Imagine for a moment that you own a small shoe store in a small city in France. In walks a man with a bulbous Gallic nose, normal-looking attire…in short: an entirely normal customer. You walk up and say: “Would you like to try something on?”
“I no French speaking,” he replies. “You speak Chinese can?”
That is what I imagine it is like to deal with me at the moment for most Chengdu sales associates. I have a couple of options when it comes to my current language skills (read: non-existent), in the city’s innumerable retail shops. I can:
a) Pretend that I know what the shopkeepers are saying, nodding my head and smiling, occasionally saying “hou” (“good/OK”);
b) Purposely evade their approach and act as if I’m grouchy or slightly insane; or
c) Upon hopeless questioning, admit to them that no, I do not speak Chinese, even though I look Chinese. And then, finally, ask: “Do you speak any English?”
More often than not, I find myself having to give in to the final option, upon which a huge smile invariably cracks the smiling young lady’s face and she dashes away, shouting something which I take to mean:
“Hey! Come! There’s a strange man here who says he doesn’t speak Chinese, even though he looks Chinese! Speak English to him!”
Moments later, another sweetly smiling young shop assistant strides up, beaming, hands laced behind her back.
“Hello!” she exclaims. Occasionally, I will receive a:
“Would you like to try something on?”
In an upscale urban clothing store, I tried to tell my designated English speaker that I was just looking.
“I am on-ly look-ing,” I said, enunciating each syllable precisely. “Not buying,” I explained. “Just look-ing.”
She peered at me for a second, then shook her head.
“Wo bu ting,” she giggled, meaning “I don’t understand”, before running off to giggle with her colleagues in embarrassment, only to reappear seconds later, speaking Chinese and pointing at certain shirts, though we both knew it was all floating over my head. They will persist with speaking Chinese to me, taxi drivers, waiters, retail assistants alike, in the vein hope that I will understand. He is Chinese: he has to understand! My phrase book will appear. Occasionally, we will make progress. But more often that not, at this early stage, communication is a game of hidden frustrations amidst frequent sign language.
Whilst buying a basketball in a sporting goods store near my hotel, I strike rare success. I speak just enough Putong Hua and she speaks just enough English for it to all make sense. After the purchase has been made, we smile with satisfaction.
“You aren’t from China, are you?” she says in Chinese.
“No, I was born in Australia but my parents are from Malaysia,” goes my standard response.
“Oh, your Chinese is very good!” she lies, ever so sweetly.