Facing Assumptions and Challenges

In The Art of Travel Fall 2017, 2. Communicating, Shanghai by Irina2 Comments

When abroad, people see my face and often think that I can speak something other than English. Flight attendants on Korean Air offer me food and drinks in Korean. Some Uber drivers see my name and start speaking Russian. Indonesian storekeepers ask me what I’m looking for in Bahasa and everyone in China seems to think that I can or should be able to understand whatever they’re trying to say to me. While it’s true that I’ve studied Mandarin for almost 5 years now and have parents who communicate with me and each other in Bahasa Indonesian, I am by no means fluent in any other language but English.

Having my appearance contradict my abilities is something I am hyper-aware of whenever I travel to Asia. It’s hard to explain that while I am ethnically Chinese, I have little connection culturally or linguistically to China. I always clarify that my parents come from Indonesia, telling my Chinese teachers who seem confused to see a Chinese face in their class that “我是从印尼来的”. While I do well learning languages in class, it is entirely different trying to go about using those skills in the real world. In Chinese class, you have context to understand what the teacher is saying and can comprehend the words spoken in a reasonable pace with clear intonation. When I step out onto a busy Shanghai street and get stopped by a stranger speaking to me, I have little understanding of what they mean at all. Do they need directions? Do they want me to scan a QR code on Wechat? Are they trying to promote a restaurant to me? Every time this happens, I immediately pull a confused face and shake my head to say “Sorry, my Chinese is poor”. Like a one-way street, they may understand what I am saying but I can rarely comprehend the words I hear in return.

I knew that these things would happen when I decided to go back to Shanghai and dreaded these awkward interactions. I worried about how I would get around, since I usually had native-speaking friends to stick with and help me get by. Though I know enough Chinese to probably get my food order across, I fear that people will presume that I know more than what I do.

While Botton writes excitedly of the novelty of seeing exotic words and symbols on the exit sign at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, I feel that I rarely get excited seeing unrecognizable Chinese characters on street signs, buildings, or restaurant menus. Each one serves as a roadblock and a reminder that there is a never-ending stream of words I have yet to learn and may never know. They often make me annoyed since I have to pull out my phone, switch to a written Chinese keyboard, and wait for Pleco (the best Chinese language learning app) to give me an answer. Instead, I find comfort in the familiar, feeling surprised when I can read a string of characters or feeling relieved to find English words amidst the Chinese letters.

I hope that this semester will help me come more fluent in the language, allowing me to get by in the city and integrate more seamlessly into this culture.


  1. Irina,

    The situation you face when someone assumes you speak the same language as them is a common one, but still extremely frustrating. Here in Sydney, there is a large Chinese produce market that I go to with my roommate, who is Chinese. However, similar to you, she is not so connected to Chinese culture and would consider herself more American. She doesn’t speak the language at all. Regardless, the workers at the market are constantly speaking to her in Cantonese. Each time, she stares at them in a confused way until they speak English. I can see the frustration and discomfort she experiences every time. I think, however, that it is so great that you are stepping out of your comfort zone and facing these situations to progress yourself. Although seeing a sign that you can’t understand seems like an obstacle at this point, in a few months it will be a mark of triumph. You are getting the most pure and practical form of learning a language.

  2. Hi Irina,

    I really liked your comment about the difference between using a language in the classroom and using it in the real world without a clear context. It’s also really different listening to a teacher who is aware of your level of comprehension and listening to native speakers in the real world who don’t think to accommodate your foreignness or even just assume you’re a native speaker, too! There’s an important distinction between the two settings and being in a organic, real-world environment definitely pushes you to work harder, but I think it also leads to much more opportunity for growth. Especially since all the text around you is unfamiliar as well. But seeing things in unfamiliar contexts helps you remember them faster, and they make you appreciate those rare moments when you do see the familiar English text and understanding lights up inside you. It’s a riveting experience.

    At the same time, I completely sympathize with your struggles when other people assume you’ll understand them. While I think this is definitely a mark of the complex issue of identity in the modern world, on a personal level it can be very stressful to juggle the expectations of others with your own sense of self. It can often make you feel like you’re doing something when you’re not. I hope your semester in Shanghai helps you better navigate these expectations and maybe get a little more comfortable with the language and culture, too!

Leave a Comment