The face fits

Yesterday I was talking to a former colleague who grew up in the UK speaking Cantonese and English and whose family comes from Hong Kong. He told me that when he meets Mandarin-speaking Chinese people, they tend to assume from his appearance he will understand them when they speak to him in Mandarin. He doesn’t. Sometimes Japanese people assume he’s Japanese as well.

I’ve seen similar situations in Taiwan and China involving Overseas Chinese who don’t speak Mandarin, or only speak it a little bit, being talked at in Mandarin by people who find it hard to accept that people who look Chinese don’t understand or speak Mandarin. At the same time, it can sometimes be difficult for Chinese people to accept that a Westerner such as myself can speak Mandarin.

Have you had experiences like this with Mandarin or other languages?

This entry was posted in Chinese, Language.

0 Responses to The face fits

  1. Ryan says:

    I think that sometimes am mistaken for a Brazilian not so much because I have flawless Portuguese but because Brazilians rarely come across Americans who speak their language fluently. Plus, spoken Portuguese varies so much from place to place and Brazil is such a melting pot that there are a wide variety of accents associated with people from pretty much every race. They know that I’m not local and probably assume that I’m from another part of Brazil.

    I had a friend in Chile who constantly confused people. His parents had been born in Mexico but raised in the USA so they fit the typical profile of Chicanos speaking Spanglish at home and English everywhere else. Consequently, my friend was not raised speaking Spanish but looks VERY Mexican. Seeing his appearance, the Chileans assumed that he was Latin and probably one of them but the poor guy spoke with a very noticeable “Gringo” accent.

  2. Joanna says:

    My dad is ethnic Chinese but doesn’t know Mandarin (or not much, anyway). He has lived all his life in the U.S. When he traveled to China he felt very uncomfortable and foolish because everyone thought he should know Chinese but he just didn’t.

  3. Petruza says:

    About the confusion of Japanese when they run into a Chinese, that sounds strange to me, as I can tell apart Japanese, Chinese and Korean, with some flaws, but I think they must know very well the differences.

    Note: By Chinese I mean also from Taiwan and Hong-Kong also, as I can’t tell them apart.

  4. AR says:

    My Vietnamese-Chinese friend took Korean Air to Vietnam and his Chinese trilingual (Vietnamese, Cantonese and Mandarin) grandmother constantly talked to the air hostesses in Mandarin assuming that they were Chinese. My friend had to translate to the air hostesses into English so they could understand.

    Assuming that people can speak a language based on how they look seems to be quite common. I live in the US and and half-Indian (Bengali) but all the Indians nearby are Gujarati. At school, some will come up to me assuming I am Gujarati and say, “Kem Cho?” and talk in their language which I do not understand!

  5. Patty says:

    Beeing a mexican who has lived mostly all her life in Mexico, I find really stupid when I get to the States and I find latino looking people who can’t speak spanish. They TOTALLY look like mexicans and they even have the mexican name and family name, but they tell you “No Spanish!”. But that can be somehow acceptable, but for most of the latinos not raise in the USA, it is really annoying when the “pochos” (or “chicanos”) star speaking Spanglish. That’s like a total mess. Speak one or the other one but don’t mix them!!

  6. doviende says:

    I went to china for 7 months to take chinese classes at a university, and one of the students i went with was of chinese descent, but was born in Canada. He spoke cantonese at home with his parents, but was just learning mandarin in classes along with me and some other canadians.

    In our international dorm at the university, the security guard at the door would actually block him from entering sometimes, because he thought my friend was not an international student. the guard would start speaking super fast in mandarin, but it would quickly become apparent that my friend didn’t know what was going on and had a foreign accent when speaking.

    For me, the situation was opposite. I’m a redhead, so it takes me a week of suntanning to get white, and i stuck out like a sore thumb in china. it was rather amusing that everyone assumed i didn’t speak any chinese (which is the case for a majority of white foreigners in china).

    One of the more amusing situations was when i was walking through a store in Shanghai, and one of the store staff said to her friend “hey, check out that foreigner, his hair’s so beautiful!”, so i turned around and smiled and thanked her. much embarrassed giggling ensued. 😉

  7. Yitzhakofeir says:

    I experienced this once in America… I was born in Lebanon, but raised in Canada, so I speak fluent English. But once when I was in Texas I was pulled over. When the cop looked he didn’t even stop to ask if I spoke English, he just got on his radio and asked for Spanish speaking officer, assuming I was Mexican.

