I arrived at my birthday party a little late – taxis can be hard to find on Friday night. However, nearly all my colleagues and coworkers were there. (“I will be there on time,” they had all said to me, which I had suspected was a standard euphemism, but it turns out they had all meant it.)
When I got there, though, a few of my “foreign friends” – Thai, Indian, Malaysian Chinese – were hanging out outside, smoking. Some of them spoke Chinese, some of them didn’t. They quickly acquired a bottle of whisky.
One of my colleagues walked by and I introduced her around. “Out here is the English Corner,” I joked. “How come you don’t speak Chinese?” she asked, smiling – a fair and unfair question.
“How chuuuu!” replied one of my friends. (That’s how he says hao chi, “delicious.”). Grasping the situation, my coworker smiled and strolled away. She does speak English quite well, but maybe she didn’t have the heart for this kind of mangling of Chinese.
Eventually the group made a large circle, and I straddled the invisible line between my two groups of friends. It wasn’t about racial lines because plenty of my “English-speaking” group of friends are ethnically Chinese. It was that half the group was comfortable in English, the other half wasn’t.
My Chinese colleagues, but for a few that are truly fluent in English, often preface interactions by saying, “My English is poor.” This is a face-saving device, but they then can go on a long (and fluent) explanation of why their English is poor.
By this time, you’re often thinking — while you were giving me a perfectly grammatical explanation of why your English is so bad, we could have been having a real conversation! Their embarassment with English makes us both feel more comfortable in Chinese.
I, and my friends who are learning Chinese, have the opposite approach. “I can speak Chinese!” we proclaim, mangling our tones and pronunciation. I tend to have people thinking I’m fluent in the language, until that inevitable moment when I mix up “towel” with “scarf,” or “rice porridge” with “Jay Chou”. That’s when I start my apologetic rant. Sometimes people spare my feelings – sometimes they don’t.
Fortunately, that night, everyone’s happiness, the friendly atmosphere of the bar, a few people’s willingness to move between languages – made the evening an absolutely lovely one. Everyone had a great time, ate cake, sang “Happy Birthday” in two languages…it was a fabulous 23rd.
At one point, my younger colleagues were talking about the boys in attendance. A blond guy I didn’t know showed up, and they thought he was cute. To me he was average-looking but blond hair holds a deep fascination for both my current and former roommates. (Both my ex-roommates expressed a deep desire to meet and marry a Northern European).
“Very cute, but not tall enough,” they judged.
I tried to do one of my male friends a favour. He was sitting next to the blond guy – he’s single, Indian, and very, very handsome. “Hey,” I said to a few of my young colleagues, “that guy is single. Do you think he’s cute?”
“Nah, I don’t like Indians,” they all said. “We like the blond guy.” Happily, they softened after my friend generously bought a round of drinks.
It brought me back to how earlier, at dinner, my friend was telling me, “I just don’t like Chinese guys that much. They’re not very tall or muscular…I just don’t go for that type.” I pointed out that there were plenty of Chinese guys in that very restaurant that were tall and muscular, but it didn’t seem to take.
Happily, that very night she got a little crush on one of my Chinese coworkers, a gregarious guy with a broad Australian accent from his study abroad.
I liked seeing all our mental barriers opening up a notch.