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You Speak Chinese!?


     Most Chinese people are pleasantly surprised when they hear a foreigner speaking their language. These days more and more Westerners are studying Chinese in college, so when a young adult "knows how to talk" it's not quite as unusual as it used to be. But an old FFG like me, well, I still see a lot of jaws drop when I start talking.
     It really does help win friends and influence people if you can manage even a few words. An Australian friend here in Liuzhou likes to sit in an outdoor cafe of a springtime afternoon, enjoying a glass or two of Liuzhou's finest, and he always has some Chinese guys sitting and drinking with him. He's learned maybe thirty words of Chinese over the last few months, and his companions know even less English, but they have a great time trying to figure each other out. That's a much better way to spend one's time in China, it seems to me, than running back and forth between a hotel and a tour bus.
     You don't have to speak the language very well, either – the mere fact that you're willing to make the effort will prove to the Chinese that you're an all-right guy. My Australian friend, for example, has a bit of difficulty with the pronunciation – at least until he's finished his first beer – but that just adds to the fun. The locals enjoy correcting his Chinese pronunciation almost as much as they enjoy trying to mimic his English. And, of course, no matter how badly you botch up it up, people will still say, "Oh, you speak Chinese very well."
     I'm sometimes told by the locals that I speak Chinese better than they do. This is patently ridiculous and I used to chalk it up to flattery. Then someone explained that they actually do mean it, but only in a limited sense. I'm unencumbered by a Liuzhou accent, so I actually can pronounce the "
national language" better than many of the locals.
     Truth is, I've been trying to learn Chinese far longer than most of the locals have even been on the planet. If I were any kind of a student at all, I really would be able to speak the language better than they do!
     Sometimes people question my ability to speak English, though. Once I saw a young man wearing a T-shirt that said, "Want to step outside?" I told him what that means but he didn't believe me. He'd looked the words up in his English-Chinese dictionary and knew for a fact that they just mean "Let's get some fresh air."

***

     When Chinese find out I speak their language, the next hurdle is finding something to talk about. The opening gambit is almost always, "Where are you from?" I mean, what else are you going to ask a foreigner?
     Occasionally, if I'm in a twisted mood, I tell them I'm from Xinjiang – that's the westernmost Chinese province, bordering on Russia, where a large percentage of the population isn't ethnically Chinese. Sometimes they appear to believe me. "Oh, no wonder you can speak Chinese!" Other times they look at me askance, like they're thinking, "Does this FFG think I just fell off the bok choy truck?" In those cases I tell them that my parents were Russian émigrés, and that seems to convince some of them.
     The other day I was walking in my "community" (a group of condos built by the same developer, often surrounded by a wall). A young woman came up and asked, "Are you the guy from Xinjiang?" I came clean and told her that's just a joke, I'm really from the U.S. She must have known that all along, though, because the next thing she said was: she's looking for someone to tutor her son in English and thought I'd be a likely candidate, since I live so close. "No thanks," I said. Been there, done that.


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