  8. Peter says:

    I (a white Anglo) once had the experience of asking a railway station worker in Tokyo in quite fluent Japanese (which I have been speaking for 30 years) where to catch a particular train only to have him look me straight in the face and respond “Solly, I no speak Ingrish”. Wrong face for Japanese, you see.

  9. James says:

    You mayhave heard me say before that Chilean spanish almost counts as a separate language form the rest of the spanish speaking world 😉 I have a Bolivian student who, like me, at times simply cannot understand a word they are saying. He told me it´s harder for him as people expect him to understand becaue of his skin colour.

    People´s perception of accent and even what language you can speak depend to quite a large extent on non-linguistic factors.

  10. Peter J. Franke says:

    Although I’m a dutch nationality I look meditarenean with the exception of my lenth: I’m 1.90 mtr. In arab speaking countries I’ve been classified as a Libanese several times, also by my Arab accent. While I’ve never been there and have ni idea how the speak. When I’m in India I dress and behave myselve as a sardar (sikh) to avoid all the questions foreigners usually have to deal with. I don’t speak Punjabi and Hindi fluently, but I just know enough phrases to keep the show going on. It’s not only a verbal matter, acting plays an important part in it. In Latin Anerica UI’m sometimes classified as a Cuban. Mainly because of my beard I suppose cause my accent is more Venezuelan or Columbian. That’s what they say, at least… In the Netherlands immigrants don’t believe I’m Dutch. (but in fact I’m double D….)

  11. Provi says:

    I haven’t had this experience with a language, but I have with culture. I once talked to a Chinese man, and I suppose to people outside America, anything goes with conversation, or they think that we have such a casual culture, you can say or speak of anything scoailly, so he casually asked me if I’ve ever had sex yet.

    I guess American culture itself is sometimes mistaken.

  12. Ben says:

    I’m half Chinese, half English, but I don’t speak any Cantonese (the language of my father). However, I do speak Arabic. Whenever I am speaking Arabic, people always assume I am an Arab, and whenever they hear I am partially Chinese, especially if they’re Chinese, they assume I speak Cantonese. Strange.

  13. I’ve had this experience when I speak Spanish. I am American, but I have a very European/Dutch appearance (except short)…I don’t really look like the typical British-descended American. I also have trouble understanding many Latin American accents even though my Spanish is pretty decent. So, people seem to conclude that with my Spanish skills (and confusion with Latin American Spanish) and continental European appearance, I must be a Spaniard.

  14. TJ says:

    Well, sometimes not only the face the makes the difference, but also the habits of one person.

    I remember in the beginning of my studies in college, one of my teachers was a bangali, and he got his Msc and Phd from UK anyway. People here in the day of Ashurah don’t have an official holiday but, they just skip lectures or tend to have a break from work. For me at that time I was involved much in the lectures that in the day of Ashurah I couldn’t really sacrifice my attendance record because of it. Thus when the teacher saw me, he wondered and said “everyone is not coming because it’s Ashurah…are you american?” Maybe the direct choice of being american is the accent and the skin, I don’t know. Then when I answered with “no” he said “then one of your parents is american? or you are from Lebanon and the neighbors?” I answered with No as well and told him simply im a kuwaiti. He wondered then and said: never saw a kuwaiti guy with a bag full of books going around college at the day of Ashurah before, you are strange.

    now, though almost 8 years passed since that incident, I still ask myself, am I really strange??????

  15. My friend is a through-and-through white girl: 5’10, blue eyes, brunette. She was born in Panama and learned Spanish as her first language, then moved to SoCal and worked at a taco restaurant for a little while.

    The Hispanics that came into the restaurant frequently spoke among themselves in Spanish, many times complaining about the service or their food right in front of her, assuming she didn’t speak the language.

    After she brought the check she’d leave them with a cordial “Que tengan un buen dia” with a perfect accent, and their jaws would drop.

  16. jdotjdot89 says:

    I have an interesting experience myself, with Hebrew. First, when I speak Hebrew for the first time to a native speaker, they often assume that I don’t actually speak Hebrew and only know a couple of words. This always suprises me, because I speak with a perfect accent (though tainted with Russian for some weird reason, as I don’t speak Russian) and my sentences are far beyond those of someone who doesn’t really know the language, yet they still always assume I don’t really know what I’m saying. Even more interesting is how people tell me I look Israeli after they know I speak Hebrew. Even though I am not Israeli; they didn’t think I looked Israeli before I spoke Hebrew; and they know I’m not Israeli; somehow, they suddenly realize that I do “look pretty Israeli.”

