Zhibo: Holy Sh@t, You Speak Chinese?

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6:00 PM HKT, Mon September 4, 2017 8 mins read

Zhibo is a weekly column in which Beijing-based American Taylor Hartwell documents his journey down the rabbit hole of Chinese livestreaming app YingKe. If you know nothing about the livestreaming (直播; “zhibo”) phenomenon in China, start here.

Sometime it feels like life is an unending exercise in deciding how annoyed to get.

I know that’s not true for everyone. Some people sail through life on a cloud of optimism and patience and good faith without ever once impugning the motives of their fellow humans. Fortunately, these people – unburdened as they are by the complexities of life – don’t spend a whole lot of time on the internet. For the rest of us, the struggle is real.

All aboard!

Someone cuts you off in traffic, texts during a movie, or – sin of all sins – doesn’t admit that you’re right and they’re wrong after you spend hours carefully crafting that brilliant takedown of their dumb political Facebook post. You’ve been wronged, and all you want is to unleash your righteous fury. You know that taking a breath and letting it go would be the best thing for your day and your blood pressure, but you have a social obligation to inform your new foe how very wrong they are. Really, it would be worse if you didn’t get mad.

Indignation is a hell of a drug. And China can offer a whole lot of it on the cheap.

0.5rmb for the bus ticket, to be precise

Even if you’ve never been to China, you’ve probably heard about the whole *manners* issue here. People spit and shove and cut whatever was passing for a line without the slightest trace of shame. People yell across restaurants at their servers while putting out cigarettes on the tablecloth – but who can blame them? The average waiter won’t acknowledge your existence in a busy restaurant until you’ve broken out a megaphone.

But that all comes with territory — and besides, I’m not here to bitch and moan about spitting and shoving today. The indignation that I have real trouble moving past is the one I spoiled right up there in the title: people being amazed when Chinese comes out of my mouth.

Before I get started, let me be clear on something: I totally get that my indignation is dumb and illogical and both can and should change nothing. The goal here is not to convince the abstract entity that is *Chinese Culture* to change, nor is it to convince you that it should. My goal is to simply to explain a bit about the frustrations of trying to speak Chinese in China — and in doing so, work through the dumb and counterproductive indignant feelings that often result.

Let us begin with the obvious and oft-repeated: Chinese people are not used to seeing foreigners speak Chinese. In a country where just being a foreigner renders you statistically non-existent, speaking the incredibly inaccessible language makes you an aberration against nature (I’m not trying to make myself feel special – this is a simple numerical reality). So, everyone attempting to speak Chinese in China – myself very much included – needs to constantly have this fact in the back, front, and center of their minds: what I’m doing right now is a weird and highly unusual experience for the other person. This is not like going to Paris and getting sneered at for your American accent; the vast majority of foreigners in China are tourists, followed closely by expats who barely speak a word of Chinese. Unless you’re living with exchange students at a university, you’re (correctly) not expecting to hear Chinese come out of a foreigner’s mouth. So when it does, there’s a couple directions the interaction can go in:

Option 1: Things go nowhere. You don’t have enough confidence, or your tones aren’t there, or the person simply doesn’t process what’s coming out of your mouth as Mandarin. Despite your best efforts, you are met with slack-jawed confusion. If you are with anyone even vaguely Asian-looking, all inquiries will be directed to them.

Option 2: You manage to start a conversation that is acknowledged by all parties as being in Chinese. Something beyond ni hao is exchanged. You communicate some kind of message. Then, you make a mistake. Perhaps a big one, or maybe just a single tone. Maybe you are trying to say that you are from 英国 (yingguo, England) but instead say 鹰果 (yingguo, eagle fruit). Communication is derailed. Your new friend realizes that you do not, in fact, speak Chinese. They ask anyone else around what the foreigner is trying to say and express confusion at trying to understand it (you).

Option 3: You are confident and clear. You communicate what you’re trying to communicate. You nod and say “嗯,嗯,嗯” (like “uh huh”) at the right moments to demonstrate that you know what is being said. You throw in an idiomatic saying to prove that you do, in fact speak Chinese. Your new friend is astounded. 哇,你的普通话真不错! (wow, your Chinese is really good!) They want to know how you learned it. They want to know where you studied. They want to know how you managed this miraculous feat, despite your entire demonstration of linguistic competence coming down to a five-minute chat about the weather or coffee or dry-cleaning or whatever. You are now expected to understand every single idiom, nuance, and proper noun in the Chinese language. Holy shit, you speak Chinese! Roll credits.

You’ll note the conspicuous absence of an option #4; the one where someone just raises their eyebrows in surprise and continues the conversation. I’m not hyperbolizing when I say that I have never once in 3 years met someone in China who didn’t have some kind of intense reaction to my once-butchered, now-decent attempts at speaking their language. When I first got here, it was usually sympathetic laughter and/or pitying praise and/or the above-mentioned slack-jawed confusion. Now that I’ve learned just enough (to know that I know nothing), I tend to get a lot of really embarrassing superficial praise because I successfully got past the “hello” stage of a conversation.

