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Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

I walked into a restaurant the other day, and sat down to order something. The waitress started speaking to me in Russian. I said to her (in Mandarin). "I'm sorry, I don't speak Russian." She panicked. She started looking around for someone to help her. Her response was a bit annoying, but it also struck me funny. She was obviously worried because, since I didn't speak Russian, I must be an English speaker, and she didn't speak English. But there was no reason for her to worry. After all, when I told her I didn't speak Russian, I wasn't speaking English. I was speaking Chinese. In fact, I had not spoken a word of English. I said to her slowly in Mandarin, "Do you speak Chinese?" She breathed a sigh of relief. In fact, she was Mongolian. Chinese was not her first language. I heard her telling her coworkers, "He speaks Chinese better than I do." That, of course, was nonsense. Mongolians go to school in Mongolian (unless they live in a totally Han community). The go to school in Mongolian throughout their elementary, middle school, and high school years, and if they want to, throughout their college years. But they all study Mandarin one hour a day. In today's Inner Mongolia, where many shopkeepers are Chinese, that is going to make you basically a native speaker. It depends on the individual, of course. I have met Mongolians who seemed much more attached to English than Mandarin, but they are the exception. Most Mongolians speak Mongolian and Mandarin. Their level of Mandarin proficiency really depends on the extent to which they themselves want to be integrated into Chinese society. If they prefer to study in a Mongolian university and live a Mongolian life, they can do that. But if they are good students, and they want to go to a top university in Beijing, they will obviously become quite good at Mandarin. But it struck me that this young lady, whose Chinese is obviously very good, has grown up in an environment where her Mandarin is always seen as "substandard," since it is not as native as that of her Han neighbors. So she thinks her Chinese is not very good, when in fact, she is basically a native speaker.

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