How to Foil an English Pirate

First encounter:

Foreign National: 你好, 你叫什么名字?
Chinese National: Waaaaa, you Chinese soooo good!
F: 没有, 没学了多久.
C:  Yes, so good. Where you learn?
F: 我在北京待了差不多一年。。。
C: You must be very smart…

Has this happened to you? If so, were you thinking: 如我中文那么好你为什么跟我说英文? (If my Chinese is so good, why the heck are you speaking to me in English then?).  Yes, my fiend you have encountered what is known in the “lǎowài” community as the dreaded “English Pirate”. They come out of the shadows intent on stealing free English lessons; no matter what you say in Chinese they are always ready to respond in English. Finally, worn down, you lose the battle and switch to English.

Now, here is what I think the rules of engagement should be:

•    A student of your language in your country (they have traveled quite far after all just to learn your language!) should be addressed in your language.
•    If the person addresses you in English, and you know English, or the conversation cannot go further because they do not know your language well enough, fair enough to switch to English. But give them a shot!
•    Likewise, in the U.S, if you are a student of Chinese, you should not try to use Chinese expats as a tool to teach you Chinese. They may be here to learn English and you should help them out.

More importantly, how does one foil an English pirate? Aaarggh!

•    Try as long as you can to stick to Chinese… they may give up before you do.
•    Identify the English pirates in a social group and avoid them.
•    Fix your attention on people who are interested in you as a person, and not you as a free English lesson.
•    You can try to pretend you’re from a country that does not speak English (ashamed to say I have done it a few times), but it’s not honest and doesn’t feel good in the end.
•    You can be upfront and say “I came here to learn Chinese, would you mind only speaking in Chinese with me for a while?”
•    All in all, the best way to avoid one is to identify one and retreat. There are plenty of Chinese nationals happy to speak their language with you.

The thing with English pirates, as is with anyone more interested in getting something out of you rather than knowing you, is they probably won’t pan out to be your best friends. Ironically, I found the people most willing to speak to me and other lǎowài in Mandarin in Taiwan spoke more English than the pirates in the end. As they became a part of our group, naturally we all switched to English at times.

4 Responses to “How to Foil an English Pirate”

  1. I meet a lot of pirates. It’s annoying. My thoughts are the same. If my Chinese is so good, according to you, then why not help me practice. NOOOOooooo… fine. Maybe one way to make them speak Chinese back to you is to speak nonsense English. They won’t understand a thing… then hopefully switch to Chinese.

    But then again… if they don’t switch to Chinese…that conversation would be pretty funny.

  2. I keep encountering the same pirate at a local expat bar, its getting kind of annoying. I don’t like to just push people off to the side so I’ve endured is leeching until now, I think I will just ignore him…

  3. AFAIK, Maxiewawa was the first to post online suggesting “哈?”, or as he calls it, the HA? technique.

    Basically, you just pretend you don’t understand (in the same way a Chinese speaker does), and then immediately understand when the person speaks mandarin. I have tested this, and it works quite well. Maxiewawa says it is designed for shop interactions. Caveat: you need to actually understand chinese when they start speaking it to you for best effect.

  4. Wow, the 哈 technique sounds awesome. I think it is more likely to work in China than in the United States, though.

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