Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Accent Alienated

I bought a bottle of orange juice from a lady at a road-side stall late last night.

"li si lali len?" she asked me timidly as she handed me my juice. She was trying to say "你是哪里人?" (Where are you from?) but she had a very thick accent.

America, I told her. And yourself?

"wo si jiangsu di" (我是江苏的, I'm from Jiangsu Province [in the South]), she replied. "ni suo di hen hao" (you're Mandarin is very good).

"No, no," I replied with my now-regular modesty. "I still need to study more."

She rolled her eyes and gestured at the two of us. "You're Mandarin is great. Mine's no good. How long have you been here?"

"Two years. How long have you been up North?"

"Five or six years." She looked a little sad. "I'm too old to learn it now."

"Do you ever have people not understand what you're saying?"

She shrugged. "It's usually okay."

I could certainly empathize with that. "Do you get to go home every once in awhile. For New Years?"

She brightened up. "Yeah, occasionally. Man, you really speak good." She shook her head. "You sound just like them..."

"我们一起加油," I said. Keep strong! And I left.

It was that last line... "you sound just like them"... that left the big impression on me. Somehow, I had wound up on the majority side of the geographical/linguistic divide. I'm always been part of a "them" in China, but "them" is always foreigners; this time, I was standing with the Dalian locals and this lonely road-side juice-seller from Jiangsu was the foreigner. Weird.

I'd noticed this once or twice before, always when I take Chinese friends to eat Xinjiang food. In cheap Xinjiang restaurants, ornery bosses and their kid waiters bark orders back and forth in Uighur, using wildly unstandard versions of Mandarin to eke out a basic communication with the customer. A lot of my Chinese friends take great and sometimes mean pleasure out of mocking the Uighur's bad Chinese, and the Uighurs generally fire right back, stubbornly singing out tones however they want and saying (probably unkindly) things in Uighur.

After having to say "I want a bowl of noodles" three times before being understood, I once asked a friend if I was pronouncing it wrong. "No," he told me, "You're pronouncing it too right. They don't understand when you speak good Mandarin. Try slurring more."

I wonder what it feels like to be accent-alienated. I mean, I'm of course accent-alienated every day when I talk to my friends, in that my voice just naturally sounds different from most Chinese, but that falls under the much larger context of being a foreigner. I wonder what it's like for that Jiangsu shopkeep or that Xinjiang barbecue cook, who are by almost every standard Chinese nationals but for whom their very voices are marks of not-belonging.

Is it any similar to how a Texan feels in New York, or a New Englander in the Deep South?

Or is there not really any alienation at all? Maybe it's all in my head.
Anyway, the juice lady got me thinking....


Anonymous said...


Don't pretend not to know about the whole inside / outside thing in China =) It pervades the culture and is everywhere, much moreso I believe than the Texan in New York analogy.

In China, you're either in the inside or on the outside looking in (vast majority of people fit into this category)

But it is strange to be told that you are 'one of them', other Chinese people, by another Chinese person.

赵晨威 said...

Yeah, no doubt the 外地人 factor is ever-present for a lot of people, and the local/out-of-towner feeling is stronger than in most places in the States (but not necessarily; there are places in America that can be pretty damn xenophobic).

In any case, there's still a lot to observe about the inside-outside thing, even if it's somewhat old news. For example, how easy is it to become a local? A lot of my friends from the region at large consider themselves Dalianers even if they only came here for college; their 东北话 is quite different from 大连话, but their Mandarin is indistinguishable. Not the same for anyone born south of Shandong, who might pass an entire adulthood in Dalian and never feel like they fit.

Mark Carver said...

Dude straight up with the "too-well-pronounced" accent. In my early China days, a Chinese friend once remarked to me and a couple of my friends that we needed to "relax our pronunciation." I did just that- easing up on the "sh's," making it halfway between a "sh" and a "s," and adding a bit of "l" to my "r's," and just generally speaking faster, which naturally adds a bit of a slur. And it was like a wall fell down. Suddenly I wasn't having nearly as much trouble in the taxi or at restaurants.

Imagine if we spoke with proper pronunciation in the States- "What are you doing?" "What are you doing?" Haha remember that?

Anonymous said...

ha~ i've lived in Dalian for what...like 18 years, and before that, i don's speak Chinese at all. you know, im a 朝鲜族,so i speak 鲜语, kinda the same language as Korean, and yes, i mean the other country not so far from 东北。i learned my Chinese in Dalian, But i can't speak 大连话,though i understand most of it. so im kinda in a pathetic place not knowing where my hometown is...the place i was born? i don't remember much of that...the place i grew up?? meaning Dalian? don't feel like i fit in well enough to call myself as a "dalianer"... so... that's it. ask where im from, either not so sure, or im gonna give you a little lecture on my "history"...

Jeff said...

I'm a south louisianian who now lives in texas. i have tons of friends in new york (i was an art major in college) and when i go there i actually find myself exaggerating the accent even more than i already have, saying 'y'all' more and using inflected declarative statements to ask questions instead of inversion (i.e. "i can use your bathroom?" instead of "can i use your bathroom?"). I can't help it because the people there eat it up, i think it makes them trust and like me more somehow. Girls respond to it with a warmth that is quite foreign to a young lad living in austin.

so i guess in my experience in america it is the opposite of what you are describing, although I'm sure that having a southern accent in the northeast doesn't carry quite as strong of an association with lack of education and poverty (...right?)

p.s. i'm a big fan of your blog, i'm going to china as soon as i finish automating my business here :)