Big Noses Can't Really Learn Chinese

" Your Average Big Noser"

Do you ever get the feeling that Chinese people think you can’t really learn to speak their language? There is a Chinese restaurant I have frequented in San Francisco for almost two years now. Each time I go in to get take out, I chat with the staff and laoban (boss) while waiting. They are all native Cantonese speakers, sometimes struggling to find the right word in Mandarin.  Many times I’ve guessed what they were trying to say and helped them with the Mandarin word or phrase. Nevertheless, something humorous and very telling happened last time I went in.

One woman with whom I am very friendly said in Mandarin “Can I ask you something?” I said “sure”. And she replied “I hope you won’t be bothered by what I am going to ask, but, all this time we’ve been speaking with you, have you really understood us or are you just pretending.” Wait a second, I was thinking, I am the one who corrects your Mandarin!  She has heard me having complex conversations with the laoban, who has more fluent Mandarin. Why would she ever imagine I could pull off such a complex hoax, including guessing entire conversations and making up answers in Mandarin, all while having no idea what I am saying? Yet, I think I know why. I think she falls into the category of Chinese people who simply don’t believe it is possible to speak or understand Chinese if you are a “Big Noser” (Chinese slang for the ethnically non-Chinese).

I can never guess who will be a person who eases into a conversation, briefly complimenting my level in Mandarin, but immediately accepting the concept of a Big Noser actually conversing in Mandarin. It is impossible to predict. I have interviewed Mandarin teachers, people whose profession it is to look at big noses and try to get them to learn Mandarin, who cannot accept really speaking in Mandarin with someone sporting a schnoz larger than their own. I had one teacher unable to concentrate, laughing and saying “I just can’t believe it!” while interviewing her in Mandarin for a teaching position. At one point she covered her eyes and said “If I just do this, I will then think you are Chinese and not find it so funny”.  Then there have been others with little to no exposure to Westerners, let alone ones who speak Mandarin, easing right into it and going with the flow.

There have been some posts, including one of my own, about people not speaking Chinese to Westerners. The assumption has been that they prefer to practice their English. This may be true, but I also think some of these people actually don’t believe it can be done. No matter if you have been conversing with the person on a weekly basis for two years. It must be a ruse, smoke and mirrors, a carnival trick. How I wish I could do that, and skip the nearly two decades of study.

22 Responses to “Big Noses Can't Really Learn Chinese”

  1. When I first started trying out my Chinese, Natives would just be so startled and even laugh(I am sure my newbie accent didn’t help! I asked one woman in Chinese if she spoke Chinese, she said in English no she did not speak Chinese!

  2. I absolutely agree. I had no idea that Chinese native speakers were THAT surprised. I find it really depressing sometimes, but I have a lot of friends here in Melbourne that do believe I can learn to speak well and help me a lot :) and by the way, I love reading your blog. You are a dead set champ.

  3. Rachel, thank you for describing this phenomenon. I think that almost any Westerner who lived in China experienced something like that. Here is one of my encounters.

    Here I am, sitting in the Shanghai metro and reading a Chinese book. Right next to me there is this gentlemen yelling at the top of his lungs in a heavily accented Henan version of Mandarin. He is yelling because he is talking on a cell phone and everybody knows that talking to a person who is far away requires a lot of lung. While he is doing that he also is glancing from time to time at me and my book. Finally, after the phone conversation is done, my neighbor looks at me and asks me in Chinese. “Can you read that?”. When I answer that it is the case and why otherwise would I be wasting my time looking at these little worm-like squiggles of Chinese characters, he, with disbelief, forcefully commands me to read a paragraph. “Read this!” he says. I comply. He looks at me, ponders for a bit and then says: “Did you understand anything?”

  4. Jan, that is classic! Love the story.

  5. That really is unbelievable! I think you younger generation is less disbelieving, and I think the first person they meet with some good proficiency is like an ice breaker, and they are more accepting of it with the next person they meet.

  6. Yea Dan, I have definitely noticed a difference with the younger generation. I agree the very first person is the “ice breaker”, after that it probably gets easier and easier to accept.

  7. I hope so. If it is then the change is very slow In my 5+years in China I have not seen much change. I have dealt with new university graduates and each year their attitude. It took a lot of coaxing each year to get the new generation to accept the fact that my Chinese, while far from perfect, is quite OK for day to day and office life. Their disbelief was the same last year as it was 6 years ago. As the result, over these 5 years I acquired quite a bag of tricks on how to trick or force them to speak Chinese and in the process I have learned a lot of fine Chinese expressions :-)

    I do agree with the observation that once you get through the barrier then the problems almost disappear.

  8. Jan, I would love to hear some of those “tricks”. Wanna guest post on my blog? I have never been successful. I just cave. It only with Chinese teachers I insist. If they cannot speak to ME in Chinese, how will they ever do it with their beginner students.

  9. Fascinating. I guess I haven’t gotten to the level of proficiency (far from it) where I could astound anyone that I could speak or read Chinese. I am at the point where they DO speak Chinese back to me, to help me to learn (well, together with some English), but they seem very nice… maybe they think it is kind of like helping someone train their dog to sit, stay and heel? like they expect us to be able to pick up a few words here and there (ni hao, xie xie) but never to have a conversation or read.

    I have had a somewhat similar experience in French here in Quebec, where I have had a whole conversations, in French with francophones who insist that anglophones never bother to learn more than a couple words in French, never bother to speak it, and always expect francophones to learn English to converse with them. This, despite they are having this argument with someone who was a unilingual anglophone til a young adult, moving from western Canada for university, and the entire argument is in French, disproving their case. Perhaps they saw me as the exception that proved the rule???

