Pegged

Yo iba a escribir el vocabulario que aprendí en la lección de esta mañana, pero ya está lloviendo y me dio hueva.  Mañana lo hago.  

So back in Shanghai, Chinese people used to ask me my nationality all the time.  你是哪里人?你是哪一個國家人?  It was my favorite game to say, 你說呢? What do you think?

Mainlanders are more or less proud of their 30 or so 民族, the minority groups, but they mostly know those as dance troops.  The vast vast vast majority of them are ethnically Han, and they don’t really have to think about the difference between ethnicity and nationality; to them, it’s one and the same.

So when I told them to guess where I was from, I always got a kick out of the answers:  African, Indian, Malaysian, Indonesian, aren’t you Chinese?  They were all over the place.  Then I would say “American” and watch the puzzled look cross their faces.  Then I’d say “Mommy/Daddy Filipino” or, when my Chinese had improved, I’d say “Ancestral village in the Philippines.”  And then they would usually clarify that I was born in the US.

That was the game in Shanghai.  Taipei is a different story.

They ask the same question:  你是哪里人?and I always answer 你說呢?What do you think?  And they immediately without batting an eyelash say 美國 America.

I asked the cab driver if it was my accent; he said it was something… there’s some kind of something, a sound maybe.  Skritter Jake explains that Taipei people have a lot more exposure to Americans, so they can peg us easier.

My teacher, this morning corroborated Jake’s theory; they all know what Americans are like.  She also said we Americans had a certain 氣質 qìzhí, which just means we have a way about us.  It’s not our accent; she said that toneless foreigners pretty much sound the same to them.  No, it’s our manner, our temperament, the way we carry ourselves that screams U!S!A!.  In Spanish we’d say it’s our onda.  Our stereotype is that we’re curious, outgoing, not afraid of talking.

She said there was another country that has, fairly or not fairly, a stereotype of being the opposite: reserved, disaffected… she gave the example of the man who after spending years in Taiwan, still refused chopsticks, always asking for a fork.  Bonus points for guessing which country that stereotype describes..

Anyway, the point of this post is that they have me pegged.  “Michelle,” the lady who cut my hair, said that she hears some fleeting clues of my Shanghai past every once in a while… that delights me but I doubt anyone will ever peg my speech as Shanghai.

I wonder.  When I was younger and spoke more French, I had some recognizable southern French habits, which I’m pretty sure I’ve lost.  A few years ago in Italian class, someone once pegged me as having studied in Rome, although to my own ears I feel like I sound Filipino when I speak Italian.  My Spanish is a crazy mix of all the Spanish speakers I’ve cared about.

I used to care a lot about accent; I wanted it to be my thing, to be able to blend in and disappear into local speech.  As I get older and more confident in myself (i.e., meaner) I care less and less about that.  I am starting to consider myself lucky if I can be understood at all.

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