Language as submission

We don’t have a specific policy about being political here, except to avoid it when possible. We don’t need any more uniformed sorts showing up at our corporate offices this year. Randy already made a full apology for that incident and promised to mend his ways. That said, the following is going to wade just ever so slightly into the kiddie pool of foreign relations, but it’s really for a linguistic reason so please forgive me my editorial comments, should any slip in.

As you may know by now if you spend any amount of time on Twitter or the China blogs, director Ning Hao 宁浩 punched a foreigner at a public swimming pool and then blogged about it. You can read it in English and Chinese here.

The gut-churning induced by both such heavy nationalistic racism and expat douchebaggery aside, there was one sentence that stood out.

[I] said to him: speak Chinese! (speaking in the language of other countries is a display of submission to the culture of said country)

I’ve always made an effort to learn the local language wherever I go. It’s why I do what I do in Wu. It’s why I tried to learn enough Uуɡhuɾ to order in Uуɡhuɾ at Хіnjіаnɡ restaurants. My (Han) friends never understood why I did that. Maybe because it’s fun to say “ikki polo yäymiz!”

Not half an hour ago I was in the local convenience store. I said something like “hold on I might have 5 mao” to which the worker in the corner said to themself something like “all these foreigners are speaking Chinese now…”

Is Ning Hao right? Do people here tend to think using a foreign language involves submission? If so, is English for some reason mostly exempt from this?

It’s a language act where the act is choosing the language, or possibly the shortest language power struggle in history.

8 responses to “Language as submission”

  1. “Do people here tend to think using a foreign language involves submission?”

    For some people. Though it’s sometimes hard to get them to say it. I asked to a group of students once what they really thought about English, if they liked it, if they wanted to learn it, etc. Most people gave the canned responses (though possibly also their actual feelings) about how they liked it, the literature, how it allowed them to connect with the world, etc. But one kid, clearly my favorite, start talking about how english was fine, but how he’d prefer not to learn it in the first place, that he’d much rather have chinese be the world language that everyone had to learn. Couldn’t get his classmates to sign on to that (probably because it’s tabboo to say that in front of a foreigner, or just something your encouraged not to think about in the english craze.) Does that involve submission? It’s close.

    It’s obvious that the dynamic Ning percieves as existing (Chinese being “forced” to speak english) is applied to the foreigners in a zero-sum equation (someone is always being dominated and having to submit.) Now we know why your chinese friends don’t learn Uyghur (because the world is a serious of power struggle and submission choices. And Uyghur loses.) Guess it’s a coherent and existing idea as much as the common ideas of “learn a language to better communicate, out of respect, etc).

    “If so, is English for some reason mostly exempt from this?”

    Why would English be exempt? Obviously as it becomes more and more an international tool, it’s “national character” becomes less relevant in some cases (especially non-native english speakers using it, which it sounds like the swimmer was, but which wasn’t relevant as he was likely white.) But, given that, I don’t think it’s excluded. When X needs to be given the black mark it just gets called the tool of the west, america, imperialists, etc, when it’s liked, the same thing its given a fresh look (human rights = strange western voodoo concepts, marxism = part of the world’s/all worker’s common heritage).

    I though the “political post” might actually be in reference to the previous post on dialects. Guess no dice.

    Finally, at least from that story, it’s hard to complain much about Ning Hao as that foreigner comes across as a huge asshole. And I’m going to refrain from getting into a discussion on the intellectual tabloid (ChinaSmakk with better layout?) that Global Voices possibly is. (Do we get dog bites foreign man next?) Seems outside the linguistic realm.

  2. GAC says:

    Hmm, Reading through the whole post, it seems that a little later he mentions use of English as giving one power over foreigners, so his own opinion isn’t so clear to me.

    In general, I think there are a variety of views on this. English Only advocates in the US seem to think that failure to use English as disrespectful to the nation (forgetting for a moment that English didn’t have any official status until recently, and still isn’t the “official” language of the country). In my experience, most people have taken my interest in their languages as a sign of respect or enthusiasm*.