    Anyone else have that kind of experience?

  17. TJ says:

    jdotjdot89: In fact, here, some people thought I’m an Israeli even though I’m speaking arabic with them all the time. I do know some hebrew words but after all, I don’t use the languages. One note from a friend: when you wear all black, you look much like an Israeli (or an Israelite even, there is a difference between the two you know). When I asked him about the reason he said that the face tells it all.

    I know that today’s hebrew is not the one used to be spoken before and now there are I think 2 major dialects. Maybe if you tried to make your accent more sephardic or Mizrachi-like (major eastern dialects I think) it would be more convincing for them?

  18. JREL says:

    This is interesting. There’s a lot of talk in Singapore about the promotion of Mandarin and how ethnically Chinese Singaporeans should know it, because it’s their culture, their heritage, their real self and so forth. This thinking is even ingrained with a lot of young Singaporeans, who only speak English fluently, and struggle with their Mandarin — they are sometimes called traitors to their culture (despite the fact that most would have a non-Mandarin variety as their real heritage).
    The problem has perhaps something to do with the Malay Singaporeans, who all speak Malay (in addition to any English) and have a much more pronounced cultural identity. Presumably the Chinese feel they need something similar — even though theirs is pretty much the default case in a country where they represent more than 3/4 of the population.
    So yes, appearance does play a role there, and if you’re Chinese and don’t understand Mandarin you might get some comments, but the default language of communication is still English, so it’s less of a problem, I guess.

  19. Evans says:

    living in los angeles, hispanic people are always shocked when i speak spanish. a lot of the time, i try not to, because some people get offended, and think you only assumed they didn’t speak english. I just feel that odds are, if my spanish is better than their english, it’s easier to use that one.

    the same things happened with my friends parents when i first started learning hindi, but now they just think it’s cute. especially because i speak better hindi than their kids.

  20. Damon Lord says:

    My other half (Filipina) and myself (white, Welsh) were in Germany a few years ago visiting a museum. I speak German, my other half doesn’t, so I asked in German about the English language tours. They explained to me in English that there were no more English tours that day, but if we came back early tomorrow, there’d be a tour in Chinese. We obviously had not mentioned Chinese at any point, and they seemed confused when I reiterated in German that I wanted to know when were the tours in English the next day, as I spoke some Chinese but my girlfriend didn’t?

    In the end, about an hour later, we had an Italian tour guide (whose third language was German) give us the tour in German, whilst I simultaneously translated into English for my other half. At one point the tour guide couldn’t remember the German for a certain word (don’t remember what it was exactly now) but the Italian word was quite close to its English cognate, so I ended up translating a few words direct from Italian.

  21. Polly says:

    When I was a teen on vacation with my parents in Mexico, the people there would speak to me in Spanish. I guess I looked Mexican or at least Hispanic. Unfortunately, I didn’t really know any Spanish at the time.

    When in Italy, everyone automatically spoke to my wife and me in English even when I tried to use Italian or before I even said a word. I don’t know if it’s just because English is the default tourist language or if it was the result of assumptions.

    When I go to Russian markets in Hollywood, some assume I’m Russian when I speak just a few words of Russian. Weird, because I don’t think I “look” Russian. Maybe it’s because they can’t imagine anyone else wanting to learn it.

  22. rek says:

    I had the exact opposite thing happen to me last week. I speak a little Korean, but I’m a 6’3″ white guy and this is Toronto. I was at the LCBO and this elderly Korean woman (who clearly spoke some English later) asked me for help finding a bottle of whiskey — all in Korean. I don’t know why she didn’t try in English first, or why she didn’t try her Korean slowly, but she just acted like I must speak Korean.

  23. Ulashima says:

    I’m Turkish and my appearance is not too foreign. A black-haired, light brownish skinned, brown-eyed, short male…and I have a big belly jokingly called as “Turkish muscle”. Yet, in my native country I’m mistaken as a foreigner. Somebody thought I was an Afghan, one thought Pakistani, one thought Hispanic. And I did have similar appereance wiht those guys (and girls)…strange isn’t it? There are other episodes too, one is by my friend who is a tour guide. One of his tour guide friends was guiding a South American couple. The Turkish guide guy was a tall blond with sunglasses and the South American couple, let’s say they looked as the “Hispanic Stereotype”. The shopkeepers takled to the guide in English (and German, and Dutch, and Swedish….with the touristic shopkeeper’s vocabulary of course) and tried to talk with the real tourists in Turkish.

