Chinese Tourist of the Year

This summer, during our family’s first visit to North America in three years, we shared the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria with a literal bus-load of Chinese tourists.

Chinese tourist in Canada

I’m giving this guy from Yunan, who was really nice and took pictures for us, the Chinese Tourist of the Year award for coordinating his Canada hat and Canada shirt with the Canada flag. Full points for Canada enthusiasm! Just warms my frozen Canadian heart…

Random snippets of Chinese conversation overheard in Vancouver (Do laowai have big heads?)

Dear Vancouverites,

Ever wondered what all the Chinese people around you are talking about? Given the amount of Chinese people in Vancouver, you may wonder this occasionally.

From what we’ve overheard, most of the time it’s not that interesting; they’re just talking about mundane daily stuff like everyone else: when to meet or where to go or what to eat, etc. But occasionally you get funny stuff like, “Those foreigners are speaking Chinese!” (referring to us, and I’m a white Vancouverite born and raised), Mandarin radio English-teaching spots that use the example of a marijuana bust to illustrate “the jig is up,” or really random stuff like what we overheard this weekend.

We were hiking in the forest near Deep Cove in North Vancouver when a Chinese couple passed us going the other way. They were in the middle of a conversation and as they passed the man said, “In China and Taiwan they don’t have big heads like in other countries.”

Do lÇŽowài have big heads? In Tianjin we’ve heard lots of remarks about foreigners being tall, having “high” noses, even having “three dimensional” faces (I was seriously impressed with that woman’s English vocabulary), but do we have big heads, too? No wonder people stare at us. ;)

Related Posts:

Chinese immigrants vs. Laowai expats

I always try to imagine parallels and differences between Chinese immigrants raising their kids in North America and us raising a family China. Our first child is due in the middle of Julywas born seven weeks early, and if all goes well we’ll move back to China in September (our families would never have forgiven us if we’d had our child on another continent!), so when I spend time with Chinese friends on this side of the Pacific it often makes me imagine what it will be like for our daughter (and her future siblings) in China. Even though Chinese immigrants and 老外 expats both live in a country and culture not their own, I wonder if their experiences are more different than they are similar.

For example, I recently stayed three nights with a Chinese family in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for the second time. The parents came to the U.S. as adults when their now teenage son was two. They have two other especially cute kids: a six-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter.

Within the local Chinese circles that this family runs in, the general level of English is better than most other Chinese I know — actually, some of them have better English than a lot of Americans (especially in Louisiana)! However their strengths are reading and writing (lots of advanced degree holders from LSU), and when talking they’re still more comfortable in Chinese, which was great for me.

Although all three of their kids understand Chinese, the youngest two will only respond in English. I don’t know if they can’t or just won’t speak Chinese. When the four-year-old speaks, you can hear a southern U.S. drawl in her vowels, especially when she’s disappointed: “Aw may-an!”

It’s such a common situation for Chinese immigrant families. It seemed the parents of the Chinese kids at the local Saturday Mandarin school in south Baton Rouge were all struggling to not let their kids lose their family’s language.

This probably won’t be our problem in China. While Chinese immigrant families to North America often struggle unsuccessfully to raise kids who retain their family’s culture and language of origin, North American 外国人 in China (few if any truly immigrate to China) have the opposite problem: getting so thoroughly sucked into the foreigner subculture in their jobs and social lives that they abdicate the opportunity to pick up serious levels of Chinese. Their kids grow up in the international school system or home school, if they even stay in China long enough to grow up. I’ve only heard of a North American kid losing their English once, and that was in a book where the kid’s parents had moved to China in the 50’s to join the Revolution.

In Tianjin there were tons of foreigner kids (most?) who couldn’t speak Chinese; they spend their whole China experience inside the foreign bubble. Chinese immigrant kids, by contrast, typically go through the American school system. The only foreign kids I met in Tianjin that could speak Chinese (and they spoke fantastic Chinese) were the exceptions; their parents had gone out of their way to put them through Chinese kindergartens and some primary school, rather than start them in international schools or home schooling like most foreigner families.

Still, it’s a scary thing to imagine — your kids not being fluent in your own language, not being able to communicate smoothly with you or your parents or your siblings or your nephew and nieces! That must be just a brutal experience for immigrant families in Vancouver and the grandparents who can’t talk with with their grandkids.

Mandarin lessons — can you be too young?

So what if she is minus-four weeks old?

A couple of the nurses in the NICU are Chinese, so we left this little note for them on L’s board (请您跟我讲中文). We can’t be there 24 hours a day, so many of her diaper changings and feedings are done by the nurses. Every once in a while she’s bound to get one of the Chinese ones!

