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.