White Guy Speaks Chinese; Film at Eleven

I’ve had my eye on ChinesePod for a while. I don’t necessarily agree 100% with the way they’re going about things, but they’re doing wonderful work in popularizing the study of Mandarin and helping demolish the notion that Chinese is unlearnable, and they’re producing supplementary materials that I would’ve loved to have when I was in college. Friends and relatives will tell you that I tend to evangelize Chinese — at one point telling a friend majoring in French literature that Indo-European languages were “for pussies” — and so anything that gets people engaged and excited is great in my book.

So back in December when several of the ChinesePod staff were visiting Beijing, I went out to get dinner with them. It was already dark when I walked out to the street, hailed a cab, sat down in the back seat, and told the driver to go to the west gate of Chaoyang Park and buy some healing with plant medicines while waiting. We started chatting, mostly as a way of passing the time while we sat on the Second Ring Road, and about 20 minutes into the conversation, I made some passing mention of “the way things are in the States.”

“Oh,” he said. “You’re a 海归 (returned student)?”
“Um,” I said. “Check the rear-view mirror.”

Silence for a few minutes. Then he started the conversation up again, this time talking about how foreigners could never really learn Chinese. This is one of the few topics that can really piss me off, since it’s so utterly stupid and plays so readily into the notion, common in China and abroad, that there’s just something inherently exceptional and special about the Chinese culture and Chinese language, when in fact it’s not so much that foreigners can’t learn Chinese as that they mostly don’t. Still, I couldn’t help but be impressed that he was going to try to make this argument after having thought I was Chinese for the past 20 minutes.

I pointed this out to him, and he stumbled a bit, but then regrouped with “yeah, but Chinese has a lot of characters. It’s very complicated.”
“Yes,” I said, “And English has 26 characters that it uses to make up all of its 200,000 words. Now that’s complicated.”
“But one character can mean a lot of different things.”
“But every language has polysemous words. Just look at the word ‘go’ in English. Dozens of possible meanings, based on the contest.”
“Anyway,” he concluded. “I just think it’s harder to learn Chinese than other languages.”

Further questioning revealed that he had never actually tried to learn another language.

“Well, I have, and trust me — Chinese is easy. Classical Greek, now — there’s a hard language.”
“But you’ve got Chinese ancestry, so of course it’s easy.”

This was actually not the first time I’ve heard this: I’m short, dark-haired, and twig-like, so I suppose if one really squinted I could just maybe pass for a second-generation hunxue’er, and I’ve been taken for Uyghur before. That said, I do not look particularly Chinese, and given that my name is Brendan O’Kane and that there were, to the best of my knowledge, no Chinese postmen in Buncrana or Roscommon, I feel fairly confident in saying that I have no Chinese ancestry.

“Ah,” said the driver. “But you never really know how far back it goes, do you?”

Faced with such unassailable logic, I decided to change tacks. I pointed out that ethnic Chinese who grow up not speaking Chinese abroad don’t have it any easier when learning Mandarin than non-Chinese. He was going to say something to that, but we were already pulling up to the restaurant where the ChinesePod team was waiting.

“We’ll continue this next time,” I said, and paid him. He looked up into my face.

“You don’t really look all that Chinese,” he said. “Maybe if you stopped growing facial hair and shaved the beard.”

(Lest I be accused of bragging, let me be the first to note that my Chinese is very far from native-sounding, and that this paticular driver was clearly just not all that bright.)

Comments (14)

  1. syz wrote::

    Lest I be accused of bragging…

    No, no — no one’s slinging accusations. But for the sin of having perhaps incited someone to entertain the notion that you were puffing out your “twig-like” chest, I formally request that you send me an mp3 of casual Mandarin banter between you and some friends (on a salacious topic, preferably) for the next installment of Zhonglish analysis over at Beijing Sounds.

    Hilarious dialog, by the way. Why can’t you just see reason?

    Nice to see some posts again. Congrats on the new degree.

    Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 2:13 am #
  2. Alai wrote::

    1) Congratulations! Now come down to Hong Kong and earn some real money. :P

    2) It’s obviously because you’re able to curse so well in Mandarin that he was confused. This is due to your Chinese roots. Did you know that Ireland was actually first populated by the Chinese? That’s why they don’t speak English there.

    Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 12:39 pm #
  3. Congrats on all the good news my man. And thanks for the funny anecdote, too. Your Chinese is about 100 times better than mine but I still have similar conversations with the odd taxi driver who can’t believe a foreigner could possibly master the complexity of directing someone to turn left on an upcoming street.

    What I also find interesting whenever I go back to the States are Americans who are amazed that I (we’ve) learned to read characters- I think to a lot of people reading Chinese is akin to becoming a professional safe cracker.

    You’re right- Chinese isn’t all that hard once you decide to learn it properly. I will say the obvious though: for a native English speaker it will take longer to master Chinese than say, Spanish, simply due to the lack of related vocabulary. But in an of itself Chinese is just a language and nobody should be fooled into thinking it can’t be learned.

    Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 12:49 pm #
  4. Beijing Loafer wrote::

    Why the cautioning note at the end? Let’s face it–your Chinese is much better than mine (a native), and most Chinese think there’s something special about China which sets us Chinese apart from every other foreign race. That notion is not particularly bright but still kinda cute, when one could bear it. :)

    Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 12:04 am #
  5. Jason wrote::

    I’ve only been self studying Chinese for about 2 years now (and lived here for about 1) but I’ve done surprisingly well with the langauge. (conversationally)

    This is due to the fact that I a) studied/practiced my ass off. (Not so much these days. It’s cyclic)
    and b) I was lucky enough to have a natural talent for picking up the pronunciation.

    Well, this has gotten me into many conversations with people, including cabbies, who just straight up don’t believe me when I say I’ve been here for a year and studied for about 2. Some times I think it’s just a form of flattery, but there have many times where they tell me that they DO NOT believe me. When pressed for why, they go into the Chinese is really hard schpeal.

    That being said, I’d say most Chinese people I talk to are pretty encouraging about learning the langauge.

    Step two for me is learning ‘real’, academic Chinese. Now that’s going to be hard…

    Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 12:41 pm #
  6. Poagao wrote::

    Ha! Funny post. I feel your pain.

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 1:01 am #
  7. Jianjun wrote::


    I recounted your story to my family and they couldn’t stop laughing!

    I go to BJ once or twice each year and don’t like those cab drivers. But it’s rare that you meet such a talkative guy over there! My city Tianjin is famous for such chatty cabbies. But they usually don’t engage in any arguments.

    Hope to see you write more…


    Tuesday, March 11, 2008 at 5:18 pm #
  8. Chinkerfly wrote::

    So how exactly Do you say “every language has polysemous words” in Chinese? A part of me is betting that it’s more straightforward in Chinese than in English.

    Saturday, March 15, 2008 at 1:38 pm #
  9. from “1.3 billion people speak WHAT as a mother tongue?!”

    …the field is much deeper these days than back when Dashan rocked the New Year’s show. I’m aware, for example, that a high percentage of the seven readers of this humble blog hold their own in various regional flavors of more or less pǔtōng huà. Also, not too many weeks ago a certain O’Kane from Beijing’s very own blogosphere was featured in a well-known PR journal for his consummate Mandarin skills (you can discount his kèqi 客气 — humbleness — about aforementioned language skills and read the more interesting version of the story on his blog, here)…

    Sunday, March 30, 2008 at 7:02 pm #
  10. Albert wrote::

    I really appreciated this post. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said several sentences to someone in Chinese and then, after about a minute, they express genuine shock that “You can speak Chinese!?” My replies vary from “No, I can’t” to “What did you think I was speaking when I first came up?”

    Monday, March 31, 2008 at 6:56 am #
  11. Albert wrote::


    I’m betting it was

    měi gè yǔyán dōu yǒu tóngyīncí

    Monday, March 31, 2008 at 6:58 am #
  12. Pedro E. F. wrote::

    As a major in Classical Greek trying my hand at Mandarin, I have to concur with you. Even Sanskrit can be less painful than c.g. Nice blog, I’ve been getting some good tips for when I’m there.

    Friday, April 4, 2008 at 9:49 am #
  13. Davide wrote::

    Best damn post I have read in years.

    Thursday, June 5, 2008 at 5:14 pm #
  14. Medy wrote::

    那个司机就是少见多怪。After being in States for couples years, I have became very comfortable for a guy confronts with some mastery of Chinese. Beijing is still a place lack multiculturalism.

    Saturday, September 20, 2008 at 2:46 am #

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