The Power of Context - Am I Chinese or What?

Trip Start Oct 05, 2009
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Trip End Mar 28, 2010


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Flag of China  , Beijing,
Monday, October 19, 2009

This would probably be a fascinating psychological experiment:
1.  Take a foreign-born Chinese person
2.  Move him/her to China
3.  Have him/her make friends
   a.  With locals
   b.  With other foreigners

Oh wait... this is my life, haha.

Well, the past weekend, I spend time with some coworkers (locals) and my neighbors (Europeans).  It was really interesting for me to see the difference and the reactions of other Chinese people.

Let's start with 3a.  The funny reactions were as followed:
"You are related."
- When I was with other coworkers for some reason, people assumed that we were related.  Maybe because they were doing most of the speaking or that I was getting help from them in shopping/eating.  Ok, I can be the person's cousin/nephew... I don't mind. 
"You seemed to have just returned from Europe or the US." - Perhaps they noticed that I dressed differently than the locals, that I used not just shampoo but conditioner too... or that they may have overheard my English... wow, how could it be so good?  Of course!  I must have studied there and not am back "home" haha.
"Actually, I like your Chinese" - Some people even said that they prefer my accent or rather, lack of the Beijing accent.  A lot of words get blurred together in the Beijing accent and I didn't learn to speak that way (although) I do understand it.  It's perhaps a bit like a person in NYC meeting someone from London.  I am a bit more formal.  This sometimes leads the person to believe that I understand more than I do, and makes them want to use more complex vocabulary to show their education level as well.  
       Overall, there is more respect given to another Chinese person.  I am not singled out from the rest of the crowd in any way.  It's actually a relief to feel like I can fit in.  A real positive is that at the markets and buying things, it is way easier to bargain.  I mean, Chinese people don't feel bad upping prices to rich foreigners but to another Chinese?  That's like charging extra for refilling tea.  And seriously, it's nice not to be hassled for money or free English lessons.

Now what about 3b?
"Your Chinese is really good!" - Ok, so when I am with foreigners, the standards for Chinese are lower.  They assume that I am bad, which is quite justified.  They didn't know people from the US still maintained Chinese culture and they are usually impressed if I can make reference to the Monkey King or something (considering I have never spent time in China before).
"You're not from here!" or "You look Chinese but..." - I suppose this makes sense.  I speak English well, and it is then presumed too well for a local.  Then I must be a foreigner.  Maybe I don't even know Chinese!  Alright, then they believe that Singapore seems like a good compromise.
"Your English is too good!" - Well, maybe this applies to both.  But I would say more often for when I am around foreigners.  It just takes a while for people to accept that it is my native tongue.  I mean, if there are over a billion Chinese who speak Chinese fluently and then you meet one who speaks English fluently, it's like winning the lottery.  So I understand when it takes time for this to settle in... "Whoa!  He's a native speaker!  I won the lottery!"
       There were unfortunately some negative aspects of being with foreigners such as: unwanted attention/staring, attracting other foreigners, being solicited for tours, and potential for being ripped off by the taxi.  It was a bit surprising in this way.  But I can understand the motivation money can have sometimes.  It is nice to be able to speak English again.  And I'll be honest... it makes me feel like a pro at the language.

Note: When I am by myself (with no context, so to speak), the reaction is more like 3a - except for the first point about being related.  
 
So in general, I would say that being around locals is more advantageous (as one would imagine).  That being said, I do appreciate spending time with locals and other foreigners alike because I personally like to hear all perspectives (i.e. visitors are welcome!). 

I believe everyone deep down is looking fit in... even foreigners.  I get the sense that they are frustrated for not knowing the language, not understanding the customs and just feeling out of place.  I know this was common for me at times in Zurich, too.  Therefore, I hope to learn Mandarin even more and be treated more and more like a local (without the accent, of course)! =)
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