One of the biggest things about being a foreigner in China is that you tend to stick out. There just isn’t anything you can do as a Caucasian to not stick out. It also means that people make presumptions about you, one of the biggest being that you can’t speak Chinese. While at times this can be annoying (especially if you’re interacting with a kid who acts like he is shouldering a burden by “needing” to translate basic Chinese for you), there is one case where this default assumption rewarded me with an interesting experience. My fencing club is actually fairly close to the Bird’s Nest and so towards the end of our 5th or 6th week in Beijing I decided I actually wanted to go see it after finishing practice that day. Upon walking towards it I found that it was across a wide, multi-lane, divided highway from where I was standing. As it was getting late and I wanted the subway back I decided not to try to find a way around or across and instead satisfied myself with pictures.
(One of those pictures)
The nearest subway stop to where I was however wasn’t on the line I usually take back from fencing to Wudaokou (it was on line 8, the line I usually start on is line 10 http://www.5starbeijing.com/SubwayMapBig.jpg). I wanted to make sure then that I was going in the right direction and so asked the man standing on the platform next to me if that was the correct side to go towards 北土城 (Beitucheng) The man told me that it was the correct direction and then began asking me about where I was from, where and what was I studying, and how long was I in China for.
All of this was in Chinese and I was feeling very happy with my ability to stumble through some of the more hard to understand parts of his questioning. Some of the more subtle questions I was having difficulty answering when suddenly this other Chinese man helpfully walks up beside me listens in on my attempt at answering in Chinese before helpfully explaining to me what the first man’s question was in excellent English. My ability to say that I understand, I just don’t know the answer in Chinese impressed the second man enough to tell the first man that he thought my Chinese was pretty good. The second man began striking up a conversation with me asking the same usual questions about why I was studying in China and for how long, how long I had taken Chinese, etc. So engrossed was he in talking to me that he almost missed his subway train going in the opposite direction.
This isn’t the only conversation I’ve had with Chinese people on the subway but it stands out due to the man’s friendliness and helpfulness. Seeing that I was having difficulty with communicating in Chinese (which I was), he went out of his way to come over and help me. Part of it was probably curiosity, but compared to the normal impersonal crush of the subway it was cool to meet a kind, random stranger who was eager to help. I think the man’s excellent English however is what gave him the confidence to engage me in conversation, rather than just sit and stare at the exotic foreigner who can kind of speak Chinese. In general I think the presumption of my inability to speak Chinese creates self-imposed barriers on interaction by the Chinese people observing me, while my actual small capacity for conversation made for a much more meaningful and rewarding interaction with this man then it might have otherwise been if it had only been in English. Learning even just a little bit of a language then, really does open up doors and increase communication, not just by the actual words themselves, but also by breaking down the barriers blocking the desire to communicate in the first place.