Misplaced Shame

On West Beijing Road there is a large structure known as the Shanghai Center, an Escher-esque business and shopping center with winding staircases which lead to apparently impossible geometries. Located in the center of town, its eye-catching and stylish architecture is indicative of its youth, and is a banner of Shanghai’s rapidly increasing prosperity. Naturally, it’s got a Starbucks.

For reasons of which I am still unclear, I purchased a drink therein. Upon returning my receipt, the cashier struggled to inform me of some sort of redeemable prize I could attain. After a few aborted attempts, I told him that I understood Chinese, of which he was endlessly thankful. After it was over, he apologized profusely for his English and I walked away with a quiet shame. This was one of many instances I’d experienced in my brief time here in Shanghai of people in the service industry expressing extreme embarrassment for communication difficulties. Let me put that another way:

There are many people in China who are embarrassed because they don’t speak perfect English.

Does this fact bother no one but me? I feel like a fat, slovenly Caesar riding on the backs of poor, naked Chinese. I feel overcome with a wave of imperial guilt, like white Europeans seem to feel toward poor immigrants. My employment is predicated upon the idea that English is somehow more valuable than Chinese (a fact which is now impossible to deny). Other expats seem to be largely immune to this sense of shame, or see it as adorable. I’m lead to believe that not very many attempt to bridge the language gap, which only reinforces the problem.

One fact, however, lessens any negative emotions I might feel when I think on the disparity in relative importance of our mother tongues. All services catering to an English-speaking public are about two to five times more expensive than those meant for the Chinese. They may be shamefully berating themselves for their lack of English skills, but they’re doing it all the way to the bank.

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4 thoughts on “Misplaced Shame

  1. Hey there, I just came across your blog and decided to make a comment.

    What you have observed here is definitely a symptom of the Chinese’s insecurity about their current position in the world vis-a-vis the West. This insecurity also manifests itself in other ways, some of which I’m sure you have witnessed as well during your time in the country. These include the Chinese’s tendency to react with surprise and appreciation at a Westerner’s ability to speak Chinese, no matter how rudimentary that ability is (contrast that with the contempt that is often shown toward foreigners/recent immigrants who struggle with English in Anglophone countries); the ease with which a Westerner is typically able to acquire a well-paying white-collar job in China without having to learn and speak the local tongue (in the West, this kind of people typically clean toilets or drive cabs); and the way that Chinese women throw themselves at white men and the way that Chinese men pine for white women (of course, the ethnic compositions of Western countries include non-white peoples, but white people still dominate politically, economically, and culturally in these countries and are thus perceived as the quintessential representatives of the West).

    You made a reference to imperialism and I think that is basically what is at work here. Because the West still dominates the geopolitical landscape, it continues to exert an inordinate amount of influence on the way the rest of the world think and behave. Hopefully, though, the balance of power here will achieve more of a semblance of equality as China continues on in its path of development.

  2. T, so sorry for taking so long to realize that this comment needed moderation. I’m new to the whole “allowing people to express themselves on my blog” thing.

    The roots of Chinese insecurity are inescapable to the even the most oblivious eye. I do hope that as the disparity closes, the Chinese shyness and shame will similarly recede.

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