Your dirty Southern accent

Upon returning from the holiday I found my internet had been cut. I knew it would happen, but not so soon. I pay ever 6 months and I figured it was due to expire.

So I trudged over to the closes place to fix that by paying a few hundred kuai to a guy to make a phone call to China Telecom for me. A bystander decided it was a good time for a chat, and began by asking me how long I had lived in the North (北方 beifang) before coming to Shanghai. Confused, I told him I’ve not spent more than 6 days in the North in all my time in China. I explained I’ve spent all my time in Jiangnan where I’m quite comfortable and had no interest in living up north.

Stepping back a second, I should say I pride myself on the small bit of Shanghainess in my Mandarin accent. I proudly pronounce 十 as “si” and 44 as “si si si”. Unfortunately it means I often go about my day with many people not quite understanding what I’m saying. In fact, moments before my internet issues, I had been speaking to a local aiyi who, for some reason, thought I said I had been to 法國 fǎgúo this past week instead of 韓國 hángúo. I’m still not why she thought she heard that. So when I went to fix the internet, I corrected.

So when the guy said I had a Northerner’s accent, I politely explained that despite living here this long, it’s really the quickest way to get things done.

The reason is that foreigners are supposed to sound like they’re from the North. If you don’t, expect to repeat things.

But maybe that’s just me. With cabbies I always make it a point to mention that I can understand some Shanghainese early in the conversation. It happens soon after they ask where I’m from, which happens within the first kilometre in almost every ride I’ve ever taken. That way when I throw out ‘zei wei’ or ‘xia ya nong’ at the end of the trip, it’s almost expected.

Which brings me to a similar experience that happened the same night. I had a 20rmb cab ride home from a somewhat nearby subway station. The driver said I spoke clearly but with an accent. I asked him where I was from, based on the accent. He said he had no idea, just that I was a foreigner. When I hear a Brit speak Chinese, I can tell they’re a Brit more often than not. Same for anywhere else with a familiar accent. But in my experience, most Chinese cannot. “They were just unintelligible,” my driver said about a group of foreigners he picked up recently. I can’t help wonder if he just gave up the second he heard an accent that wasn’t 100% clear to him.

2 responses to “Your dirty Southern accent”

  1. My (unsubstantiated, I’ve only heard you speak a few sentences of Mandarin) feeling is that you probably pronounce Mandarin with some southern quirks, but still maintain rather “northern” phrasing and prosody, as that’s what almost all foreigners are taught. So even if you’re lazy with your initials and finals, you still come off as northern.

    As for Chinese not being able to tell where you’re from based on your accent, you can probably do it because 1) you’re familiar with the English accent, and can hear the overlay onto Chinese, and 2) you hear a lot more foreigners speak Chinese than do most Chinese people. I figure there will come a day when Chinese are able to do similar things, but the average person just hasn’t had that sort of exposure yet.

  2. I agree with the second point entirely. With the first, it’s quite possible. I couldn’t really know. I make the assumption based on having only ever lived here and having only ever learned phrases and words based on how I hear them said here. But it’s likely I receive a more standard Mandarin from people just by being white, so yes it could still be quite Northern.

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