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#49 Language Proficiency

Posted March 29th, 2008 by avaliant · 25 Comments

The very first thing an Asian person will do when meeting other Asians of the same ethnicity (Chinese, Korean, etc.) is evaluate how ‘Asian” the other people are. A quick assessment will be made based on clothing, hairstyle, and accent. However, the most important part of this process involves speaking in the Asian mother tongue.


During the first conversation, the most confident Asian will find some excuse to speak in their mother language. This may involve ordering food (if at an Asian restaurant) or asking what another person’s Asian name is. Once this is done, they will all engage in what is not so much a conversation but a battle of wills. Each will attempt to assert their superiority by speaking more fluently than the other.

Winning this battle involves speaking faster and with a better accent than the other person. If they are able to use a word that the other person has to ask the definition of, the asian will have scored a great victory. However, if they mispronounce a word, or even worse, have to ask someone to slow down, then they have indubitably failed. The other Asians will know that they are inferior to them in terms of their ‘Asian-ness,” and the asian will have to face that for the remainder of the time they spend with these people.

Ranking ‘Asian-ness” is done using a complicated scoring system. At the bottom is simply being able to understand the language. This is a common characteristic of Asians who spoke English to their parents, but were spoken to in their mother tongue. But like any commonality, it is nothing worth bragging about. The rest of the list follows in increasing point value: speaking with an English accent, speaking with a perfect pitch, and finally being able to read and write.
Interestingly enough, no points are awarded for speaking English with an Asian accent. The pinnacle of Asian superiority is to be able to switch between flawless English and Asian languages at will, the inevitable deciding factor in this game of linguistic battleship.

In the case of a tie, bonus points are awarded to the asian who has lived longest in another Asian country. Like everything else, these are also ranked. ‘Oh, I was born in Korea but my parents moved here when I was three,” falls short of ‘We moved back to Taiwan when I was ten, and I finished high school there,” and finally, “Yeah, it’s really different than growing up here…”

How can you use this information? If you aren’t Asian, and you happen to have a decent grasp of an Asian language (perhaps through a college course), you gain a tremendous amount of leverage when hanging out with Asians. Just strategically drop your knowledge of the Asian language into the conversation (some examples ““ talk about your semester abroad in Asia or order food at an Asian restaurant, etc.). You will immediately shame any Asians who cannot speak as well as you with the knowledge that a non-Asian is more ‘Asian” than they are. On the other hand, Asians with an equal or better grasp of their mother language will be positively delighted that you have taken an interest in their culture. They will constantly attempt to speak their language with you in order to help you practice, and also to shame all the ‘lesser” Asians in the group.

Note: If you are a white male, you can use this to pick up Asian girls with great success.

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25 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sy88 // Mar 29, 2008 at 9:04 pm

    Oh availant, so true, so true. Especially with white guys who speak Chinese better than I do, god I just want to punch them in the face… *shakes fist towards the sky* Steal our girls, why don’t you… But it’s really a Catch-22, if they can say ‘ni hao’ in a crappy Western accent, it seems attractive to Asian girls all the same. Hmm, what a conundrum…

    The sad thing is, most of my relatives who still live in Asia speak almost 5 languages or dialects, which beats my measly 1 1/2 languages… (it’s more like 1 1/3 actually)

    And yes, I do feel immense shame about it… *bows head*

  • 2 MK // Mar 30, 2008 at 6:01 am

    I don’t know how important speaking your ethnic language really is in terms of Asian-ness, at least not Asian-American-ness. The cultural stuff and commonality are important.

    So what if I am Chinese and you are Chinese? The Chinese you speak and the Chinese you speak might be completely different, unless you were hanging out only with other Cantonese speakers or only with other Mandarin speakers.

    Maybe Asians of other ethnicities view this language stuff more highly, but I never thought this was that important when I hung out primarily with Chinese American people and even Chinese Chinese people.

  • 3 sy88 // Mar 30, 2008 at 7:34 am

    MK, for a lot of us, Asian language proficiency is a bigger deal than you would think. Maybe not for someone who is totally proficient in an Asian language, or is not proficient at all but couldn’t care less.

