To Boldly Go … Where Foreign Faces Speak Mandarin

I've always thought that one of the best ways to understand the American vision of the world is to watch Star Trek. Whether it's the original series or one of the many spin-offs, you're essentially dealing with a world in which people (and non-people) of every conceivable background work together around a shared set of values that include justice, freedom, and democracy; where military power is projected benevolently into the universe to promote exploration and peace; and where technological innovation is a constant force for good. Star Trek is also a place — much like New York or Los Angeles — in which you wouldn't be surprised if someone with purple skin, green hair, and pink eyes opened his or her (or its) mouth and spoke native-like Standard American English. Not only wouldn't you be surprised — you'd absolutely expect to hear perfect English. I think this may be why some Americans seem puzzled when they find that the whole world doesn't speak English exactly as they do — after all, everyone on Star Trek does.

In much of the rest of the world, people tend to see a much stronger correlation between language and race. So if you're someone who speaks Chinese but doesn't look "Chinese," for example, many people in China will be surprised, perplexed, or delighted when you open your mouth to ask directions or inquire about the time. When I first went to China in the mid-'90s, I often felt like a zoo animal with all the attention I got just from walking down the street. I tried at various times to buy hats that would make me look like a Kazakh or Uighur or a member of some other "Caucasian-looking" minority group in China, but never really fooled anyone. As my Chinese skills grew, I became more and more convincing, but it was my clothes that always gave me away. In the end, I'm not sure if foreigners who speak Chinese or those who don't are more exotic.

One argument for the appealing exoticism of those foreigners who do speak Chinese is the popularity of Hunan TV's Chinese Bridge Competition, an American Idol-type show that features college students from around the world using Chinese to act and sing their way to the top (see video, above). Last month, I had the opportunity to be a judge for the competition, and found it all fascinating. My first reaction was how incredible it was that there were so many students from so many countries who could speak such flawless Mandarin — definitely not the case back in the 1990s when I first embarked on my own Chinese language learning journey. My second reaction was how the appeal of the show is based on the notion that it is inherently interesting to watch Chinese coming out of the mouths of people who looked so "foreign." I can only imagine the reactions Matteo Ricci must have gotten when he arrived in China in the 1580s.

When I later became a teacher of Chinese, I discovered that the American media was just as interested in people speaking Chinese who didn't fit their profile of a Chinese speaker. I began to tire of streams of visitors and TV news people coming through for the sheer thrill of seeing white, black, and Hispanic kids speaking Chinese. While I don't have high hopes that Hunan TV is going to change any of this, I think it's wonderful that more and more students around the world are learning Chinese as a foreign language. If nothing else, I think it will help people all over the world to question the correlation between race and language, because there really is none.

I sometimes feel like a broken record when I try to relate what is happening now in the United States around China and the Chinese language, and what happened with Japan in the 1980s and 1990s. As Japan rose as an economic power, Japanese TV became peopled with gaijin-tarento ("foreign talents"), mostly North Americans, Australians, and Europeans who spoke very good Japanese. By the time I arrived in Japan in 1999, people were still surprised that I could carry on a conversation in Japanese, but some of the exotic fascination with the gaijin-tarento had subsided. Most Japanese still assumed that foreigners wouldn't be able to speak Japanese, but most had seen at least of handful of them manage excellent Japanese on TV, so it didn't blow their minds the way it might have 20 years earlier.

The most interesting aspect of my time in Japan was that I arrived as a newlywed with my South Korean wife who had not yet studied Japanese. When we first arrived, people would, of course, immediately conclude that it would make more sense to try and talk to her rather than me. What was even more interesting was that when I replied in Japanese to let them know that she didn't speak the language yet, they continued to look at her face even when talking to me! Somehow it just made more sense for them to look at a Korean face speaking Japanese than an Italian-American one.

The success of the students on Hunan TV points to a day in the not too distant future when foreign faces speaking Mandarin Chinese will elicit no more reaction than a Klingon speaking American English. And I for one am greatly looking forward to that.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Chris Livaccari
Chris Livaccari is former Director of Education and Chinese Language Initiatives at Asia Society. He is a Chinese and Japanese language educator and a former U.S. Foreign Service officer in Tokyo and Shanghai.