Alexandra Sieh
Alexandra Sieh

Standing on the crowded bus, Man-Friend and I chatted about nothing in particular as a pair of young girls clambered on, followed by a frazzled-looking mother. In a generous move, another mother gave her seat to the two newcomers so that three wee tots were all bunched together.

Once seated, they looked around and were soon gaping at the two giant foreigners who were speaking a different language and looking quite out of place.

Now, my Chinese is improving, but it's still nowhere near good enough for eavesdropping. Luckily, these kiddos spoke clearly, and I could pick out a few words.

Enough words to know they were talking about us.

Man-Friend smiled. His excellent Chinese allowed him in on the joke. He then explained: The youngest was asking her sister why we were speaking a language that wasn't Chinese. We were in China, after all.

The sister was stumped. So was the cookie-munching seat-mate.

That's when Man-Friend spoke up.

(In Chinese): "When we speak to each other, we speak English. But when I speak to you, I speak Chinese because that's what you speak."

Their eyes widened as they sat in adorable silence ... and then they proceeded to continue talking about us. "He can understand you! Now shush!" their mother eventually chided them.

But we didn't mind. This kind of thing happens all the time.


It's common for locals to assume us foreigners won't know Chinese. In fact, most are so surprised, they'll praise your language skills when you say something as simple as "Nihao. (Hello.)"

I understand that assumption. I'm the girl who has invested a lot of money and time to be able to only barely comprehend part of a 5-year-old's conversation.

But when they assume you don't know the language, it's not meant as an insult. And in all honesty, they've probably come across only those foreigners who don't care enough to even have a go at the language.

(They're more common than you think.)

Many of my foreign friends, though, share my mindset: If you're going to live in the country, you need to at least attempt the language. Most of them are actually quite exceptional at Chinese or are quickly learning to be. But because we are not the majority, we all have the same experiences as that of the aforementioned bus ride, and unfortunately, those encounters aren't always so adorable.

Like when cab drivers refuse to pick you up because they don't want to deal with yet another foreigner who can't say where they want to go. Or when a shopkeeper talks down to you, assuming you won't know the answers to their questions. Often, the people speaking about you (as if you aren't there) are adults.

For those foreigners fluent enough to understand, this can be a frustrating reality.

But then, foreigners do the same.

Even when speaking about more inappropriate or silly things, I rarely stop to think who may be listening. I assume that no one nearby will speak English, and if they do, they won't be able to understand the penis joke I just made. (I mean, uh, I'd never make such a crude joke. I'm a lady.)

Ultimately, it's a two-way street.

For me, Chinese has been a love-hate relationship, but as my waitress and I struggle to understand each other, I just think back to the little girls and smile. Throughout this learning process, patience is key. That and being the kind of foreigner I'd like them to assume I am: knowledgable, kind and worth that patience.

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