In my admittedly limited and personal experience, there is no middle ground when speaking Chinese for the first time with someone in China. Either your mistakes/strange visage hamstrings any chance of communication or you’re being told you’re amazing and clever and being asked what Chinese university you studied at.

I think one reason this throws my brain for a particularly intense loop is because America and China are just polar opposites on this issue. The United States is a country of immigrants — if anything, there’s an expectation that people either come already knowing the language or have a willingness to learn it. The ugly racist American caricature isn’t someone who assumes a foreigner can’t speak English, but rather is angry that they don’t. You know, “dial 1 for English,” “English, Motherf@#ker, do you speak it!?!?,” and all that jazz. We’re the people who travel around every corner of the globe expecting every sign, guidebook, and menu to be in our native tongue, after all. Meanwhile, the Chinese kill you with (seemingly condescending, but usually quite sincere) kindness; I’d totally understand if everyone berated me over my lack of fluency, but instead everyone coos and pats me on the head for managing to say hello without tripping and breaking my neck.

The ugly racist American caricature isn’t someone who assumes a foreigner can’t speak English, but rather is angry that they don’t

And as with all things, the internet (and YingKe) amplifies this phenomenon. I’ve mentioned before that I get asked where I’m from and about my relationship status a fair bit, but not a single message comes across that screen more than some version of “Do you speak/read/understand Chinese?” This used to put me at somewhat of a loss. Being a bit chatty (the same way the surface of the sun is a bit toasty), I’m basically never not speaking Chinese while streaming. It takes at least 30 seconds to enter my stream, register what you’re seeing, and type out a question in Chinese characters (for reasons I’d be happy to explain another time, typing in Chinese is quite a bit slower than typing in English). In that time, I’ve probably rattled through a dozen answers to the question of where I’m from, complained about the smog a few times, and apologized to several people whose names I’ve butchered. I know I’ll never have a real sense of just how awful my accent sounds to Chinese ears, but I know that at least a few thousand people understand what I’m saying because they react to it.

So let me ask you this: if you saw someone live streaming (or just like, in life) and they speaking in rough, accented English – even if you didn’t understand a decent chunk of what they were saying – would it ever occur to you to ask them, “hey, do you understand English?” Or better yet, “oh my god, YOU SPEAK ENGLISH? WOW!!!”

This is, of course, the point at which the *cultural difference* card is usually hurled onto the table with a resounding thud. China is a (somewhat) uniquely homogenous culture. China’s long history – despite being punctuated by a few periods of cosmopolitanism – has involved remarkably little interaction with the outside world and even less immigration. Chinese is a (mostly) uniquely difficult language to learn even for native speakers and that’s mostly owing to the writing system (i.e. the part I have to be good at to stream and read messages). There are very few foreigners in China, even fewer of them speak Chinese, watching a foreigner speak Chinese is really weird, the Western concept of political correctness hasn’t ever really taken any serious hold in China, etc., etc., etc. ad infinitum.

I get it.

It still feels annoying.

It still feels insulting.


But of course, just writing that rant down highlights several serious gaps in the goblin’s (my) logic. No one watching my stream knows that I’ve given years of my life to this. No one owes me the benefit of the doubt. When a checkout person at a store refuses to acknowledge my Chinese and gestures repeatedly at the total on the register, they’re just using pattern recognition. Ignoring something in front of their face, perhaps, but utilizing the same kinds of heuristics we all do to get through the day. Same goes for the waiter who asks my confused Korean friend what the foreigner wants, the couple on the subway who start talking about me out loud, and of course (my personal favorite), the barista who goes to get her friend who *speaks English* no matter how many times I call after her quickly-receding figure that “我只想点一杯咖啡!” (I just want to order a cup of coffee!!)

The indignation goblin does not, I think, have my best interests at heart. One of the funniest and wisest teachers I’ve ever had once told me that “indignation is the pain of self-doubt,” and I don’t think anyone has ever been more right about anything. Every time I roll my eyes at someone who asks me *in Chinese* if I understand Chinese, I’m feeling that little stabbing anxiety that I’ll never be fluent, that I’m wasting my young adult years in Beijing, that [enter existential crisis thought here]. So for the purposes of YingKe at least, I’ve landed on a snarky kind of self-deprecating humor as the solution. When someone asks for the 150th time that hour if I can read Chinese, I launch into a tirade about how foreigners could never possibly develop big enough brains to comprehend the ancient language of the emperors owing to their poor diet of Big Macs and KFC. Generally speaking, the person who asked in the first place laughs and tells me I’m doing a good job of overcoming my natural handicap.

There are already noticeable results; I have plenty of regular viewers who first entered my 直播间 (live streaming room) and expressed the same shock/confusion over what language was coming out of my mouth. Now, they’re part of an ever-growing group who crack jokes at how silly that all is.

I see ripples in my tiny little pond. But to be fair, it’s hard to tell what’s going on in here with all the pollution.


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