  10. My theory is that ever Chinese person has a special switch built into their brain which works like this. If you see a big nose then switch to English. If you see a Chinese looking person speak Chinese.

    My daughter had a visitor once form the US, an ABC who could not speak one word of Chinese. Whenever the three of us would go to eat out in Shanghai i would try to pick the dishes and talk to the staff. The waitresses would not even hear what I had to say but would immediately turn to this young, nice, Chinese looking guy and speak to him in Chinese. It would take many minutes before the total confusion on the face of the young man would bring them down to the fact that he did not understand a word. The belief that it is beyond the ability of any normal foreigner to learn Chinese (with a possible exception of Da Shan) is so deeply ingrained in the Chinese psyche that it would take quite a few yells on my part to have them realize that in fact in this party of three it is the foreigner who can communicate in Chinese.

  11. I don’t really think this is true in China these days at-least,maybe earlier on and maybe it is still true in overseas Chinese communities. I mean nowadays many Chinese are exposed to foreigners who speak great putonghua, just look at DaShan (Canadian whose Chinese is perfect), every Chinese person knows his name.

  12. I’ve been in Taiwan for almost 4 years now studying Chinese, and a lot of the time it is that people either don’t believe you can speak Chinese, or they want to practice English.

    EVERY time I go into a restaurant, I see the person behind the counter fumbling for the English menu under the counter and I have to refuse taking it from them, how would my Chinese ever improve if I used the English menu every time I went somewhere to eat?

    The other thing I find is that even after I start a conversion/interaction in Chinese, the other person will use English. It really makes it frustrating when you are trying to learn Chinese in a Chinese environment, and still can’t escape English. Although I’m tempted to blame the other foreigners who are just here to party and have no interest in Chinese giving us a bad name :/

  13. Hey Dave,

    I’m planning on going to Taiwan to study – so thanks for the heads up. I think telling people (in Chinese) that you came to Taiwan to learn Mandarin and that you are paying a lot of money will make people less trigger happy with their English. Suggest that if they want to talk all English you’re teachers fee is NT$1000 an hour, but if they want to talk in a mix then its free.

    I come up against this problem a lot and blog about my experiences of learning Chiense from the INCREDIBLE number of Chinese speaking international students in Melbourne at

  14. Thanks Dan, I remember one time I went into the Kaoshiung Film Museum here in Taiwan and the 服務員 insisted on speaking English even after I asked about 3 times if she could please speak Chinese to me instead. I ended up frustrated and she seemed angry I was almost demanding she spoke in Chinese and not English.

    Now I pretty must just continue in Chinese and if they want to use English then so be it :)

  15. @dan cheers for the tips, I just might set up a group

  16. Hey Dan,
    Ha, I run the Mandarin Meetup here in San Francisco. It is a great way to meet Chinese people who want to speak their language. I lived in Taiwan for 3 years, and strangely it is easier to find Chinese people here in the U.S. willing to speak Chinese. The reason is they are sick of English already and there is no thrill in speaking it. They have to use it all day long for work. I have a post on “How to Foil a Chinese Pirate” on skills I picked up in Taiwan to get people to speak their language with me. Another blogger ( says he just speaks Chinese and let’s the other person continue in English, but I don’t think that is a solution – how can you ever move your Chinese past a certain level if you are always listening to English? You’ll be in good shape though Dan by the time you get to Taiwan. Since you are already practicing speaking it’s much easier to break through the English Pirate barrier when you are at a higher level and comfortable speaking.

  17. By the way, Dan the Mandarin groups I run are:
    which I started and…
    which I took over

  18. If you are reasonably proficient in a language other than English and Chinese then there is another tried and true method to get the Chinese to speak Chinese.

    When they say something to you in English you simple look at them, slightly confused and say (this is just a German example) “Entschuldigen Sie bitte, aber ich verstehe Sie nicht. ” (Excuse me please, but I do not understand. My favorite version of this would be to say in Chinese: “Excuse me please could you speak Polish I really do not understand English”. My native tongue is Polish :-)

  19. Michael says: ”I don’t really think this is true in China these days at-least,maybe earlier on and maybe it is still true in overseas Chinese communities. I mean nowadays many Chinese are exposed to foreigners who speak great putonghua, just look at DaShan (Canadian whose Chinese is perfect), every Chinese person knows his name.”

    Hi Michael. To start with, I think your term “foreigner” is very vague, who, exactly, do you mean by it? White people living in China? Canadians living in Canada? Japanese people living in China? Japanese people living in Japan? You confuse me. What a simple and unhelpful term it is you use.

    Also, your central idea seems to be that many Chinese are exposed to non-Chinese who are able to speak lots of putonghua. To point to a Westerner who has celebrity status because he can speak the language well doesn’t seem to do your argument much good. It’s like saying “The modern generation is very proficient with technology, one guy even visited the moon.” Such a statement doesn’t say much for the rest of us.

    People who talk to me about dashan and Kevin Rudd don’t enthuse me much at all. I tend to point out to them that the hu jintao and wen jiabao can probably speak a bit of English. Big deal.

    Westerners: You should know this… You have as much ability as anyone else to learn a language like Chinese. Any Westerner who is given celebrity status because of success in this area is actually undermining the credibility of the rest of us.

  20. I find the pet analogy that wenjonggal gave to be highly relevant to this discussion. In my experience, I have encountered many many “Chinese Puppy Trainers”: people who seem interested in teaching Chinese, but when they discover that you already know the basics lose all interest in helping you. Learn to recognize and avoid these people because they are a complete waste of your time. On the other hand, Chinese people’s personalities are as various as Westerners’. Chinese people with a genuine interest in cultural dialogue exist, you just have to find them.

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