Basque we have the word “erdara”, which means “foreign language” too. And yes, the culture is quite xenophobic (way less now, but it was HUGE not so long ago).

  8. Great story, thanks. Here’s one of my own: I was making out with my French girlfriend in Berkeley California in a bookstore circa 1970. Two Frenchwomen, tourists, saw us and were saying (in French) how aghast they were at our shameless behavior. After letting them go on for a bit, I looked over at them and said in perfect French (I’m bilingual): “Oh, so you don’t like it when you see young people kissing?” I’ve never seen two jaws hit the ground like that before, but it was priceless…

  9. Ah. Now you know how I felt growing up Chinese-American in a predominantly ethnically white America. I heard comments exactly like these only in English expressed towards me and my college and graduate school-educated parents my whole childhood growing up in “ethnically diverse” Manhattan. “Look at those Chinese people. They probably don’t understand anything you’re saying.” “They eat disgusting things.” “Chinese, Japanese, dirty pants, dirty knees”. “Honey, don’t sit so close to those people.” “Gook,” “Chink”, and so many other rude, racist comments. It happens everywhere in the world. You’ve just never experienced it before because you probably grew up in a monolingual (English) society where you were in the majority. The shoe is on the other foot. If you want to live a muliticultural life, you will have to have a grow a thicker skin.

  10. Ember, I enjoy your posts but I think the above experience is definitely not unique to China. I have had the same experiences as Vivian in a predominately Caucasian society. The Chinese seem rude because they’re very direct. It is in fact quite normal and not considered rude if you’re Chinese to say to your face, in a language that you understand, the same comments made about your daughter with little hair, round head etc. To me that’s just cultural differences.

  11. When I see stories like this, these “gotcha” stories from white people abroad I always laugh to myself. I don’t think I’ve even seen a single instance of a spark of understanding for those that receive the same treatment in the places they came from. Its always a “tale of oppression and triumph over the local population” instead.

    Thanks for the laughs. Agree with Vivian, grow thicker skin if you leave your bubble.

  12. @lemoncake: That was mean. Maybe instead of asking others to grow a thick skin, you could take responsibility for not deliberately hurting them.


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