Learning a Language People Already Assume You Know


A year ago, I embarked on my scariest adventure yet, learning Chinese. Shout out to childhood me, refusing to go to Chinese school and trying to fit in by distancing myself from my family’s mother tongue – congratulations, you played yourself. After being one of two Chinese people my entire school life, it took starting university, meeting other BBCs (British Born Chinese) and a year-long exchange in Hong Kong to make me more confident in my Chinese identity.

At home, our main language is Cantonese, with some family members also being fluent in Mandarin. In Hong Kong, I took a semesters worth of Canto classes to try and strengthen these roots and after graduating, decided it’s probably in my best interests to hitch a ride on China as an emerging superpower. Cue taking a scholarship to learn Mandarin – in Taiwan, I wasn’t ready to give up my internet freedom just yet. While beginners to Mandarin are grappling with tones, here’s the struggles I found as an overseas Chinese learning Chinese:

  • 不好意思,我不是台灣人!Sorry, I’m not Taiwanese!

    Hey, sorry, I’m not Taiwanese. In the beginning, it was super overwhelming, kinda intimidating, for people to start spewing an onslaught of rapid Mandarin at me. Please, I only know a few words, send help! But when your classmates are complaining about locals refusing to switch to Chinese, you’ll be glad for the extra practice. What you’ll never be glad for? Always getting handed flyers, being constantly pitched to for World Gym and wrangled into filling out random street questionnaires.

  • 我來這裡學中文。I came here to study Chinese.

    White person: “hello” Locals: “WOW, YOUR CHINESE IS AMAZING!” Sometimes ya girl just wants some undeserved and over-the-top praise too y’know… Strangers will never hit you with the, ‘dang your Chinese is great!’ straight off the bat, you’ll need to work harder for approval because expectations are higher. So here’s one for the ABCs, BBCs, etc., currently learning Chinese out there: 哇,你的中文很棒!

Checking the bible that is Pleco.
  • 我也是外國人。I’m also a foreigner.

    Be prepared to confuse a whole bunch of people and shoulder a little judgement. Practice is the key to improvement, but in my first semester of learning Chinese, attempting to practice outside the classroom was anxiety-inducing. I’ve always felt it was easier for foreigners to go crashing into conversations with incorrect grammar and not-quite-there pronunciation because, well, they’re obviously language learners. People are appreciative that you’re taking the time to learn their language, but when you already look local, fluency is expected and ineptitude is jarring.

  • 對不起。Sorry!

    Comparison is never quite healthy, but there’s a sense of guilt when a non-Chinese person speaks better Mandarin than me. I mean, it’s in my DNA right, shouldn’t it be hardwired into my brain? Maybe it comes from a childhood of being pitted against other children or natural competitive edge, but when someone strolls in with perfect Chinese, I can’t help but feel like I’m letting the side down a little.

It’s been just over a year and although I’m no longer taking classes, I’m still learning – Mandarin is a journey and a half. Here’s the good stuff – picking up a new language is always incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. But when your family speaks the language, this feeling is amplified on a whole other level. Reconnecting with Chinese meant reconnecting with family members less fluent in English. From fun banter to holding your own in arguments, you open up a whole new world of relationships with people you’ve known throughout your life. So, to all the family I knew before; 很高興認識你們.

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