Dear White Expat Men That I Have Met in China,
Perhaps it is unfair of me to generalize. After all, not all of you are like this. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, and I’ve noticed you tend to bristle at being grouped with others based on shared race or nationality. (Interestingly, you’re quick to make sweeping generalizations about Asian people… especially when explaining Chinese people to me, a Chinese American woman. Funny how that works, isn’t it.)
Your Mandarin might be better than mine. I have met white men who could read, write, and speak Mandarin far better than I could. Perhaps you’re right, and I am just jealous of you. Still, I can’t help but feel that there are a few points that I should clarify.
First, my weakness in Mandarin is because I am a shitty language learner in general, not because I (as you once put it) must not care about my heritage. Surprisingly, nobody consistently invalidated my cultural identity when I failed to properly conjugate the plus-que-parfait in 11th-grade French. So perhaps you didn’t need to say how your superior spoken Mandarin proved that I was a bad Chinese person. Just some helpful food for thought!
Second, my family is third-generation Cantonese American, so assuming I would know Mandarin is rather geographically ignorant on your part. Also, given that my family has been in America for the better part of a century, it shouldn’t be surprising that we speak English in our household.
Thirdly, fuck you.
I’m sorry, that might have been a little rude. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, so please let me backtrack.
Yes, Mandarin is notoriously difficult. And yes, it’s impressive that you’ve studied this hard. That said, students are nothing without teachers, and much of your fluency should be credited to the unsettling number of Chinese women you dated. In your quest for bilingualism, you sought out women who spoke little to no English. (I pitied them because language barriers might obscure the truth that you were perceived as thoroughly mediocre to women from your home country!)
As your fluency improved, you came to the belated realization that Chinese people (and here I quote) “are humans like anybody else.” This epiphany taught you that Chinese people were capable of holding an entirely quotidian conversation in their native language. When you announced this to the world, I thought, “Shit! THE JIG IS UP. This white guy knows that we don’t all speak in cryptic fortune-cookie phrases in our free time. How are we supposed to advance the INSCRUTIBLE MYSTICISM OF THE ORIENT with this asshole joyfully eavesdropping when we’re talking about the great deals we got when grocery shopping?”
(I then thought about how you spent several years exclusively dating Chinese women, and wondered if you had seen them not as human, but rather as sexier alternatives to Duolingo.)
In the interests of inclusivity, I should also acknowledge that I met countless white men who could not read, write, or speak Mandarin at all, even though they lived in China for years. And if this is the case for you, please don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten about you. You and I might be on the shared journey of language acquisition together, but we are not the same.
As an ethnically Chinese person learning Mandarin later in life, I am subject to criticisms you’ll never face. When I fumble in my phrasing or pause too long in the middle of a sentence, I get told to try harder. When you throw out a flat “NIHAO” (你好, hello), you get showered in praises and sometimes asked to pose for a photograph.
Maybe you shuffle your feet in mock embarrassment. It’s possible that you even feel genuinely awkward as these strangers praise you — the laowai (老外, foreigner) who knows Chinese. After all, you’re such a humble guy, so sensitive! But it’s hard keeping newfound celebrity from going to your head, and you walked away cemented in the belief you were special for speaking Mandarin. (Although I hate to burst your bubble, I’d like to point out that it’s a language spoken by 16% of the world’s population, so you’re not exactly unique.)
Certainly, there are stereotypes about Asian women being meek, demure lotus flowers. So please don’t think that I’m trying to play into that and say that humility is an ingrained trait passed down from mother to daughter through generations of Confucian teaching. But, just maybe, Confucius could have been onto something with the whole “don’t be a self-aggrandizing dick” philosophy.
I really don’t want you to take this the wrong way — you probably thought you were being helpful. Who can blame you for your passion for sharing knowledge?
Even I recognize that your enthusiasm for teaching a subject you know so little about is quite… brave. Confucius also cared about education. Still, I never particularly appreciated your efforts to intervene in the middle of a conversation to correct my tones. Yes, my Mandarin is imperfect, and there’s room for growth. But I told you (several times, in fact) that your interruptions and air of casual condescension were remarkably rude.
(I swear, if I have to listen to another white guy wearing an embroidered dragon T-shirt explain some basic shit like: “Mandarin actually has four tones and the same word, pronounced different ways, can mean different things. Take mā (妈) and mǎ (马), for example. One means mother, but the other means horse!” I will stab chopsticks directly into my eyeballs.)
Anyway, I don’t expect a reply, but I hope this letter finds you well. I’m sure that you are aware that we have just begun the Year of the Ox. Happy (belated) Lunar New Year! It is traditional to wish good health to others, and for this reason I hope that you are quickly cured of your unrelenting case of Yellow Fever.
All the best,