Aug 25, 2006


The other day I needed to get a greasy junk food chicken fix to supplement the greasy Chinese food that's part of daily life here. I hit the local KFC for a late dinner and saw that the seating area was packed as usual. As I wandered around the dining area holding my tray of oily fried chicken parts, I scanned for empty tables, counterspace, and even looked for any twosomes sitting at a four-person table that I could share with. There was nothing available except an empty seat at a table already occupied by a middle-aged, manbag-carrying Chinese man chewing with his mouth open, and making loud smacking and sucking sounds as he devoured his meal. I would rather stand than sit and share a table with this man, I decided.

I continued to search for a place to sit for another two or three minutes, and eventually one of the table-cleaning ladies approached me and helped me look. During our conversation, a 20-something girl had apparently overheard us. She had just finished eating dinner with her boyfriend, and was gathering her belongings to leave. I continued to speak with the table-cleaning lady, so the girl and her boyfriend were still to my back.

From behind me, I heard the girl's voice shouting at me, "缺心眼儿缺心眼儿!"

Truth be told, I can act like an inconsiderate SOB, but in this case I hadn't done anything worthy of this scolding. I was simply looking for a place to sit.

Not one to take an insult lying down, I turned around and looked at the girl, with whom I previously had not interacted at all.

"你是不是刚才叫我缺心眼儿?" (Did you just call me quē xīn yǎnr?, I asked in a calm, non-threatening way.

[Girl: stares with a puzzled look.]

I repeated the question another time.

[Girl: still staring with the same puzzled look. Finally: processing... processing. Ahh! Realization!]

"你可以坐这儿吧." (You can sit here.), she said politely.

"哦,谢谢"(Thanks), I answered.

After that, I quickly figured it out. Originally she wasn't saying "quē xīn yǎnr! quē xīn yǎnr!" She was saying, in English, "You sit here! You sit here!", but it sounded like Chinese coming out of her mouth due to the accent and sharp tone of voice, not to mention lack of a modal verb (in this case "can" would have done nicely). Hearing her words, which I thought were Chinese, the listening comprehension part of my brain context-switched to Chinese mode, and so I parsed her phrase in Mandarin. I think that the similarity between "quē xīn yǎnr" and "you sit here" results from the fact that they are both composed of three one-sylable words, and the last syllable ends with a strong r sound.

The point of this anecdote, I suppose, is that if you speak English with a heavy accent, make sure you include those rascally modal verbs, otherwise I'm not going to be able to understand you. I realize you're itchin' to show off your superb English to your boyfriend, and I'd be willing to humor you if you're a cute young gal, but I just gotta have my modals.


Blogger Edwin said...

dude... you're horrible. that was a kind offering from her but you just turn around to point out and speculate all her possible bad intentions and accent...

come to think of it, when is the last time you saw someone in the US try to help immigrants out by speaking their languages...

12:36 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Dude, don't read to much into this anecdote, it's just a glimpse into some of the societal prejudices that one can encounter as a foreigner living in China. If this particular girl would have been consistent and just spoke Mandarin to everyone regardless, it would have averted the whole scenario. By bursting out into English immediately upon seeing a Caucasian face, this person fostered a weird situation that, not being able to immediately understand her, I think I handled relatively tactfully.

Also, here's one example of an American helping out immigrants, specifically Cantonese and Mandarin speaking Chinese in the Bay Area.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Edwin said...

hm... i know what you mean. but for a country where its Caucasian population is such a small percentage, it's not wrong for them to assume a Caucasian doesn't speak mandarin. afterall, how many Caucasian that visit China each year can actually speak mandarin.... I guess your insisting of speaking mandarin to them is already sending a message to them that "foreigners" might spreak mandarin too...

11:43 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home