Creating Language Barriers

In the summer of 2008, while my friend and I were having some drinks at a bar in downtown Taipei with a group of Taiwanese friends, one of the guys R who studied in New Zealand, came up with this theory that if you bend your arm 90 degrees and see an indented line near the joint of your upper arm, it is proof that you are pure Chinese. Everyone started doing the action and looking at their own arms. One of them asked, “Is it true?” and I suggested checking with the noisy group of French people on the second floor. If any of them has the line, then it’s bull, having already decided in my mind it’s definitely bull. But as the French group appeared to be celebrating a couple’s marriage, we decided against disrupting their joy and instead, found this European-looking guy sitting by himself by the bar counter. Who better to disrupt than a lonely European? Let’s call him E.

R approached E and began explaining his theory in English to the befuddled guy who didn’t utter a single word of response. Midway through his explanation, the bartender girl called out to R and said, “He doesn’t understand English. You can speak to him in Chinese as he’s been living here for 7 years already.”

For some reason, I kinda like the idea that a Caucasian-looking man didn’t understand English. That should wake people up from the idea that a white face equates to an English-speaker. But people do need to know that a yellow face as mine doesn’t equate to a speaker of English as a foreign language either.

While I may not be choosing to live in Singapore, I am thankful that I was raised in the island state where English is our working language and where our ethnic tongue is our second language. Our ease of befriending virtually anyone around the world is liberating and has been taken for granted. But apart from being able to break the language barrier, being the English-speaking Asian allows us to create language barriers because it is easy to pretend to not understand English, just as it is easy to pretend to not understand Japanese. I can easily convince someone of my inability to speak any language I choose at my convenience.

The necessity to do that is not exactly abundant but having English and Chinese as my native languages creates its inconveniences. With so many people who understand either or both languages around, it is sometimes hard to have “secret” conversations openly, even in homogenous Japan (Japan really isn’t homogenous but for the sake of bringing my point across…). Sure, secret conversations shouldn’t be held openly but let’s face it, exigence plays an important factor in starting a topic of conversation and there are times when you just have to say something on the train. Any later, the topic is deemed “random.”

When my cousin visited some couple of weeks ago, she wanted to make a comment on the train that she didn’t want others to hear. Since it’s difficult to identify if there were people who understand English or Chinese around us, she decided to speak in Hokkien dialect, and I replied in Teochew (because she’s Hokkien and I’m Teochew and these are among the few mutually intelligible Chinese dialects). While our dialects are not perfect, being able to create the language barrier gave us a sense of freedom. We could openly have the conversation without having to whisper. No doubt, the possibility of someone understanding what we were saying was not zero, but what are the chances? Most of the younger generation from China don’t even speak dialect anymore, like how when I was having a conversation in Taiwanese with a Taiwanese colleague at my former work place and the Chinese girl from sales couldn’t make sense of what we were saying.

A Swiss friend of mine who speaks English perfectly fine finds it annoying when strangers start speaking to him in English just so they can practise the language, and he usually ignores them. But these people would very unlikely think that he doesn’t understand English by virtue that he looks neither Asian nor African. People don’t do that to me because I’m Asian and the default setting is

If (person == asian){
person.canspeakenglish() = false;

Who knows, the European guy at the Taipei bar might very well have pretended he didn’t speak English as well.

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