When You’re Really, Truly, “The Foreigner”
Let’s talk about speaking Chinese. These days about 70% of my life is lived totally in Chinese with people that can’t speak English. (Take my classes out of the equation and you get closer to 90%.)
I am not a natural language learner. In fact, I would say I was below average. I have no natural feel or ear for a foreign language and honestly, no inclination to learn one. The only reason I put so much time and effort into learning Chinese is because of my natural drive to be independent. I don’t want to rely on others to call the dentist, or help me find my bus. I wanna do it myself.
And now that I’m fluent I can make friends with people I like because of personality or common traits. I don’t need to only make friends with English speakers. So now, with badminton and a new group of friends and dating, I speak very little English socially. If someone even has a hint of English, I’ll fall back and put the burden of understanding on them. But for most of my day that isn’t an option.
But I had a realization the other day.
Remember that show in the 90’s with Balki, the foreigner who comes to NY to live with his unwitting cousin? Or Gloria on Modern Family? Or even Ricky way back on I Love Lucy?
Those shows were always about a foreigner and the hilarious mistakes they make with English and cultural understanding. I loved all those shows.
But guess what? Now I’m on the other side, and I find them less funny.
I’m Bakli. I’m Gloria. I’m Ricky (“Luuuuuuuucy, I’m home!”) And I no longer find jokes about their English funny because the same exact things happen to me and it’s not cool.
My coach loves to laugh at my poor Chinese and make fun of me for using wrong words. Or friends will make some pop culture reference (from their childhood) with no explanation and expect me to get it, making me feel stupid when I have to admit I have no idea what they are talking about.
In some ways, it’s a compliment. When a foreigner speaks Chinese, most Chinese people are bowled away. They clap their hands, gasp with surprise and make you feel so damn smart. And when your Chinese is low, but usable, people really seem to go out of their way to help you communicate.
But something happens when you become more fluent. If you are fluent but not at a native speaker level, you suddenly get criticized for everything. When you say hello to the store owner, they are amazed, but once you start up a conversation and write your own order, suddenly they sit there telling you you don’t write the characters in the correct stroke order.
And once you have long term friends, who expect you to just know everything, when you make a mistake, or can’t understand anything, they totally mock you for being dumb.
I really wonder how I come off to these people. Am I like Melanie Trump who everyone mocks her accent and her poor grammar? *Shudder*
And whatever. One one level, I’m okay with this language frustration. I live in another country, I can’t expect everyone to cater to my wishes and style. I also like they expect me to know everything. They give me way more credit about the language and culture than I deserve which means, on some level, they must think I’m smart.
But watch out when the shoe is on the other foot.
Like my one friend who recently started taking a two-hour beginners English class once a week. They are basically sounding out letters and saying sentences like “Nice to meet you.” After two hours he says his head is spinning and he feels really tired. Yet doesn’t think anything of me who has to speak for hours on end when we hang out.
Or my other friend, who has a higher level and likes speaking English. We went out with another friend who only speaks Chinese. So my friend was speaking English, but I was only speaking Chinese so the third friend could understand. After awhile my friend gave up speaking English and we all spoke Chinese. “God, speaking English is so exhausting,” he said in Chinese after talking English for less than an hour.
“I KNOW IT IS!!” I screamed out in Chinese. “IT’S EXHAUSTING.” And yet all they do is laugh at silly ol’ Becky.
I don’t need an award for best Chinese speaker. I’m not, I know that. I also know that I’m lazy and not really willing to put in more time right now to study more and improve. All I want is a little credit. Instead of a mocking me or laughing at me, I’d just like a little “Let’s say it a little slower so Becky can get it the first time.” Just a little understanding, kay?