It struck me as my husband was zipping around Beijing bantering in un-intonated Mandarin (and often confusing “ni” for “wo”) with taxi drivers that we Chinese are quite an accommodating people. Most Chinese strangers the Mister comes across are delighted with his attempt to speak their language. His cheerful “nihao” and “xiexie” never fails to draw bemused, even flattered, smiles. Often, people shower encouragement on him by slowly enunciating, “Ni-de-zhong-wen-hen-hao!” (“Your Mandarin is very good!”).
What a reception he has gotten here! Much better than any I’ve received over the years in France. I’ve been learning their language since I was twelve years old, have polished my accent to Parisian near-perfection, and yet, over entire summers spent there, only a handful of strangers will stop to admire this foreigner’s dedication to learning French. It’s like they expected my love for their language and culture (despite just how discouraging they can be to the foreign student). Once in a while, I still meet the Parisian lady who thinks she’s being generously nice when she tells me my accent is “très leger” (“very light”). Gee, thanks.
Contrast that with how my many expat friends here (who have vastly varying command over Chinese) are treated. When I first met M in the US, he was just starting his quest to master Mandarin. Now he’s more of a Beijinger than I am and can chat up the surliest cabbie. Every time I’m out with him, a waiter, vendor, or driver will inevitably raise his thumb and tell M, “Your Chinese is ‘zhen bang’ (‘super fantastic’).” This is usually followed by a lament on the Chinese inability to speak English as well. Here, I have to resist the urge to defend our people and tell them just how many Chinese people speak English with native fluency. Why ruin a good cross-cultural conversation?
So what if we Chinese delight in the attentions foreigners pay to our humble heritage? I don’t mind the good natured compliments. After all, it helps to spread our culture in a friendly way. What peeves me sometimes is how much foreigners can get away with here. One night, we were entertaining a friend from New York who was in Beijing on business for the first time. We were late to a Peking Opera performance but the nearest cab line was packed. I tried in vain to hail a taxi on the street. Joel, our visitor, coolly said, “Why don’t we see if these people will let us cut in front of the line?”
“Are you crazy? This is China. With 1.3 billion people around, nobody does favors for anyone when it comes to lining up.” I laughed.
But then, with his American naïveté, Joel walked his tall handsome frame to the line and explained his predicament in English, gesturing all the while. I watched with open mouth as people graciously nodded and made room for him at the head of the line. We were on the next cab out.
What was it that made things so easy for Joel? Every time I legitimately try to beg a favor (or even just civility) out of a stranger, I get nasty looks or apathetic shrugs. Are we simply more willing to accommodate foreigners? Or am I especially unconvincing and bad at eliciting compassion?
Perhaps it’s a little bit of the latter, but also a little bit of our cultural humility. We’re critical of our own talents, but we lavish exaggerated compliments on foreigners who make an effort to learn our ways. Oh, how I wish Paris could be a little bit more like Beijing in this respect.