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. 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 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.)