“Your Chinese is amazing! Even better than a Chinese person’s! If I close my eyes, I can’t tell that you’re a foreigner at all!”
Having studied Mandarin for close to 10 years now, and having a bit of a knack for imitating accents, I hear some variation of this exclamation several times per day. I used to beam at these compliments, but as the years passed, the unfairness with which they are dished out and the strong racial stereotypes they expose started to leave a bitter taste in my mouth.
An unpopular popular language
Not many people decide to learn Mandarin.
It’s the second most commonly spoken language in the world thanks to China’s vast domestic population, but the number of people outside the country learning it is surprisingly small: state-sponsored Chinese newspapers and language schools put their estimates between 40 and 100 million learners, but “learning” a language covers the entire range of possible proficiencies.
For more accurate numbers, I look at the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK), the most widely recognised test of Mandarin proficiency. In 2018, less than a million people took any level of this exam, which ranges from HSK 1 (the easiest) to HSK 6 (widely seen as equal to fluency).
I don’t blame people. Aside from the fact that very few high schools or universities offer Chinese as an option, so it never occurs to most people to learn it, Mandarin is notoriously difficult, particularly for native speakers of alphabetical, non-tonal languages. Often, it can be a long and thankless road; it took 3 or 4 years of intensive study before I was able to hold a decent conversation with a Beijing local without sweating profusely, being laughed at repeatedly, and missing half of what they said.
So, I used to love when people validated my years of hard work with comments that showered praise on my Chinese ability. I felt like I was being recognised as the rare, resilient superhero that I was, someone who had persevered where others had not, and now could reap the rewards.
When is a Compliment Not a Compliment?
However, after I had been living in China for a while, with my Chinese ability continually improving and the incessant, starry-eyed compliments still being showered on me every day, I started to see them slightly differently.
Firstly came the question of whether they were genuine. I saw white friend after white friend, whose Chinese was definitely not that great, being praised to the moon and back for saying “hello” and “thank you”. People were saying something that clearly wasn’t true.
Obviously, people are trying to be welcoming and encouraging; to applaud visitors’ efforts at speaking in their host country’s language. Perhaps you think that I’m being unreasonable in criticising this. Where’s the harm, after all, in praising someone?
But my issue is not with complimenting beginners. I agree wholeheartedly that language learners, especially beginners, deserve praise and patience, and even need it in order to persevere. My issue is with why this flattery is still doled out so gushingly, when I am 10 years down the line and speak fluently, without much of an accent. In recent months, every time somebody has exclaimed with surprise, “Wow, your Chinese is so good!”, I think, Why wouldn’t it be? The answer always comes down to race. I have a white face, so I must be new here.
These compliments, though kind on the surface, actually reinforce your unshakeable status as an outsider. For a white person, clearly a visitor, being able to speak Chinese is a laudable and surprising ‘extra’, rather than a necessity of life in the country I have chosen to reside in.
The situation in reverse is comical: it would be unbelievably rude for me to exclaim to a black or brown person in the UK about how good their English was, even if they had obviously grown up somewhere different. It would be offensive and patronising. Like the sexism that is exposed when people praise “girl bosses”, or “female leaders”, rather than just bosses and leaders, actually what these comments serve to remind me of is more that I am not seen as an equal; I exist under different, softer standards, holding me in my place like the bars of a gilt cage.
And what about the countless Chinese friends I have who speak impeccable English? Where is the praise for those who have gone through the exact same arduous process that I have, just in reverse?
Every time somebody showers me with praise for my Mandarin skills, I squirm at the thought of the way my equally bilingual counterparts in the UK are treated. Foreign students, struggling to keep up with university coursework; tourists, pushed out of the way on busy London streets; second-language professional workers, who must find everything just that bit harder to comprehend, yet expected to work just as hard as everyone else.
You could argue that, well, I am an outsider. I am different, and I certainly am not Chinese. That’s true. It’s also true that China and the UK’s situations are objectively different. There are few foreigners in China that speak the local language, whereas English-speaking countries have been immigration magnets for several generations, and now have diverse populations that have normalised the separation of language and race.
But I’m not asking for people to see me as Chinese. All I want is for me speaking Chinese at a high level to not make me a freak show; for it to be as normalised as foreigners speaking English is in English speaking countries. I don’t want the compliments. I just want to use my language to speak to people.
I hope that it’s just a matter of time.