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.