    Oddly, I have run into one very strange reversal of this situation. I once met a Venezuelan who absolutely refused to speak Spanish with me, and bristled each time I attempted. He seemed to think it was stupid of Americans to study “a language of third-world countries.” For that reason I have been reluctant to order in Spanish at Latin American restaurants, even at a local Mexican restaurant where I know that most of the servers are Mexican or Latin American — as I fear I might run into similar views, or just into people who feel that I’m being patronizing.** However, I’ve had better luck with Chinese, and have had good conversations with servers at a local Taiwanese restaurant, and Chinese students I meet are always happy to talk to me in Chinese or in a mix of Chinese and English.

    *I only speak Spanish and Chinese, though I always ask questions of speakers of languages I don’t understand.
    **I live in Morgantown, West Virginia, which doesn’t have a huge Hispanic population. Also, to be clear, this isn’t really a rational response, as the only thing the two situations share is the language.

  3. tabboo to say that in front of a foreigner

    Wasn’t taboo in my experience. I had people tell me this all the time. Made me laugh every time. And English as exempt only because there are so many people who are nuts about it.

    I came here first as a tourist (or “student” as my school liked to call me) and then after returning home looked for ways to come back. It took me a very long time to be ok with teaching English as the way to do it. With my experience (academic and personal) in the Middle East, I felt it a very imperialist/colonialist thing to do. It never sat right with me and I was all to happy to shed the title of English teacher. Though, I most certainly over-reacted in my feelings.

  4. GAC says:

    @Kellen: Why did you see yourself as being imperialist? Would you think of the Confucius Institutes as Chinese imperialism?

    I have considered teaching English in China. I don’t think of it as imperialism so much as cultural exchange. I just hope the exchange in the future can be more of a mutual deal.

  5. Why did you see yourself as being imperialist?
    Well in a way I didn’t because there was actual demand for it from within the country.

    Would you think of the Confucius Institutes as Chinese imperialism?
    Chinese cultural imperialism, yes certainly. But then they’ve declared it as such themselves.

    I enjoy teaching and look forward to future opportunities to do so. At this point my real issue with teaching English is less about English and more about not wanting to teach a subject to a group of people who don’t give a crap about that subject.

  6. Chris says:

    My late two cents to this discussion are that Chinese people in general tend to think learning English is a nuisance rather than an opportunity, most of them live in a totally chinese world and are stuck in the phase every language learner goes through, the phase where you actually still are forcing your brain to produce the words or have to use dictionaries to find the words. So they feel that in a way their efforts are a submission for they would rather not having to learn English, but since it has become such a vehicle for social promotion they have no choice. A lot of them will also never use their English abroad (something a lot of people seem to forget) so their actual contact with foreigners will only take place in China. This makes language learning for them such a hassle without any direct benefits.
    On the other hand the Chinese are pretty 爱国者(nationalist) so, and this is my prediction for a long time, they secretly do want Chinese to take over the world and make it impossible for those who do not speak chinese well enough to do business in China…

  7. Kellen Parker says:

    Chris: I just got back from 6 weeks in the US and Canada where I ended up having multiple unplanned conversations with Chinese abroad. In my rather small hometown I ran into 7 young guys there through their company who were having difficulty at the gas pump. Seeing the problem and hearing them speaking Chinese I went to help. The whole 10 minute conversation was in Mandarin, not by my choosing. In Chicago I had a similar experience as well as in Ontario. So the thought that they often will only speak English in China is one for which I’ve just seen plenty of evidence. This of course is not everyone but your comment came at a very appropriate time for my recent experiences.

  8. Chris says:

    What i actually meant was that they have rather limited opportunities to go abroad, but it is true what you say. I have seen the same thing happen in my country where Chinese eventually all hook up together and when not absolutely necessary don’t speak anything but Chinese even when their actual goal to come to my country was to learn either English/French or Dutch. Totally opposite to anything I ever learned about learning a language: immersion, immersion, immersion and some more immersion. I sometimes really got the impression that it was something they were doing more for form than out of interest. Learning a language without actual interest in the culture or the people has to be hell…

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