Since coming to Yale, many Chinese-learners have tried to speak Chinese to me, and it always made me feel awkward. For me, language is a means to an end, so if we’re both most fluent in English, why not just speak in it? (Longer piece on my personal feelings here). I started to wonder if other people had similar feelings as me . So I asked a bunch of friends who might be spoken to in Chinese how they felt in similar situations and summarized my findings below. While I wrote this mostly out of my own curiosity, I hope it can also help people learning Chinese better grasp the issues of cultural privilege at play when they approach a native/heritage speaker.
Chinese international students may be flattered that someone is learning about their language and culture!
Because I do a lot of East Asia-related things at Yale, basically every other person I know has studied Chinese. As a result, any time someone tells me they’re taking Chinese, I yawn. So I was surprised to find that my Chinese international friends did not share this sentiment at all. Instead, they expressed mild surprise (neither positive nor negative), relief, curiosity, and even happiness when someone spoke to them in Chinese. One of my friends said that he “would gladly continue the conversation in Chinese.” Another one of my friends said that she is so tired of speaking in English all the time that she is relieved when Chinese-learners speak Chinese to her. Another friend said, “it just creates a magical connection… to see someone trying to speak Chinese – in a sincere way…. Especially when they’re really trying.”
In other words, Chinese internationals tend to not feel uncomfortable when Chinese learners speak to them in Chinese. And in fact, hearing their own language may even be validating! I guess this makes sense as, even with the recent boom in Chinese language education, a Chinese-speaking American is still rare compared to an English-speaking Chinese. Chinese is also not considered as “cool” or “high-class” as say French or Italian is in the U.S. So for someone to take the time to learn their language can be truly touching. This probably explains why Chinese students CHEERED when a world-renowned American entrepreneur deigned to speak in Chinese.
Chinese-Americans: “It’s complicated.”
In theory, some Chinese-Americans may not mind if you speak to them in Chinese. Others, however, might feel uncomfortable, because of the legacy of racism against Asian-Americans in this country. Growing up, they may have been discriminated against for speaking Chinese or bringing Chinese food to school for lunch. They may have heard people sneer such nonsense as “Ching Chong Ling long” at them. (I know I have!)
One of my Chinese-American friends wrote me an mini-essay in response to how she feels when Chinese-learners approach her in Chinese. It is worth quoting at length: “It’s… complicated. I like that there are people who want to learn new languages and I understand how it can be difficult to find people to practice with. But usually these people who want to learn and approach me are white people. Growing up as a Chinese American, I was shamed from speaking Chinese because it was evidence of my being “unAmerican.” Yet nowadays being able to speak Chinese is considered “cool”, “cosmopolitan” and “modern”…for non-East Asian looking people…. With all this recent interest in China, I feel less hesitant to talk about my Chinese heritage. But it hurts me to think that my value as a human being has mostly to do with my Chinese background and less to do with how an awesome and cool human being I am.
“I find that Chinese speaking people who come to the US tend to find it more flattering than we do. They see it as someone being considerate about their background but for us it feels like an attack on our identities as Americans. For those who identify more as Americans, it’s annoying to be confused with them and get lumped in the same group. I would hate for someone who spoke with a Chinese international and develop an opinion from that experience and then treat me in the same way. It’s not the same.”
Taiwanese-Americans: even more complicated.
I will not speak for all Taiwanese-Americans; we are a diverse group. Taiwanese-Americans like myself, however, are not a huge fan of Chinese-learners who decide to speak to us in Chinese. At a certain level, speaking to someone in “their language” implies that you are trying to show them that you respect “their culture.” Since most Chinese-learners study Beijing-standard Mandarin, which has always sounded foreign to me, I feel no 親切感 (it is not endearing to me at all). A Chilean friend of mine similarly noted that when Americans speak Mexican Spanish to him, which includes terms he is not familiar with, he is equally unimpressed.
On the other hand, if you spoke to me in Taiwanese Mandarin (or god forbid Taiwanese Hokkien!), I would be very excited. Apparently, this is also the case for Quebecois French people. As Stephen Cardas notes,
Americans learning fluent Quebecois French is a sufficiently rare occurrence that it sends a strong signal of respect for and identification with a traditionally oppressed people and language (135).
Some other Taiwanese-Americans, especially older Taiwanese immigrants, also associate Mandarin with the repressive regime of the Republic of China that privileged Mandarin over other local languages. Such people therefore do not find it flattering at all when people speak to them in Mandarin. I have seen this before with a Taiwanese immigrant, a doctor in New Haven, much older than I. At a Taiwanese-American Society event about Taiwanese identity, an American student thought it would be respectful to welcome this physician in “his language”–Chinese. So he stood up, stretched out his hand, and said courteously, “Ni hao.” The immigrant replied in English. No smile.
There are many possible explanations for this cold reply, but given that he is from an older generation some of whom bitterly remember their native tongue being suppressed in favor of Mandarin, given that his wife teaches Taiwanese to Yale students, and given that they both decided to come to an event with unaccomplished 20-somethings about Taiwanese identity, it’s probably safe to assume that he felt no respect being spoken to in Mandarin.
So what is the TDLR; here? You probably won’t lose any friends speaking to them in Chinese, but it is important to understand that people will react/feel differently and respect that!