    It’s for the insecure Asians around here *reluctantly raises hand* who have studied Chinese on and off for almost 20 years (I’m almost 20 – so since birth) and still can’t get fluent. Heck, I’m doing a Diploma of Languages in Chinese alongside my degree just so I can improve my already mediocre Chinese further. But this all stems back to that insecurity thing once again, of which I am guilty, once again…

    And I don’t know about Asian-Americans, but unaware as you may be, I’m what you could call Asian-Australian (the ABC term still applies, except substitute American for Australian), and perhaps it’s because we don’t get as entrenched into local culture as you Asian Yanks do, but surprisingly we do try to fit into Asian culture far more than you guys. Perhaps it’s from being so close to Asia, or maybe it’s because Australian culture is so, well, non-existent. (Bar kangaroos, the outback and putting a shrimp on the barbie. That’s about it.). We just get all our ‘culture’ and everything from you guys (the U.S that is). That’s why over here our Asian heritage is perhaps more important. It’s because sometimes it seems like we have nothing else. Or maybe it’s just me…

    And perhaps it’s because my university is FULL of international students from, guess where, yep, CHINA, that I feel that improvement in my own Chinese is required. Heck, I was practicing my spoken Chinese a while ago with someone else, and just looking around I got that feeling that every second person around me understood what I was saying, and was silently judging my lousy pronounciation among other things, but I digress…

    Wow ended up ranting, sorry if half of this doesn’t even make sense…

  • 4 Justin // Mar 30, 2008 at 9:59 am

    thanks for sharing your story…it makes perfect sense to me…i agree w/ the comparison of america vs. australia’s motive for learning the language..i definitely see this post in america among Asians who try to speak or have parents who still speak

  • 5 Zunxian // Mar 30, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    All totally true, and totally shameworthy (for me). Except the last paragraph… don’t give tips to the 白種鬼子!! They’ve got more than a leg up on us already— encouraging them to study our languages will only make it worse.

  • 6 avaliant // Mar 30, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    I guess my experience as an ABC (Chinese American) has been that language is important. As an aside, my Chinese is really poor, so that’s where I’m coming from. Anyway, maybe it’s because I’m in California and there’s lots of Asians here, but I have met Chinese people who seem to try to speak Chinese all the time in conversations. It doesn’t happen that often, but enough that I thought I’d write about it. Also, my experience visiting Taiwan was that people thought I ought to speak better Chinese.

  • 7 Amy // Mar 31, 2008 at 2:17 am

    “The pinnacle of Asian superiority is to be able to switch between flawless English and Asian languages at will”

    hahaha, this one hits the nail on the head!
    Me, guilty as charged. :)

  • 8 YASPY Chick // Mar 31, 2008 at 5:31 am

    What bugs me is how some people automatically assume you speak their language. I’m often stopped on the subway by older Mandarin-speaking ladies who just come up to me and ask me for directions in Mandarin. They do not ask me if I actually speak the language first. If I were in a place that wasn’t English-speaking, I would not go up to a random person and ask for directions in English.

    Speaking flawless English and ________? This is RARE! I know a few people who are accentless in both, but they’re only TECHNICALLY accentless. The tone they speak the Asian language is usually kind of Englishy or vice versa. For example, they might speak Cantonese with a slight valley girl lilt or English with a bit of Hong Kong Mall Rat/Hong Kong Princess (you know, the slightly baby voice….a think Marilyn Monroe).

  • 9 MapleApple // Mar 31, 2008 at 5:56 pm

    I live in NYC so I encounter a lot of Asian people /tourists/delivery people who ask me for directions.

    They are Chinese 1/2 the time and I get a few Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese people in the mix. I am a CBC (Canadian) and can speak fluent Cantonese (all those HK dramas when I was a kid!!). I have no problem giving directions in Cantonese.

    The problem arises when people who speak Mandarin come up to me for directions. I tell them in Mandarin that “I don’t know” or “I don’t speak Mandarin” (I also took a college course in Mandarin a gazillion years ago and that’s all I remember). The people look at me like I don’t want to help them and give me the evil eye. They just keep talking in Mandarin as if nothing happened. Maybe I should just shake my head and speak in English next time.

  • 10 sy88 // Mar 31, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    “What bugs me is how some people automatically assume you speak their language. I’m often stopped on the subway by older Mandarin-speaking ladies who just come up to me and ask me for directions in Mandarin.”

    Yes Yaspy very true. That happens with me as well, but not just with Mandarin, but Cantonese, other Chinese dialects, and on rare occasions other Asian languages lke Korean and Japanese are hurled at me. That’s what you get for being Asian though…

  • 11 Amy // Mar 31, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    “Speaking flawless English and ________? This is RARE! I know a few people who are accentless in both, but they’re only TECHNICALLY accentless. The tone they speak the Asian language is usually kind of Englishy or vice versa. ”

    Yeap, I second this. I reckon that the more languages you know, the less proficient you’d be at each of them. It’s only logical, we all have only so much brain cells. So while I admire my Malaysian friends for speaking at least 4 different tongues (English, Malay, Mandarin & a few other Chinese dialects), I must admit that very few of them excel in speaking, or writing, each of those languages.

