There I said it. I feel so free. I pretend to speak Chinese. Not like the typical American Chinese faker with the “ching chang willy willy bing bang bong” or the hilarious jokester who mistakes fake Chinese for fake Japanese (see “On Eating Dog in China” for more about those people). No no . . . my offenses are far darker . . . I regularly pretend to speak Chinese . . . wait for it . . . to Chinese people.
Don’t judge me.
It’s never intentional it just kind of happens. Usually with taxi drivers and it always starts with a legitimate Chinese conversation (the real kind). So before you go pointing your bony little, “I only speak real languages” finger at me there are two things you should know:
1. Chinese taxi drivers are easily impressed: Unlike most Americans who tend to assume that all foreign people speak perfect English and are shocked when they don’t (see “Dear Unnamed American Airline” for more about those people) I have found that most Chinese taxi drivers (and Chinese people in general) assume that non-Chinese people speak zero Chinese and are shocked if we do. Need a confidence boost? Jump in a taxi and say, “ni hao!” (hello). You’re bound to get the smiley thumbs up with the “WHAAAA your Chinese is SOOO GOOD!”
“Why thank you very much . . . I’ve been practicing my ‘hello’.”
2. Chinese taxi drivers are never as impressed as you think they are: It took a good, long while but I finally caught on. What they really mean is, “WHAAAA your Chinese is SOOO GOOD . . . wait for it . . . for a foreigner.
This is how it starts. I begin a conversation. They tell me how great I am. I say, “no no no.” They say “really, you’re Chinese is VERY good.” I say, “well, I guess you would know, you are Chinese.” They ask me where I’m from . . . I say “Illinois” . . . they say, “huh?” . . . I say “Chicago” (even though I’m not) . . . they say “Ohhhh, Michael Jordan” . . . I say “Yeah!” and we laugh and now we’re friends. So we talk about our families and our jobs, they ask me about Obama and how many guns I own and how much money I make and then they go on a rant.
And they talk.
And they talk.
And somewhere along the line the limits of my Chinese vocabulary get stretched to absolute nothingness. So there I sit. Clueless. They might as well be saying “ching chang willy willy bing bang bong” because I’m catching zip . . . but we’ve built this relationship. We’ve bonded. They told me my Chinese is great and evidently they thought it was great because now they’re not even pausing long enough for me to tell them I stopped understanding back at “Obama“.
The worst part is this. Chinese is grammatically designed to enable fakers. Sentences are often finished with a “yes or no”, “right or not right”, “ok or not ok” question to which the correct response is a simple “yes or no”, “right or not right”, “ok or not ok”.
It’s a fifty – fifty chance. And sometimes taking it is easier than starting the conversation all over again. So I take it but for all I know they could be saying, “you sell nuclear warheads to Swedish vegetarians . . . right or not right?” And with big deer in the headlights eyes I pause . . .
“uhh . . . right?”
And they say, “yeah that’s what I thought” and continue talking.
Occasionally, however, I have been busted. Their jaw drops to the steering wheel and they say “WHAAAT?! You sell nuclear warheads to Swedish vegetarians?!! What kind of a person are you?! Who does that?!?” That’s when I play the foreigner trump card and say, “wait, what? did you say sleepless veterinarians? Uhhh, I don’t understand, my Chinese isn’t very good” So they smile and say, “no, no, your Chinese is very good.”
But I know what they’re really thinking. And they’re right.
All of that to say. Learning Chinese is hard. But admitting I have a problem is the first step . . . right . . . or not right?