“You’re not Chinese, are you?” asked the girl on the other end of the line in Chinese.
I was calling Shanghai’s urban planning center for a journalism project, and I couldn’t even get the basic questions right. Even giving them my email address gave away my true identity: e.g. at gmail dot com or at gmail dian com (“Dian” is the Chinese word for “dot.”).
“No, I’m not Chinese,” I said ruefully.
“Then you can speak English,” replied the girl, who said her name was Apple. She then switched smoothly to an English more fluent than my Mandarin.
I was frustrated at not being able to express myself well enough in Mandarin, but explaining my question in English was so much easier. A mental block seemed to have disappeared.
Speaking with Chinese friends in Mandarin is not a major problem because I can explain myself in a roundabout way to them. But I get nervous interviewing Chinese strangers and certainly can’t try explaining questions to every interviewee. I have trouble enough phrasing questions in English, not to mention Chinese.
For someone who has struggled to improve the clarity, spoken volume and tact of her English questions, interviewing someone in Chinese makes that experience seem worthless. It’s as if I don’t even know how to speak, much less be a journalist. Like the main character in the movie “Shanghai Calling” says, having to think about every little thing is tiring and distracting.
I must start over.
So did our Asian parents. How often do we secretly or publicly tease them for their accented speech, their different cultural understanding, or their faulty grammar. Yet we have depended on them for providing a home, food, daily necessities, and educational support, if not pressure to succeed. Pursuing a career in a foreign country is not easy. So many of our parents gave up high positions in Asia to raise us in America. Whether or not that was a good decision is another question, but now I understand how difficult it was to become fully operational and successful in a foreign country. So many terms, from paper clips to the bull market must be relearned; one feels almost like a kindergartner learning about society for the first time.
To mature into an adult in this environment will be next.