English Overload

I really miss speaking Chinese.  As much as I routinely butcher it, I miss it.  

We’ve been visiting friends and family in the States for three weeks now and my senses are still being blasted.  It happens every time we come back.  It’s like a switch gets flipped and all of the sudden I can understand everything.  Every song. Every talk show.  Every tabloid.  Every bathroom stall (seriously, you people have some issues with your bathroom stalls).  It’s English overload, especially considering that for the past several years I have been straining to understand anything.  It’s like I’m a doctor with my stethoscope pressed tightly against the chest of a Chinese taxi driver concentrating intently and focused entirely on understanding what he is saying.  I have to mentally shut out all other noise and hone in . . .

ba bum

ba bum

ba bum

and then the plane lands in America and Rush Limbaugh screams into my stethoscope.  “THE CHI-COMS ARE COMING!” and the news guy yells, “50 PEOPLE EXPLODED TODAY AND SOME MORE ARE GOING TO EXPLODE TOMORROW!” and the radio blares “RED SOLO CUP!” and the tabloids shout, “ALL THE FAMOUS PEOPLE GOT FAT AND DIVORCED AND SOME OF THEM EXPLODED!!” and in all of the insanity you would think a guy could escape to a bathroom stall for some peace and quiet but . . . seriously . . . issues.

I am thoroughly enjoying being home and I am soaking up the experience but my metaphorical eardrums are still ringing . . . metaphorically.  And I’m missing Chinese.

So I went to the Chinese restaurant in the small mid-Western town we are staying in with hopes of striking up a small conversation in Mandarin to stay fresh and impress them with my mad China skills.  Yeah, that didn’t work.  I always forget a key component that never fails to be present in this scenario.  This is it . . . I feel like a big doof.

In my mind before I arrive it goes something like this . . . I walk in and in perfect Chinese say, “Good evening, I am pleased to meet you, may I see your menu please?” and they say “Whaaa, your Chinese is so good, please be our friend and accept a free large order of General Tsao’s Chicken as a token of our appreciation for your awesomeness and your ability to connect with us by speaking in our native tongue.” 

But then I arrive and I get all nervous because the place is packed and I realized that there is essentially no need to speak Chinese because the girl taking my order sounds like she was born and raised in Iowa.  So the scenario in my head changes to . . . I say, “ni hao” and they say “seriously dude?  we were born and raised in Iowa . . . don’t you have anything better to do on a Saturday night than to come in here and make fun of the people in the Chinese restaurant?  Racist doof.” And then all of the small town American customers get out of their seats and the big hairy one says. “you don’t look like you’re from around here boy but we don’t take kindly outsiders pokin’ fun at our local Chinese restaurant proprietors.  Maybe you just ought to get your General Tsao’s Chicken and mosey on out them doors.”

So I ordered my food.  In English.  

But before I left I worked up the nerve to at least strike up a conversation.  In English.

The best I could come up with was, “so, where you guys from?” 

That’s it.  That was my big opener to spark a deep cultural exchange.  The girl with the Iowanese accent looked at the cook who had come from the back and wordlessly exchanged a glance that spoke volumes.  “um” she paused and bit her lip just a little . . .  “China.”  She spoke with this tender, compassionate tone.  The kind you use when you’re speaking to a small child or a complete moron.  It was like deep in her heart she really wanted to say, “we’re from Zimbabwe!  Can’t you tell from our straight dark hair our Asian eyes and the enormous glowing sign outside that says CHINA KING?” 

From there I tried to explain that we actually live in China and  . . .  it was just awkward.

I miss speaking Chinese.


  1. we picked up chinese food on january 1st. i actually responded to the old man’s questions in chinese, but he didn’t seem to notice. he must be pretty fluid, not noticing my “dui” and “xie xie.” but before we left, i said “xin nian kuai le.” that did get his attention, and he finally responded with chinese, wishing me the same! i did want to strike up a whole conversation, but i was too embarassed.

  2. Loved the end! Choked with laughter. Reminded me of when I first moved back to the States after 4 years in China. I was at Crown College helping out for this summer conference for “Chinese” and tried to speak it with some of the teens at the registration table. They stared at me like I was a moron and were like “We don’t speak Chinese”.

  3. Ha, yeah, I miss speaking Chinese too when I’m in the West! I ate Chinese as much as I could this break, because as much as I like real Chinese food, I also like the American version of it. I ate a ton of egg rolls (OK, like 5) because you just can’t get those here! Each time I was at the Chinese restaurant I’d want to speak Chinese to them and their kids, but like Steph I’d be embarrassed too. I want to practice and I think it’s nice to speak in their native language (though of course Cantonese or another language may actually be their native language so I generally start with “Ni shuo Pu Tong Hua ma?”) but I always end up feeling like I’m showing off, especially if there are other customers. If I push through, it fades sometimes. My dad is really great at talking to everyone and he busts out his 3 Chinese New Year phrases this time of year to everyone he meets, and I just don’t know how he does it. Unfortunately, every time we run into a friend or acquaintance who speaks Chinese, he tells me, “Speak Chinese with him!” and I feel like I’m performing even more. “…Um, ni hao, food massage man at the mall. Chun jie kuai le even though you have to work this weekend since you’re in America…” Poor guy.

    I am blessed though to have other people to practice with. My US doctor’s wife/receptionist is also Chinese, so about once per US visit I get to chat with someone in a mix of Chinese and English for several minutes without pressure. This year there is a Cambodian grad student staying at my parents’ house that speaks some Korean and Mandarin too, and I got invited to an early Chinese New Year party with a big mix of international grad students – what fun!

  4. (This is Lily A. by the way… I keep forgetting to sign my name!)


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