Monday, August 29, 2011

Look at those foreigners speaking Chinese!

Came across a show on CCTV recently that featured a variety of foreigners (non-Chinese) all speaking Chinese and it caused me wonder what is the fascination with people who can speak Chinese. After all, we don't see television shows in the West feature Chinese who can speak English (or French, German or any other Latin-based language of your choice). So exactly what is the fascination?

Is it because it still seems like such a novelty to find non-Chinese who can speak the language (and, having seen more than a few of these foreigners using the language with relative ease, I can assure you they speak it very well)? Is it because Chinese is so hard to learn that any non-Chinese who can master the language should be showcased to the nation? Or is it because this is a way of showing that China is becoming a major power in the world and and people are working hard to learn about China - the language being the most obvious manner in which to showcase it? Or perhaps a combination of the three - or others that I have not yet considered?

I have to admit that seeing non-Chinese (e.g. white Westerners or even black Africans) speaking Chinese is still a bit jarring - even when I am among that group. Granted, I'm not nearly as fluent as I would like to be but I know the effect I've had on people who did not expect to hear me speaking Chinese so I can certainly relate to that. But there is a growing legion of people who can now do that, both in China and among other nations (typically among those who have studied in China), that the novelty is surely wearing off - even among Chinese (particularly in the larger Eastern cities with higher populations of foreigners). Perhaps 15 years ago, when the number of foreigners who could speak even passable Chinese was much smaller, the novelty would have been enough to support the idea of television shows dedicated to Chinese-speaking foreigners but that time has surely passed by now. And the fact that there are so many Chinese-speaking foreigners today (of varying levels) is surely testament to the fact that the impediments to learning it are not overwhelming. Sure, it is a tonal language that is difficult for those from Latin-based linguistic backgrounds, but not impossible.

So could this simply be a political tool or a way or enhancing the Chinese self-image? In other words, is the idea of shows that feature Chinese-speaking foreigners a way of telling the Chinese populace that foreigners are working hard to learn about and even emulate China? Is it a status symbol to show people that China is growing in importance and that the foreigners are now bowing down to the inevitable rise of China? Is it a way of helping to erase the hundred years of shame that the government often considers to be its starting point of history (to help justify its continued singular grip on power) by showing these foreigners emulating the Chinese language (and potentially other aspects of Chinese culture)? And, if so, does that not create a paradox in that the government often touts how China is now coming into its own without the West yet uses these shows as a way of showing how the West now works hard to learn Chinese? A rather puzzling conundrum if that is the case.

Or, it could just be that I am overthinking this and that the significance of these shows is much the same as the glut of "reality" shows that pervade Western television - not much at all.

1 comment:

  1. "or French, German or any other Latin-based language of your choice"

    German is NOT a Latin language, and neither is English. English was wholly a Germanic language until French swanned in as the language of the aristocracy and scholars, but English is still less than 50% Latin for almost all daily conversation - until you start talking science, then it's 90% Latin-based.