Annie Ly is an English language assistant in Tianjin, China. Find out about her experience of living and working there for the first time as someone who looks Chinese, but doesn't speak fluent Mandarin (yet).
As a British Chinese person, what was it like going to China for the first time?
I never considered that I might experience culture shock. I'm used to Chinese food, and being around Chinese people a lot back in the UK because my family is from China – but some things have come as a slight surprise. I've been living in Tianjin for four months, and have gradually realised that my mum is not as strange as I once thought, she’s just very Chinese. For example, at home I used to get a little embarrassed when she’d introduce herself to my friends, insist on giving them lots of food to take home with them, talk a little too loudly and wear multi-coloured clashing patterns all at the same time. One day, I was in the car in Tianjin with my mentor and looked into a bus and saw that all of the old women were dressed like my mum, but with even more vibrant patterns and hats on. What I once saw as odd was actually my mum just being a typical Chinese woman, so coming to China has made me appreciate my family more.
Before I went to China, I was encouraged, by some people, to pretend that I was Korean. It was suggested as a way to avoid strange reactions to me not being able to speak Mandarin. However, I'm proud of my Chinese heritage and wouldn't want to dismiss it, and even if I tried, there would always be a chance that I might meet a Korean speaker. If I got busted, it would be so embarrassing.
How are you finding learning Mandarin? Do you feel that looking Chinese has had an impact on your experience so far?
I do think that I get treated differently because of how I look. Sometimes I have to speak broken Mandarin in order to get what I need, and it makes me nervous because I know how people might react. I've been in taxis before when the driver has asked me something that I don’t know how to respond to in Mandarin, so replied in English. It’s so strange for them, and they can rarely comprehend that someone in the back of their taxi, who looks Chinese, doesn't know what to do. Thankfully, now, my Mandarin is good enough to get by in situations like that. Most people are puzzled to begin with, and then they move on.
There are also some other differences that I've noticed between how I get treated compared with the other language assistants. For example, if another language assistant says anything in Mandarin, they get praised, and if I say anything with the pronunciation even slightly off, I just get corrected. I can’t get away with anything, because I look like I should be able to speak Mandarin, and people expect me to at least get the tones right. My new colleagues, friends and students are persistent in getting me to speak correctly, which although it can be a struggle, is something I'm grateful for. One of the main reasons I came here was to learn the language, and I'm making the most out of being here by taking lessons and practising as much as I can.