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I am an American English teacher. I have lived in China for a year and can speak some Chinese but I often find that educated people are reluctant to speak Chinese with me. I wonder if they feel obligated in some way to speak to me in English. Could anyone help me to understand why they are so reluctant?|
Whenever I go to visit one of my student's homes I don't expect his parents, relatives or friends to be able to hold an English conversation with me unless they have recently studied English or use English on an almost daily basis, so I always engage them in conversation in Chinese, but I often find that they either reply to me in whatever English they know, which usually is very little, or reply to my student and then have him or her translate their words into English for me. As my student translates for them or as they speak English themselves they often say something like, "My dad/I studied English in school but has/have mostly forgotten it now, sorry." Why should he apologize? It's true that he can speak very little or no English, but does he truly feel embarrassed? I wouldn't expect someone who studied calculus in school to remember the difference between differentiation and integration, and I certainly don't remember the German I studied in school, so why should they remember English? Furthermore, if I talk to them in Chinese doesn't that indicate to them that I can speak and understand enough Chinese to have a conversation with them? Why don't they talk back to me in Chinese? Even if I persist in talking to them in Chinese they don't talk back to me, except for very short answers. In short, it makes it impossible for me to have a conversation with them. Do they feel obliged to speak English? This is very frustrating to me.
Here's another example of what seems to be an obligation to speak English. My Chinese friend (who I always speak with in Chinese) asked me to see Matrix Revolutions with her, so we set the date and time to meet and I also asked her to bring a friend along. She told me that she would, but that her friend couldn't speak much English, to which I said, in Chinese, "No problem, you know I can speak Chinese." But when the time came to meet at the theater she came alone. When I asked where her friend was she said that her friend felt ashamed that even though she had studied English in school she couldn't speak English with me but that I could speak Chinese with her, so she didn't come. I don't understand this. I live in China and should learn Chinese. Morever, it's easy for me to learn Chinese in China because I have a chance to speak it every day. Why does she feel so ashamed? English is most likely useless for her, there's no reason for her to remember it. Is it that her friend was just shy or didn't really want to come or is it that she feels obliged to speak to me in English? This sort of reaction on the part of her friend makes it seem like all Chinese living in China should speak English to Westerners, but that no Westerners living in China should speak Chinese to Chinese. If I didn't know better I would even think that this sort of thing is rude because it tends to impy that all Chinese are clever enough to learn English but that no Westerner is clever enough to learn Chinese.
In fact, these sorts of actions seem quite abundant, and I have especially noticed them among male Chinese English teachers. One teacher at my school sometimes goes out with me and when I say something like, "I am going to the bathroom", he always motions to help me, which is just being polite, but when I insist that I can make it on my own he says, "But there won't be any English sign for the toilet, how will you know where it is?", which of course implies that I haven't yet, in the course of a year, learned how to ask the way to the toilet in Chinese or how to read even two or three Chinese characters. What frustrates me most is that he should know that I can speak some Chinese, as I have spoken Chinese to others around him many times. Why does he still insist on translating everything for me into English? Does he feel some sort of obligation, like I expect him to create an English environment for me?
Basically, my questions boil down to these: 1) Do Chinese feel an obligation to speak in English with Westerners, even when the Westerner can speak Chinese? 2) If so, why? If not, why is it so difficult for them to speak in Chinese with me?