    A friend of mine, whose husband lives in Beijing, China lived with him at that time. She’d grasped Mandarin relatively good enough to get around…but nobody spoke to her. On one occasion, she took a taxi wearing a baseball cap that hides her eyes and blonde hair, spoke in Mandarin, chatted with the driver on the road…and when she took off her cap…and the Chinese driver was so surprised, but he stopped talking immediately…even though he already knew that she could speak Mandarin. My funniest episode on nationality mistake was with an old Japanese guy asking me if I come from Nigeria! Probably the guy took his shot guessing a faraway vountry…but wrong continent!

  24. James says:

    It´s a rather sobering truth that I realised after about a year living in Chile, that people´s opinions of where you come from are mostly about them, their expectations and their own experience. People who are well travelled and speak other languages tend not to guess to wildly.

    I have been told that I sound : Mexican, Guatemalan, Colombian, Venezuelan, Panamanian, Peruvian, Ecuadorian and Bolivian, Brazilian and French when I speak Spanish. French when I speak French, French, German and Austrian when I speak German.

    I have been told I look (or could pass for): Mexican, Guatemalan, Spanish, French, German, American, Brazilian, Colombian, Polish, or English (in all cases by people from those countries).

    But MOST of this is all about *them*. I no longer feel so flattered by this sort of thing. What I *do* like is when speaking to strangers and they ask me where I am from and I say England and they say “You speak Spanish really well” (in the tone of voice and body language which says: I wasn´t expecting *that*)

  25. James says:

    “too wildly”

    Sorry… spanish has wrecked my speling 😉

  26. Kerry says:

    I’m Chinese, and I speak Cantonese because I’m from Hong Kong.

    I can understand Mandarin, but I don’t speak it very well. Other Chinese people sometimes speak Mandarin to me because I look Chinese and so they assume that I speak Mandarin.

    (This was a problem when I was teaching at the Asylum Seekers Centre. (This is volunteer work.) One time, there were students who only understood Mandarin. On that day, I was actually the only volunteer who at least understood enough to know what the students were saying. I ended up having to write out what I couldn’t say.)

  27. Ananda says:

    I have a friend who is Brazilian with both parents being Japanese. She doesn’t speak Japanese. In Brazil, especially São Paulo, it is very common to find people who look very Japanese and don’t speak it (2nd-3rd generation), due to massive immigration a couple of generations ago, so in there most people don’t assume she speaks Japanese… but overseas (I’ve hung out with her in
    Australia and the US), she surely gets Japanese speaking to her from time to time… we also get Americans very surprised that she is Brazilian.

  28. Alex says:

    I’m a white guy, dirty blond hair, hazel eyes — definitely not stereotypically east asian. When I first started learning Japanese, people would speak to me slowly and act as if it was cute that I was attempting to learn their language. In Japan, a few curious Japanese people approached me and immediately started talking to me in English.

    Several years later, I speak pretty good Japanese…but the catch according to my Japanese friends is that I apparently no longer have any English/foreign accent when speaking. I also recently bleached my hair completely blond and I look sort of like a punk. Don’t know if it’s my language improvement or the hair dye, but all of a sudden Japanese people have been asking me (or even assuming) that I’m “half” — half-Japanese — once I start talking.

  29. Ahwei says:

    We tend to associate language with a certain identity or look, so it is still surprising for many people when someone outside a racial supercluster is fluent in a language which isn’t related to the said race. The image just doesn’t seem to fit for some people. I have to admit, I found it a bit odd the first time I saw the Canadian “Da Shan” performing on Chinese TV.

    My grandfather on my mother’s side was half Cantonese; naturally, I don’t speak it even half-decently. However, in Hong Kong, people assumed that I was local and spoke to me in Cantonese. I have had a similar experience with Malay, as I tan easily and could easily resemble a Malaysian during the summertime. The strangest, though, was an Italian-American who assumed I was an Italian from Italy because of the way I dressed (I don’t think I look Italian at all).

    I also speak English, Spanish, and a bit of Turkish. Few people expect the last one. The former is not surprising, as English is an international language. However, when I was at a Turkish gathering a year or two back, people were quite suprised with that, and immediately assumed I was of Central Asian descent.

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