ChinaWatch: When in Beijing… order in English
This column is part of a monthly series on what’s happening in China from a political, social, environmental, music and arts perspective. If you’d like to contribute to the series, know of some great links, websites, magazines, contacts or just harbour a passion for China, feel free to drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Being an Australian of European background, I stand out instantly in China.
Such is the feeling of isolation in the crowd, though - the looks of intrigue, the whirlwind of Chinese characters and the confusion of rapid native conversations - to see another foreigner is almost always a source of comfort.
I’ve quickly found, in that moment, the attraction of the familiar inevitably draws out three questions in English.
1. “What’s your name?”
2. “Where are you from?”
3. “How long have you been in China?”
The first question is a good way of putting a name to a face, the second is a nice icebreaker, especially if you can make light of a particular event happening in their country. But the third question is curious.
What I am finding more and more is that, while the answer to the third question is often months or years, many expats admitted that they couldn’t speak Chinese (outside of ordering at bars) and that this culture was born not so much of being a group of foreigners unwilling to learn, but of a local community all too happy to accommodate their needs.
My first venture into an expat bar wasn’t to escape Chinese culture. Really. It was to watch a cricket game from back home, which I managed to do with the help of another expat.
While I appreciated the fact that I could find some of the comforts of home, I was taken aback by the fact that when I ordered a beer in Mandarin, the response came in English.
Myself: “Wo yao yi ping Tsingtao, xiexie.”
Local barman: “Ok, that will be 20 kuai. We’ll bring it over to you.”
This is far from an isolated incident. The city I’m staying in, Hangzhou, is typical of contemporary Chinese cities. It is stuck between its 20th century Communist roots and a developing consumerist culture.
Dominated by foreign businessmen attempting to grab a slice of a untouched local market but more than willing to engage with Western ideas, technology and customs.
As a result of this increased foreign presence, China is quickly becoming a country where familiarity exists at a determined price, and unlike other nations, it’s one that’s incredibly affordable for Westerners.
The desire of Chinese businesses and government to open the door to foreigners is creating an increasingly large niche market for Chinese small business owners who can now attract a clientele, local and foreign, happy to pay these higher prices for English service.
Indeed, bar staff and shopkeepers are mystified when I attempt to practice my Chinese with them. Jason, a waiter at the local bar, insisted that we talk English so he could practice his skills. This was clearly a fact understood by some of the more weathered patrons of the venue, who, despite knowing how to order in Chinese, did it all in English. As appears to be the custom.
It was here that I met a businessman, Tim, who works as a “Director of Asian Business Development” for an Australian manufacturing company. From what I could gather, being a “Director of Asian Business Development” involved, almost exclusively, being shown a good time by local officials, all of whom either speak the English or pay for a translator to be present.
His rationale: why learn the language when the actions of the local community didn’t want to?
Learning the language of the people you choose to do business with is important, a fact that the Chinese are discovering with impressive results.
In many ways it is the polar opposite of expectations in Australia. That is, if you want to be an effective member of a society, let alone its business community, speaking the local language is a minimum requirement.
Indeed, every migrant Australian I’ve dealt with has at least an elementary grasp of English. In China, the local community is evolving, culturally, to accommodate foreigners, learning their customs and speaking their language in order to attract their dollars.
I may be naïve, but this culture seems to be entirely out of kilter with the way Australians deal with foreign interests.
Rather than being heartened by the fact that my time in China won’t be as alien as maybe I thought it would be, I was actually a little mystified by the fact that not speaking the language at all was actually an option.
I often wonder if it’s odd that the thing that most strikes me as foreign about a country where I cannot read a single street sign or understand a conversation is the fact that so many foreigners share my grief. I just hope that, by the end of the year, I will have spent enough time away from English speakers to no longer share their confusion.
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