When I was 12, my sister and I spent three weeks at a summer camp held in a Chinese university north of Beijing. The aim was for us to better our knowledge of the language and its application in everyday life. I can’t be certain whether my parents knew the camp was going to be filled with 17-20 year old Asian English students or not, but on the first day during orientation, my very young self and my even younger sister met our much older, soon-to-be classmates.
Having mustered up the confidence (which took the whole two hours of orientation do’s and don’ts) to go speak to one of them, my sister and I approached a “big kid” (hands clenched around each other for support) and introduced ourselves.
“Oh your english is so good! Where did you learn to speak english?”
“We go to an international school.”
Being 12, my chest swelled with pride. My english was good! The English Big Kids approved!
On the last day, each one of us had a small notebook that we’d ask other people to write in as a memento for the wonderful three weeks that we had spent together. I recently found it again after a spring cleaning in January (I know).
“I was so surprised when you started speaking English to us that first morning – we had just assumed you guys couldn’t speak English.”
More recently, a close friend of a relative (let’s call him T), was in local market when he overheard some tourists complaining about the inefficiencies of the way things were being done. The tourist ranted that it was “inconvenient and reeks of stupidity. No wonder [we] were still in the developing world.” Naturally, T turned around and defended our homeland, explaining the sound logic behind the methods and shaming him for coming to our country and insulting it; his assumption that it was safe to speak loudly and rudely in English because we couldn’t understand is not only naive but also offensive.
But why would you make that assumption? In that summer camp, we looked the same, we all were of the same ethnicity; our only difference (apart from age) was where we were from. Did coming from South East Asia and looking oriental automatically categorise me as a non-english speaking Asian tourist? The many years of hard work my parents had put in for both me and my sister to attend the (at the time) best international school in the city had been automatically erased because of our somatic appearance and ethnicity.
Understandably, a tourist going to, say, Japan is not expected to be able to speak Japanese. However, Japanese is not nearly as globalised as English is. Take it back to the British Empire if you will, but almost every transaction between two countries that speak different languages will be done in English. English is the “universal” language, as Euro-centric as that may be. Sure, Mandarin is a rising global language, but until almost every country uses Mandarin to bridge the language barrier, English will remain the only “universal” language.
My country has never been colonised and I take great pride in the fact. However, this creates a (rather unfounded if you ask me) preconception that our people do not speak English, let alone have the ability to be fluent in it. But is it not then so naive to believe that a South East Asian country lacks the capacity to educate their people to speak the language required for global communication and interaction? I wonder how many times the hard work my parents had put in and the education I had received were automatically undermined because of these preconceptions that neither my sister nor I have any control over. Perhaps it would be beneficial for both parties to err on the side of caution before making sweeping assumptions about others.