Chapter 19: Only Mandarin-Speaking Foreigners Belong in China? | Speaking of China

15 Responses

  1. Jessica
    Jessica February 4, 2010 at 4:13 am | | Reply

    I think Camille has a point. I know that life in China opened up for me in many ways once my Mandarin improved. In my case, I had learned Mandarin for a few years in college before coming here for the first time, and then studied it in college some more when I returned to the States, so I never really had that experience of being completely helpless and understanding nothing. However, I’ve seen my parents and recently my brother in China and they speak nothing, no Chinese whatsoever, and it is more difficult for them. They were scammed, for instance, by a pedicab driver near the Forbidden City and paid 600RMB for a 2 block ride on a pedicab. That never would have happened if they’d spoken the language and could argue effectively. Not speaking the language made 2 guys, big strong guys, fearful and succeptible to intimidation.

    That said, I know expats who have lived here for many many years on very basic Chinese and they seem to do ok. They love China and have found their own niche here. Is there a China that is closed off to them though? I’d say definitely. If you’re unable to carry on an intelligent discussion with non-English speaking Chinese people then surely you’ll be viewing China from a different perspective. I imagine it would be the same living in America and speaking no English. The America you would get to know would be very different from many of us know. I won’t use the terms “real China” or “real America” but surely it would be a different perspective.

  2. ellisq
    ellisq February 4, 2010 at 4:46 am | | Reply

    I think if you don’t have the language ability, it’s easier to feel lonely and/or helpless. But I know plenty of non-Chinese speakers who love China, either because they have a big group of foreign/English-speaking friends or they have a Chinese significant other to help or they have a lot of money and don’t ‘need’ to speak Chinese.

    My pretty decent Mandarin certainly makes it easier for me to meet people. But there have been many times when I have felt so incredibly lonely, because as good as my Chinese is, there are some things I don’t know how to talk about, some things I can’t express, so many things that get lost in translation–especially sarcasm, one of my most notable traits.

    So really, I think it depends on your personality and your luck. If you think that your Chinese prohibits your having a good time in China, then it will, because you won’t try.

  3. ellen
    ellen February 4, 2010 at 4:54 am | | Reply

    Interesting question, but what is your opinion? Do you feel at home in China? Or, do you feel, despite speaking Mandarin fluently, that you are still considered an outsider? Oh, and another question: how long did it take you to learn Chinese? Got any advice? I’m still struggling with the language, but I feel like the only way to really learn it, is to live in a Chinese speaking country…(and that’s not the case for my right now) What do you think?

  4. Susan
    Susan February 4, 2010 at 5:32 pm | | Reply

    I would say there are degrees of belonging. My Chinese has degenerated over the years, yet I still feel a sense of belonging because of friends and relatives who live there as well as my familiarity and comfort with China. That said, I will always be an outsider (and I think all foreigners will be) to some degree, probably to a larger degree than if I had kept up my language skills.

  5. melanie gao
    melanie gao February 5, 2010 at 2:57 am | | Reply

    It’s interesting that Camilla said you “happened to be a ‘have'”, as if you were born with your Mandarin skills or inherited them from a wealthy relative. In fact it’s pretty much a matter of dedication and hard work. I would agree that life is easier in China if you speak the language, and everyone has the power to make that happen.

  6. ellen
    ellen February 5, 2010 at 10:39 am | | Reply

    Looking forward to that mail, Jocelyn! Thanks in advance!

  7. Chris Waugh
    Chris Waugh February 5, 2010 at 11:40 pm | | Reply

    Interesting, intriguing story, especially the “haves/have nots” distinction. I’m inclined to agree with all the commenters.

    I would also say that although we are all born with an innate ability to learn languages, we all have naturally varying degrees of ability with language. I will not pass judgement on somebody I’ve never met, but I can only assume that your friend Camille hit a point of frustration with her Mandarin learning that she was not, for whatever reason, able to overcome.

    I would agree that learning Mandarin is really important to settling and integrating here, and for that (and other) reasons, I strongly encourage all my new colleagues to learn the language. Having said that, I long since resigned myself to being permanently a foreigner (at least, so long as I’m in China). My theory is that it has something to do with the age of the country. I noticed a similar attitude when I was in Norway – this is our land. You are welcome, so long as you don’t forget your place as a guest on our land. Fair enough. The people I was staying with in Norway could trace their history in that county back several hundred years, to the point of being able to point out the original family founding father’s farm. My wife’s family traces their presence in their village in the mountains northwest of Beijing back to an ancestor who, in the early Ming, loaded each of his two sons into a bucket each, slung them from a carrying pole on his shoulder, and trudged off from The Great Scholar Tree of Hongtong County and walked over the mountains, in one of the several waves of migration out of southern Shanxi organised by the Ming government. I, on the other hand, come from a country founded by immigrants – even most Maori can trace their ancestors back to the particular canoe they arrived on about 1000 years ago. It seems natural to me that countries like mine, founded on immigration, would be more accepting of new immigrants integrating into society than countries with histories as long as Norway or China.

    As for feeling at home in China, I’m inclined to ask what home is? I’ve lived in China 10 years, and I’m about to take my wife on her first trip to New Zealand (and my first trip “home” in 7 years) one week from tomorrow. Last time I was there, I didn’t feel any more “at home” than I do in Beijing – indeed, I felt slightly foreign. And yet, something keeps pulling me back to my native island…. I have to admit to feeling a little nervous about this trip….

    Please forgive the over long comment. I would like to end it with a question: Rural Chinese hospitality is really hard to beat, isn’t it?

  8. Hao Hao Report February 6, 2010 at 1:25 pm |
  9. K
    K June 7, 2016 at 3:15 am | | Reply

    I think everyone going to a different country for a longer period of time will feel either isolated or partially integrated, depending on their language skills and how different they look from the locals.

    Most people living in Romania are either ‘white’ or Rroma people [aka gypsies]. People of East Asian or African origin are something ‘exotic’ here and are likely to be started at, but we generally don’t care. There are some people meeting these characteristics and are a 2nd generation immigrants now, speak perfect romanian and have no issues.. even white people who would be considered ‘have-nots’ by Camille [language wise] seem to do just fine here, but can get ripped off easier [they’re generally wealthy and don’t seem to care].

    Foreigners would feel like outsiders more in a racist country, i believe.

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