    Me, I have problems enough with two! So “to be able to switch between flawless English and Asian languages at will” is some kind of a dream really.

    Re: getting asked for directions in any random Asian languages. Sometimes it irks me a bit, but often I just feel sorry for those people and a bit sad that I can’t speak that language to help them. Most of the time it’s the elderly people who do that, and they reminds me of my parents. Not that my parents would assume any Asian is Vietnamese and start firing questions at them, mind. But I always remember how happy they are every time they meet another Vietnamese in Aus. It breaks the heart. So in a way I’m glad that they live where they can haggle (!) all they want. hehehe :) But i digressed (again)!

  • 12 sy88 // Apr 1, 2008 at 6:07 am

    “Sometimes it irks me a bit, but often I just feel sorry for those people and a bit sad that I can’t speak that language to help them.”

    You know, that’s interesting Amy. For me, when it comes to Chinese (whatever dialect, mainly Mandarin, which I should be able to speak by now), when someone asks for directions in Mandarin and I can’t respond, or respond in English, I kinda feel sorry for myself. I don’t really know why. You know, in an English-speaking country (Australia), I shouldn’t really feel that way, and technically they should be the ones feeling guilty for not being able/not willing to speak English in an English-speaking country, but I can’t help but feel guilty at my own incompetence in those times. There’s just that expectation, being Asian, and when it shows that I can’t fulfil it by speaking with a fellow Asian, it just makes me feel terrible.

    But then again, when I go to an Asian country and speak English there out of my inability to converse properly outside of my language, I feel guilty doing that as well. Gosh, I’m seeming very guilt-ridden, aren’t I?

    Oh and going back to the general Asian language thing, Amy, I’m not even Vietnamese, but in Melbourne (where I’m from) there’s a lot of Vietnamese-ish suburbs (like Footscray and Springvale to a lesser extent) where the people there kinda expect you to speak Vietnamese, because you’re of East Asian appearance and you’re in that suburb. I have experienced many a Vietnamese vegetable seller screaming in my ear in Vietnamese much to my chagrin. Lucky I can’t understand a word…

  • 13 sy88 // Apr 1, 2008 at 6:10 am

    Wow, *cough* RANT *cough*

    Sorry, about that…

  • 14 avaliant // Apr 2, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    ‘Speaking flawless English and ________? This is RARE! I know a few people who are accentless in both, but they’re only TECHNICALLY accentless. The tone they speak the Asian language is usually kind of Englishy or vice versa. “

    That’s why it’s the pinnacle of Asian superiority!

    Also, sy88, I feel you on the guilt part. I alternate between that and not caring at all what other Asians think of me.

  • 15 eastercat // Apr 9, 2008 at 11:25 pm

    Although I should feel bad for not being able to speak Korean (I know the names for various food products), it doesn’t bug me.
    So does this mean I’m on the subterranean part of the Asian achievement pole? :-)

  • 16 Epeuthutebetes // Jun 9, 2008 at 3:25 pm

    Cantonese immigrants think I have no accent. My English is pretty normal, maybe a little more East-Coast-flavoured than Californian English.

    Unfortunately, I don’t read or write all that much, although people these days, with the deteriorating penmanship standards of the time, think I have good Chinese handwriting, which makes me look more Asian.

  • 17 Lucy // Aug 19, 2008 at 1:57 pm

    I actually think it’s annoying when a non-Asian attempts to speak Chinese and fails. If they can speak it flawlessly without an accent, it’s a huge plus. But, if they try and fail by saying “ni-hoa” in the most American accent, I get really annoyed. It’s great that they know that, but pronunciation is a pet-peeve of mine, and I absolutely hate American accents when people try to speak Chinese.

  • 18 hi // Dec 28, 2008 at 1:03 pm

    I don’t see anything wrong in that – if I spoke another language, I too would probablt prefer to speak my own language so that’s fine

  • 19 languageman // Feb 15, 2009 at 2:45 am

    “Speaking flawless English and ________? This is RARE! I know a few people who are accentless in both, but they’re only TECHNICALLY accentless. The tone they speak the Asian language is usually kind of Englishy or vice versa. ”

    Like someone said before, that’s why it’s the pinnacle of ‘asian superiority.’ =)

    I speak Cantonese and Mandarin natively and English as a 2nd (3rd?) language. I feel that I have a pretty good grasp of the English language and someone speaking to me on the phone would be unable to distinguish me from an Anglo-American. I read and write Chinese as well and regularly read the Singtao newspaper that my dad brings when he drops by (every weekend =\). It’s mostly to read about the HK/China/Taiwan gossip columns because the rest of the news is just a Chinese rehash of the news items available in English media.

