A white colleague asked me today for what she called a "totally non-gay favor." Intrigued and always eager to please (or at least eager to appear eager to please) I said sure, what is it?
She had, she said, during her casual carpool, met a man who was facing some problems at work, possibly because of his race or language. He had also, during the car ride, been speaking with another passenger in some kind of Chinese dialect. When she asked him whether he had been speaking in Mandarin or Cantonese (because she could not tell the difference), he told her he had been speaking both.
"You speak Mandarin, right?" she asked me.
I felt a kind of fear rising in me. Being asked whether I speak Mandarin or another Chinese dialect is a fraught question and to me always carries overtones (intended or not, conscious or not) of "you're actually Chinese, aren't you?" Not only that, but even after being told by the man that he had spoken in both Cantonese and Mandarin, my colleague continued to assert that she did not know what dialect he was speaking. BOTH! I wanted to shout. JUST LIKE HE TOLD YOU! Instead I said "sometimes my parents speak in a mixture of dialects, or switch between them. Cantonese and Hokkien." I also felt that I should say that I didn't really speak Cantonese. Just to manage expectations, you know.
She said it seemed to her that he was not that comfortable speaking with her in English and would I speak with him in Chinese and give him contact information for some organizations she had found that might help him (two API legal organizations in California).
Umm sure I said.
Did I want to make the call together at my desk or at her desk?
In fact my first feeling was that I didn't want to make the call together at all. I hate being watched as I speak Mandarin, whether by a speaker of Mandarin or not. I feel like my very identity as a Chinese person is under examination. Maybe, I wanted to say, you could just give me his number and I could call him in my own time, by myself. I didn't say that, though. Instead I said let's make the call in my office.
Before that, though, we had a series of meetings to attend. I was distracted throughout, rehearsing in my head my Mandarin vocabulary, unable to completely focus on the subject of the meetings. What would I say? How would I say it? How would I not appear completely "Americanized" (which is to say white, which is to say unable to fluently speak Mandarin) in front of this stranger and my colleague? In short - how would I preserve and defend my image and identity as an ethnically Chinese immigrant from an Asian country?
We prepared for the call, sitting together in my office. I suggested that it would probably be best if my colleague spoke first so he wouldn't have the experience of a complete stranger calling him seemingly out of the blue. Also I wanted to have a little time to read his accent and determine the various things one sometimes "read" in an accent - native dialect, class, fluency with English.
As I listened to the ringtone, my senses keened. Everything in the room came into sharp focus. Sounds were crisper and clearer, and time itself seemed to slow down. I was acutely aware of my colleague's expression, the information on my computer screen, the papers on my desk, the feel of my new t-shirt on my chest.
He picked up, and my colleague introduced herself as the person whom he had met in casual carpool. Then I introduced myself as Ming and said I was her colleague. What's your surname, he asked. Wong, I said (or Huang, since we were speaking Mandarin). I quickly transitioned into giving him the information my colleague had prepared, unable to really make small talk, and again, aware the whole time of my colleague watching and listening to me. I started out with a disused bicycle feeling. Wobbly, uncertain. It got a little better as his reactions to my speech seemed to be comprehension and some amount of attentiveness. When he told me a bit more about his situation, I was surprised by how much I understood. Will there be people at these organizations who speak Chinese, he asked. I told him I was pretty sure there would be. He ended the call by thanking us in Mandarin and English (overly profusely, I thought, but maybe that's an immigrant trait coming out. I'm actually sure I do the much same thing - being unreasonably grateful for the smallest and most incompetently rendered of favors).
After the call, my colleague said she had learned the words for "zero" and "five" (digits that were repeated in the phone numbers I gave him), and that she guessed the word for "Yes" was "dui." I explained that I didn't think there was a direct gloss for "yes" in Mandarin, and that there were at least three distinct words, "dui," "shi" and "hao" that conveyed different aspects of what the word "yes" conveyed in English. I then summarized what I had talked about with the man. We went back to our day. I was flushed, relieved. I felt I had passed. Passed as Chinese enough. At least for the day.