In this hospital, L is a minority as the daughter of native English speakers, and she’s hearing more Punjabi than Chinese on a daily basis (both her immediate neighbours belong to Indo-Canadian families). Still, she yanked out her own feeding tube last night and the doctor decided to leave it out, so she’s one step closer to the door!

A “foreigner” in my own country, “yellow” people, and other funny Chinese racial talk

Once a wàiguórén, always a wàiguórén
We’re so used to hearing it that I didn’t think about it at the time: my ESL student from Beijing was using wàiguórén (外国人; foreigner) to refer to the white people in a Vancouver shopping mall this weekend. Then while we were shopping for Chinese DVDs a group of college-age Chinese girls passed us. One of them said in Mandarin to her friends, “Those foreigners are speaking Chinese!” I’d heard that Mainlanders sometimes talk this way even when they’re the foreigners, but this was my first time hearing it for myself.

Is there a term for this? “Middle Kingdom syndrome” or something? These people talk like they already own the whole world! ;)

Yellow people
One time the retired guys on the neighbourhood bike repair corner stopped me and Jessica to have a discussion about our respective colours: “She’s white, and we’re yellow, but what are you?” (I’m a white guy who was once mistaken for an Indo-Canadian.)

When Mainlanders call themselves ‘yellow’ the meaning has several connotations: the ‘yellow earth’, ‘yellow emperor’, Yellow River, yellow skin; China and Chinese are ‘yellow’ but not in the same way as the older, racist American ‘yellow’.

Whites are stronger, African Americans are faster, Africans more energy-efficient
Last week a Chinese guy we know here in Vancouver matter-of-factly unpacked his theory about the differences between races: whites are bigger and stronger than Chinese, but African Americans have stronger joints and that’s why they’re faster than whites and Chinese. Africans are skinnier and can live on less food. Chinese generally have weaker constitutions than everyone else.

Of course some of the ways Mainlanders can treat outsiders provokes my culture stress, and “racist” is occasionally an accurate description of some commonly heard conversation. But I love the way people sometimes discuss perceived racial differences (or any topic considered sensitive in the West) in that bluntly Chinese matter-of-fact way without malice and with zero regard for Western political correctness. It makes me chuckle at both our cultures. Talk that’s totally innocent in China is a cultural sin where I grew up, and using it can be a total gas for people like me from the socially liberal West Coast.

Anyone else experience funny Chinese racial talk?

Related Posts:

Aiya, Wen-ge-hua… 哎呀,温哥华……

A rather Vancouver moment.

Today we took one of my Chinese students, a teenager from Beijing, to the Crystal Mall in Vancouver, B.C. for lunch and shopping. On the way home we were listening to Vancouver’s mostly-Chinese radio station, 96.1 FM, when a little English lesson segment came on introducing “The jig is up!” to the Chinese population of Vancouver. We listened to see how they’d translate it (完蛋了!), but I couldn’t help laughing and shaking my head when they gave the unfortunately appropriate example sentence: “The police found marijuana in his car. The jig is up!” At least Vancouver’s Chinese immigrant population is learning locally relevant English…

My Chinese students say the Crystal Mall is the current big Chinese hang-out (Chinatown is apparently for the older generation of Hong Kongers). If you combined a Tianjin supermarket with a Tianjin vegetable market, cleaned it up, made it a little less crowded, mixed in some 繁体字, and improved everyone’s English, you’d have the Crystal Mall. You can use Chinese in all the stores and they’ll hardly bat an eye.

We all had fun (Sara’s first time on the Skytrain), and it was good Chinese speaking time for us. I think we’ll do this again.

Chinatown New Year’s Chinese lions

It was a cold, rainy day for the Vancouver Chinese New Year parade, and I pretty much missed the whole thing because I couldn’t get down there soon enough. I only managed to get a shot of these lions:

Several teams of lions, each accompanied by a drum-and-cymbal group on wheels, went around to different storefronts in Chinatown doing a little dance and lighting firecrackers.

Businesses were hanging cabbage and hóngbāos from their awnings. I think the lions took the hóngbāo as their pay and “ate” the cabbage, which ended up all over the sidewalk, but I’m not sure. That’s a pretty sketchy part of Vancouver and some random guy flinging cabbage wouldn’t necessarily be all that out of place.

For the significance of the cabbage, see “Two questions re: cabbages and toilets”. A hóngbāo (红包) is the special red envelope with money in it that people give one another during Chinese New Year and at weddings. One of our foreigner friends in Tianjin had an interesting hóngbāo experience this Chinese New Year while staying with a Chinese family.