    It didn’t always used to be that way. When I was younger, even though I spoke Chinese at home and went to Chinese school, I loathed Chinese. I hated going to Chinese school and not knowing what the hell they were talking about because the written language is much different from the spoken forms. I cheated on all my tests and copied others for homework assignments and managed to survive up until graduation from the 6th grade. Fast-forward years later, and I was unable to read a single word…

    But then one event got me riled so badly that I was determined to learn my native language. I went to a restaurant when I was in my teens and the waiter handed me a menu that was exclusively Chinese [there were menus in English, but the waiter felt that I was Chinese-fluent]. Well, needless to say, I couldn’t make out a single word on that damn menu and asked the waiter for the English menu. The look of disappointment on his face, it was like he was telling me – “You’re an utter failure and a grave disappointment to your ancestors. It’s because of people like you that the line to our glorious culture and language will be broken.”

    And from that day on, I vowed that I will be able to read any type of menu and Chinese restaurant throws at me. I would be, in some instances, more skilled than people who grew up in China. If I could do it, I don’t see why others can’t. It’s hard, but definitely doable…

    I know most people would have encountered a similar experience where a Chinese menu was handed to them and wouldn’t feel the same shame and I think that ultimately goes back to whether a person is interested in maintaining their heritage and language or whether they are willing to invest the time and effort it takes to preserve a culture/language that has little relation to mainstream society.

    Before I end this long rant I’d like to note that the Australian fellow above makes a good point about Australian-Asians remaining closer to their roots because their mainstream culture is essentially an implant of American culture…

  • 20 haha // Sep 1, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    *sighs* this is so true. not just in australia but everywhere whether you’re chinese or not. i mean, it’s embarassing when you’re around your family and you don’t really understand what they are saying and especially when around your family’s friends b/c then you’re not just embarassing yourself, but your whole family. plus, asian parents LOVE to compare you to other people so if you aren’t fluent in their native language, you are not as good as your mom’s friend’s daughter or something. also, i have a older sister who went to chinese school up until high school and lived in an area where there were tons of chinese people so she became proficient in both cantonese, mandarin, and english. but for me, i only went to chinese school for one year and was almost never around other chinese speaking people becuase by that time, my family had moved to somewhere else becuase it was better for my older sister but now it was inconvient to send me to chinese school. so now even though i’m better at english then my sister, i only know cantonese and i’m not very good at that either. which really really sucks becuase i know i’m going to be missing out on a lot and the worst thing is that my parents yell at me for not being as good as my sister!

    erm, this was a long rant…ehehe…>.< anyway, the point i wanted to make was that alot of being proficient in both languages is not really to see who’s better but to not be a embarassment to your family

  • 21 unisex // Sep 13, 2009 at 7:25 am

    the term “ASIAN” is very controvercial.

    actually, what we usually call asian is very limited.

    TRUE ASIAN is CHINESE(including taiwanese),KOREAN,JAPANESE.

    you fake southeastasian don’t pretend to be an asian.
    you are just asianwannabe whose IQ and ability are below ASIAN STANDARD.

    (IQ and global inequality)

  • 22 Anonymous // Dec 24, 2009 at 5:54 am

    @unisex, China, Korea, Japan (and Taiwan) are EAST ASIAN countries. Asians simply means anyone from the continent of Asia. In addition to that, I am a Southeast Asian of Chinese descent… so I consider myself Chinese. Great-grandfather on mom’s side came straight from China, so I wouldn’t say that was too many generations away.

  • 23 xxxx // Aug 30, 2011 at 11:30 am

    i should have skipped your blog,but i couldnt,typical white guy,loser,troll,downgrading asians with a monkey culture of his own ugly women and men,and evil,i am < white guy too,troll,die.

  • 24 Jack De Sanchez // Dec 19, 2011 at 6:44 am

    white people sometimes annoy me so much. because i am half viet, they walk up to me and say konnichiwa =, but im not half Japanese, im half vietnamese and i speak vietnamese. i have had this with my uncle. me and him always get into language proficency contest. he always wnds up correcting

  • 25 Jack De Sanchez // Dec 19, 2011 at 6:45 am


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