Zhongguoren Incognito

In all honesty, I have been feeling insecure about my Chinese skills for a while now.

Learning characters is a torturous slog, and is starting to spawn a new source of frustration. When friends text me in Chinese, I translate them on my phone to find that I would’ve in fact understood the sentence if I heard it, but since I can’t read it my knowledge is useless.

My knowledge has increased exponentially, but I still can’t understand much of what I hear. When I speak Chinese to people, it takes them aback, either because of my pronunciation/tones/sentence structure/host of other reasons. They don’t expect a Chinese looking girl to speak as if she’s only been learning for three months , and I’m never sure if I land on foreign disgrace or mentally deficient. I know it’s part of the learning process and I try not to take it personally but it does wear me down over time when the majority of my interactions end with the other person thinking I’m very stupid. (It does make me appreciate the people who are incredibly nice about my apparent idiocy. Yesterday I understood about 1 in 10 words spoken by the bakery man who was helping me pick out, slice, and bag pastries but he was sweet about it and didn’t make me feel bad.) My other international friends don’t have the same problem, because they are more obviously foreign it’s much more endearing when they stumble in Chinese.

The end result is that I go through my day speaking as little Chinese as possible to keep my cover. When people hawking flyers on the street approach me, I put on my bitchface and shake my head instead of spitting out the simple “bu yao” because if I mess it up I don’t feel like seeing another surprised/confused reaction for even half a second.

I’m halfway through my second ten week module of Chinese class, and although I’m grateful that I am much less ignorant then before, I was feeling discouraged and down on myself. Maybe I should’ve studied harder. My roommate who majored in Mandarin keeps telling me I’ve only been at it for a few months and I can’t expect to know everything at once, which of course is true. And then the girls in my office cheered me up like no other.

I’ve been practicing my Chinese in the office with my local teacher friends. They are great teachers, supplementing my vocabulary, teaching me slang , teaching me dirty words, fixing my grammar when needed. When I was hitting a wall with my cheese tea order at my favorite tea shop they talked me through it and figured out where I was making the mistake. And then the other day, Jane said as an aside, “Grace, your Chinese is really very good. You know a lot.”

“REALLY?” I asked, in genuine shock. “My tones are bad,” I add, thinking of my tutor who last lesson informed me that I really need to pay more attention to my tones.

“No, they’re okay,” said Jane. “Your pronunciation is good, you don’t sound like a foreigner.”

As I passed out from shock and happiness, they got busy formulating the joke that I have secretly been Chinese this whole time and have been faking it because I don’t want to help international teachers order food.

The next day, while I was chatting in Chinese with the other Grace Hwang (there are 4 Graces on our staff) about how we both meiyou nanpengyou (don’t have boyfriends) Lilian called from the other side of the office, “How did you learn so much Chinese so quickly? Did you do it on purpose?” (First of all, lol to on purpose, second of all yes, third, I can trust that Lilian isn’t flattering me for my ego as we have mildly clashed a few times over our shared classes, and she always tells it to me straight.)

And I realize my roommate is right. I need to be less impatient, less hard on myself, appreciate the progress I’ve made. I can’t be jealous of my other international friends who get patted on the head for whatever nihaos they say, at the very least, my Asian face gets me way more speaking practice and way more exposure to Chinese.

“Grace is really Chinese,” my coworkers tell our boss as he walks in, over my protests of “Bu shi! Bu shi! Wo shi Meiguoren, wo baba mama shi Hanguoren!”

“Oh, her parents are Korean, but she’s really Chinese,” says Jane confidently.

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