Is it Possible for a Foreigner to Sound Just Like a Chinese Person?
You know your Mandarin is getting good when people actually stop telling you it’s good. The first couple of years I was in China people would constantly tell me (in their bad English) that my Chinese was really good. Gradually they stopped telling me my Chinese was good and started to just reply to me and talk to me in Chinese.
speak to me in Chinese dammit!
Once I started to really focus on pronunciation a new (and more genuine) compliment emerged. They would say 你的普通话很标准 nǐ de pǔ tōng huà hěn biāo zhǔn (your Mandarin is very standard).
The next big breakthrough came one day when I was in the supermarket speaking to my Chinese girlfriend. A woman stacking shelves overheard us talking and then looked shocked to see I was a 外国人wài guó rén (foreigner).
She then did the peculiarly Chinese thing of talking to herself about me and narrating out loud what I was doing. 这个外国人有个中国老婆 zhè gè wài guó rén yǒu gè zhōng guó lǎo pó (this foreigner has a Chinese wife) she said to herself, before adding 中文很标准，一点都没有外国味儿 zhōng wén hěn biāo zhǔn, yī diǎn dōu méi yǒu wài guó wèir ([his Chinese is] very standard, no foreign taste at all).
I’ve since got used to middle aged Chinese people trying to make small talk by talking about me in the third person out loud to themselves instead of actually talking to me. It still feels a bit awkward when it happens but when the woman in the supermarket said I didn’t sound foreign at all yī diǎn dōu méi yǒu wài guó wèir (literally “not a bit of foreign taste”) I couldn’t help but feel complimented.
In truth she was wrong on both counts. The girl I was with wasn’t my wife, and my Chinese wasn’t that good. If you want to fool people into thinking you sound just like a Chinese person I think the key is to not say much. It’s much easier to sound “fluent” when all you say is a few individual words, or a short sentence that is basically like a set phrase lexical item you have learnt of by heart rather than a grammatical construction you put together ad hoc.
Over the years since that ego boosting day in the supermarket I’ve had the occasional phone call in which the other person seemed non the wiser about the fact I wasn’t a native speaker.
I hate to call myself a 外国人 wài guó rén (foreigner). In fact, I also hate when other people call me that. So if I’m talking to someone on the phone who doesn’t realise I’m not Chinese and is insisting on speaking at a hundred miles an hour with a strong regional accent, I prefer to say
不好意思，汉语不是我的母语，说慢一点，清楚一点，好吗？bù hǎo yì si, hàn yǔ bú shì wǒ de mǔ yǔ, shuō màn yī diǎn, qīng chu yī diǎn, hǎo ma? (sorry, Chinese isn’t my first language, speak a bit slower and clearer, okay?)
If I have to engage in a protracted conversation on a topic that is much more difficult my speaking fluency and pronunciation rapidly deteriorate. Even if you speak each individual word perfectly, if your fluency is bad and your suprasegmental pronunciation is not right people will instantly label you as a foreigner.
That said, when I find myself in a situation where the range of language is limited I do sometimes like to put on my best accent and (free from the distraction of producing my own grammatically correct sentences) I throw out the minimal amount of pre-learnt set phrases and vocabulary required for communicative competence in that situation.
In other words, when I order a coffee at Starbucks I say as little as possible and make sure what I do say sounds absolutely bang on.
Still, it was a massive surprise the other day when I went to the fruit shop and received what was possibly the most genuine and most enormous Chinese language compliment I could ever imagine. The guy in the shop asked 你是不是混血？ nǐ shì bù shì hùn xuě? (are you mixed race?)
I don’t take that many selfies, but I still see myself in the mirror often enough to know that I don’t look at all Chinese. And when a Chinese person asks if someone is 混血hùn xuě (mixed race) they are basically asking if that person is half Chinese.
When I looked at him and said I wasn’t a hùn xuě he followed up by saying 啊，你中文怎么那么好？ā! nǐ zhōng wén zěn me nà ma hǎo? (what! How come your Chinese is so good?) All this suggests that his belief that I might be mixed race was based entirely on his assessment of my Chinese ability.
The best part of this is that I wasn’t even trying. I’d just finished a tough gym session and was in the fruit shop to buy a bunch of bananas so I could refuel. Fooling people into thinking my Chinese is amazing wasn’t even on my mind, much less fooling people into thinking I am somehow a hùn xuě.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Was this guy blind, stupid, or both? I clearly don’t look like a hùn xuě. But in his defence he didn’t actually see my face properly. I was looking down at the boxes of blueberries by the counter and he was quite a bit taller than me.
He asked If I needed a plastic bag, to which I simply replied 不用 bú yòng without looking up. I then picked up a box of blueberries and said 这个怎么卖？zhè gè zěn me mài? (how much is this?). It was then that bent down and tried to look at my face whilst saying 你是不是混血？ nǐ shì bù shì hùn xuě? (are you mixed race?)
unlike me, Mike Sui (who imitates multiple Chinese accents very well) is actually mixed race
Again, it was probably the minimality of the interaction and the fact that I didn’t say much which tricked the guy in the fruit shop into thinking my Chinese was like a native speaker. Anyway, I still think this has to be the pinnacle of my Chinese speaking career. The day someone thought I might be half Chinese because they just couldn’t believe my Mandarin was that good! I’ve now decided I’m never going to speak Chinese again because it can only be downhill from here.
If you too find yourself in the position I described at the start of this post, where you’re trying to speak Chinese but everyone in China insists on replying in English (even when their English is terrible) you might want to check out this post on way to get people to speak to you in Chinese. Just Click here.