Saying sorry is never enough for being forgiven in Shanghai

By Catherine Valley Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/25 18:28:40

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

Year by year China is becoming more international. There are approximately five large exhibition centers built in Shanghai specifically to host people and companies from all over the world. Shanghai New International Expo Centre, for example, attracts more than 4 million visitors and 120,000 exhibitors annually. These events are conducted primarily in English.

However, while struggling to become more Westernized, China is gradually losing its cultural identity in terms of language.

To a certain extent, English is being imposed on Chinese society by themselves, from advertisements and billboards using the Roman alphabet lettering to forcing students to start studying English in kindergarten. The ever-increasing number of foreigners in Shanghai is also contributing to Putonghua's slow death in its native country.

I, a foreigner, start my mornings by trying to navigate Shanghai's bustling sidewalks. Sometimes I bump shoulders with passers-by, offering a quick "sorry" as I keep on walking.

The thing is, I've never thought about the language I use when apologizing in China, which is usually an English "sorry." The irony of this is that I am not a native English speaker; I'm Russian.

My spoken English leaves much to be desired, and I know enough Putonghua to say "buhaoyisi," and yet I usually don't because I assume that most people here can understand my apologies in English.

Obviously, as are most foreigners in China, I am misled by the general assumption that English is a universal standard that everybody everywhere should be familiar with.

But the truth is, for many local strangers who must endear my English "sorry," it probably means nothing more than nonsense. In this manner, a "praying for being forgiven" pantomime shown by me might be more useful.

I of course hyperbolize the fact that "sorry" is too hard to understand for the average Shanghainese; hopefully the majority of people here can catch my meaning.

But what my behavior proves is how essential English has become in modern life. Any time that one person from the one country can speak with a person from another country - in English - it means we are taking the language for granted.

English is famous for its flexibility, as it is much easier to learn compared with other languages, including Chinese and my native Russian. Thus, the Westernization of China has made English a sort of obligatory new cultural standard.

China strives hard to nurture English-speaking talent in its youth to sufficiently keep up with the outside world. Since 1978, English has been taught as a compulsory course in most Chinese universities.

Chinese parents also pay big bucks to enroll their kids in after-school English lessons. Many unwittingly hire non-native speakers under the assumption that anyone with a white face speaks perfect English.

In fact, among 251 countries in the world, there are only six English-speaking countries. Those are the UK, the US, Australia, Ireland, Canada and New Zealand. In 52 countries, English is accepted as an official language along with their own local language. For all the rest, English is simply a golden pedestal many hope to perch from.

Society now tends to objectify everyone's abilities and interests in English. That is to say, while people are still surprised when I, a Russian, speak Chinese, I don't surprise anyone by speaking English.

As an international student studying in Shanghai, I frequently observe how communicating in English between other foreigners and even Chinese can look like a competition.

Subconsciously, people judge each other by the way we speak English, relating it to our IQ level or even the extent of our cultural development.

However, it is important to remember that everybody has a different background and different mental abilities. Where we might excel in science or math or art, we may lack in language skills. Not to mention that some foreigners and Chinese just don't like English or prefer not to use it.

There is nothing wrong with learning English as a second language. What is wrong, however, is that it has become a cultural obligation of modern reality.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.


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