Tuesday, April 26, 2005

"Use it, don't lose it!"

I am flaming jealous of the people here who can switch back and forth from English to Chinese without batting an eye, even within in a sentence. What is more baffling is how they know who to speak Chinese to and who not. Now me, blazing white girl, it's obvious, although I can be deceptive and whip out some hua yu when I need it (hua yu being what Singaporeans call Chinese). But take this morning at the clinic as an example. Most of the people walking in were Asian looking, and the nurses tended to speak Chinese, except with a few. It usually depended on who began the conversation and in what language. But I've found I can't assume that someone who looks Chinese can speak it. Somehow, they know.

Despite my limited ability to converse in Chinese, I don't tend to use it here. The reason is this: when I do, this conversation always ensues:
"Wow, you can speak Chinese!"
"Well, a little. I lived in China for five years."
"You lived in China for five years and you can only speak a little?! You should be fluent!"

So while in China throwing out a few phrases made me look like a linguist, here I come as lazy idiot. If my secret is revealed (as it was once in a taxi when I laughed at the Chinese commentary on the radio) I get berated for not using it. I hate to point out that it's not my first language, and barely my second.

I think part of this mentality comes from a message I read on a bus a few days ago. It said, "Use it, don't lose it!" Now, that's pretty vague. You could be referring to a number of things: the ability to ride a bike, your memory, money . . .
But the acompanying Chinese message is clear, "If you can speak Chinese, use it, don't lose it!" It seems that the ability and or desire to speak Chinese here must be dwindling. Maybe that's why the taxi driver was adamant that I use mine. "If we can't get our people to do it, let's bring in the foreigners!" Believe me, if I was fluent, I'd use it.

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