Apparently, Speaking Chinese in the San Francisco Surprises People Less than Speaking Chinese in Taiwan

In Taiwan, whenever I opened my mouth around strangers and started speaking in Chinese, people would be shocked. Not always, but often. This was even true if I was in some remote part of Taiwan where few foreigners ventured and practically nobody spoke English.

Furthermore, when I walked into bookstores in Taiwan, people would often be amazed that I can read Chinese. On the contrary, the few times I have entered Chinese bookstores in San Francisco, nobody raised an eyebrow.

This struck me as odd. Sure, it is not unreasonable to presume that a random white person wandering around Taipei cannot speak Chinese. My experience is that most random white people wandering around Taipei cannot speak Chinese. But in remote parts of Taiwan which aren’t touristy, or even smalller cities like Changhua and Pingdong, any white people who are wandering around likely can speak some Chinese. And even in Taipei … is it so shocking that somebody who is in Asia can speak an Asian language??!!!

Now, I’m living in San Francisco. The overwhelming majority of white people here cannot speak Chinese. In fact, the percentage of white people in San Francisco who can speak Chinese is several order of magnitudes lower than the percentage of white people in Taiwan who can speak Chinese. Yet when I open my mouth and speak Mandarin here, it surprises native Chinese speakers a lot less than it surprises native Chinese speakers in Taiwan.

What gives?

I don’t know why this is. But I can speculate. First of all, Taiwanese people have told me that language is in the blood, and that Taiwanese people can speak Chinese well because of their ancestry, just as I can speak English well because of my ancestry (of course, only a minority of my ancestors came from the British Isles, and most of those ancestors were Scots-Irish rather than English, but Taiwanese people generally do not think about such things). These people believed that a) because the do not have white ancestry, they could not become fluent in English and b) because I do not have Chinese ancestry, I cannot learn how to speak Chinese. This is an extreme version of a common sentiment in Taiwan that non-Asians simply cannot understand Taiwanese/Asian culture, or hope to become fluent in Chinese. Hence the surprise when someone like me can carry a conversation in Chinese.

Native Chinese speakers who are in San Francisco are much less likely to entertain such notions. They generally have a much more nuanced view of white people, and are more aware that it is possible for people to learn additional languages. Though Taiwan itself is a multicultural society, it is not as diversely multicultural as San Francisco. In short, native Chinese speakers have a better understanding of what actually happens when very different cultures interact.

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4 thoughts on “Apparently, Speaking Chinese in the San Francisco Surprises People Less than Speaking Chinese in Taiwan

  1. Maybe it’s also because, when white in Taiwan, doing almost *anything* can be a source of great interest and amazement to people. I had the same somewhat blasé reaction when ordering food in a tofu shop in the Belleville Chinatown in Paris. Maybe at most a slight smile of acknowledgement.

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