Sabina Fernandez doesn’t see why it’s such a big deal for a non-Chinese person to speak Mandarin.
Hello! I have dark skin, I live in Singapore and speak and write Chinese. Try to contain yourself, I know this is crazily revolutionary.
Three of the most common responses I hear from Chinese-speakers when they find out this fun fact about me:
1. Wah! You’re soooooo clever!
2. Oh my god your Chinese is soooooo good! Wow it’s amaaaazing!
3. Lucky I never talk bad [sic] about you.
4. Are you Chinese?
I get these All. The. Time. Usually from hawkers, cab drivers, colleagues or people I meet for the first time. I find the first one perplexing. I’m clever because I speak Mandarin? For real? Well you know, me and Stephen Hawking, we got it going on. The second one is simply an overstatement. Yeah sure, ten years of Chinese as a second language and a pass in ‘O’ level Mandarin mean I can have a conversation, and I’m fluent enough to make a joke. But really, my Mandarin is closer to slightly above average than very good. Some say my tiao4 she2 is quite zun3. But I couldn’t read a newspaper if my life depended on it, or understand a news bulletin with context.
Number three is interesting. It’s pretty poor taste to admit that you’re on standby to rubbish someone in a language you assume they won’t understand. But thanks for the heads-up about your intentions! The times when people have “talked bad about me” in Mandarin, I have acted blur and happily let them continue. It’s rather amusing.
And ahhh…. number four! Because the only conceiveable way anyone would speak this language is if they were ethnic Chinese. No, I am not Chinese. My father is Indian and my mother is Eurasian. My great-gran is Macanese-Portuguese, so I’m technically 1/32 Macanese but, pretty sure that doesn’t count. Anyway that’s not the answer they want to hear. I am not Chinese, I just *shock* learnt your language in school. Mind-blowing, I know! My forward-thinking parents felt it would be a boon to know the language in a Chinese-majority country. The good thing about this last question is it becomes educational for the other party. Follow-up questions include: “Then, what are you?” and “Why didn’t you learn Tamil?” [Answer: Because my parentage is not Tamil. You know how not all white people speak French? Yes, not all Indians are Tamil. My grandparents are originally from Kerala and speak a language called Malayalam.
So you’re wondering, why do these reactions upset me? It’s a compliment to be called clever right? Well, the tone of the responses is often patronising. I’m just not sure why it is SO incredulous that I speak and write a language that is not my own. The under-lying implication is that the colour of my skin excludes me from knowing Mandarin. Or that Indian- and Malay-Singaporeans would never think to learn the language spoken by 80% of the country. Not true. And many non-Chinese Singaporeans who don’t speak understand at least a little. That’s a good one to remember before “talking bad” about someone while they’re sitting right there.
I get a very different reaction when I converse in German with Germans. [I speak and read a little, having learnt it for three months.] They ask how I came to speak German, and after a couple of sentences are exchanged they gently correct some word I’ve mangled, or grammatical error I’ve inevitably made. In passing, they might add that my pronounciation is nicht so schlecht. (Not so bad). Very measured, no? Keepin’ it real Deutsch style. Gotta love it.
The most honest response (and best reality check) to my Chinese skillz came from a cab driver in Shanghai. On learning that I’d studied his mother tongue for ten years, he replied: “Ten years? Well in that case, your Mandarian is not that good. It should really be better than this if you learnt it for so long” What a breath of blatantly honest fresh air! A good wakeup call too, because for a while there I believed the hype and thought my Chinese was totally off the hook after one too many “sooo clevers”.
I’ll let you in on a little Chinese-for-foreigners secret: Once you get pass the four tones (sing it like a song, I always say) Mandarin is an easy language to speak. No engendered nouns, no conjugation of verbs, subject-verb-object sentence structure, zero past/present/future/perfect continuous tense. If you don’t believe me google akkusativ, and a list of maskulin, feminin, neutrum nouns. Now THAT is difficult. Then consider Thai, Vietnamese and Cantonese with six, five and nine tones respectively. Or Czech whose most famous syllable combines a rolled ‘R’ with the ‘zhhh’ sound of ‘collage’. Mandarin grammar is straightforward, economical and consistent. English for that matter, is terribly inconsistent. Just ask yourself how to pronounce “ough”.
Mandarin writing of course is a totally different story, and admittedly my “pass” in O level Mandarin was a paltry D7 because of that. Every essay I wrote started with yi1 ke4 feng1 he2 ri4 li4 de zao3 an1. (One bright, sunny morning…) Of all the idioms it was the simplest to write so in zuo4 wen2 land never saw a rainy day.
All through school I resented my parents for making my sisters and I learn Mandarin. It brought my grades down, and I didn’t see why I needed it when all my mixed-blood friends took Malay (I so envied that they got to use Romanised letters!). But 20 years later, I totally get it, and I’m so grateful. My parents were ahead of their time and their decision gave my sisters and I a wonderful skill.
Speaking Mandarin has bridged many a gap both in my professional and personal life. It’s a huge leg-up on my CV. Working for two British publishing companies through the years, I was often the bridge between East and West, foreign and local. And I count cross-cultural communication as one of my most marketable skills.
But…sigh… the patronising tone of “Wah! So clever!” persists whenever I open my mouth and jiang3 hua2 yu3.
The only thing more annoying is when I’m told: “Wow, you speak such good English!”
But that’s a whole other story…
Sabina Fernandez (www.sabinafernandez.com) is a yoga teacher by day and writer by night. She splits her time between Colombo, Sri Lanka and her hometown of Singapore. Read more of her writing on www.ahippieinheels.com.