Conversing with House Plants

During my first year in China some friends who’d been around a little longer than me introduced me to the concept of “House Plant Syndrome.”*

potplantsImagine you are at a party at someone’s house. You’re hanging out, minding your own business, when suddenly a house plant starts talking to you. Now, there are several way you could respond to this. Perhaps you would ignore it – because everyone knows house plants can’t talk. Perhaps you would nudge the person next to you, ask if they heard it as well. Perhaps you would try talking back to the house plant, engaging it in conversation – but if you did so, you would probably be a bit incredulous, maybe you’d laugh at the craziness of the situation.

I am that house plant.

The story of the talking house plant explains what can happen here when a white person unexpectedly speaks Chinese. It’s especially true with Chinese who haven’t met foreigners before. I, and the group of friends who coined the term, saw House Plant Syndrome at work at lot in small restaurants, with young waitresses fresh off the farm and new to the city. When one of us would try to order, a new waitress might look down at her notepad and giggle, or look blankly at us, or call to another waitress to help her. The one thing she wouldn’t do was HEAR what we were saying.

Over time I learned to dodge House Plant Syndrome by talking without being looked at. I visited a favourite restaurant at least once a week with friends from school. They were ethnically Chinese Indonesians and while I had better Mandarin, they looked Chinese. Waitresses there would often just not hear me when I tried to ask for things – they would stare blankly at me, not even hearing what I was saying. I was white, so it didn’t matter what I was saying, it obviously wasn’t Mandarin. So I learned to be sneaky. I wouldn’t call their attention, I wouldn’t even look at them. I would speak clearly while looking in another direction. Without the “foreigners don’t speak Mandarin” filter, the waitresses heard and understood me easily and responded immediately. As long as they didn’t know it was me ;)

A few years later, as my Mandarin became more fluent, and my foreign accent diminished, it became easier to catch people unaware. If I started speaking before a person looked at me, or paid attention, they might assume I was a Chinese person, and speak “normally” to me, before realising I was actually a house plant.

This happened a lot with taxis in Langfang. A lot of the time I called a cab, as it wasn’t always easy to find one to flag down. I would call the company and tell them my location, the dispatcher would put the message out to the drivers, and when one accepted the fare the dispatcher would give them my mobile number. I would get a call from the driver, and would confirm my location; often I was being picked up from a small housing complex off the main road and had to explain how to get there. This meant I had a short conversation with the driver long before they saw me. Then I would get in the cab, say where I wanted to go, and we would drive off in silence. 20 seconds later, he would burst out “You speak such good Mandarin! I thought you were Chinese!” This happened almost every week.

One of my Dad’s favourite moments when we were travelling in 2009 was a House Plant Syndrome moment. We were in Lijiang, and were wandering the old town one evening. I saw a stall selling a sort of walnut cake that is a local speciality; I stopped, asked the price, then asked for a small bag. The woman responded and then turned to take my money and give me the walnut cakes – and stopped. She stood stock still, in shock, the moment she saw my face. I was clearly not what she expected…! There was a few seconds of shock, then she burst out “You speak such good Mandarin! I thought you were Chinese!”

I am rarely seen as a talking houseplant anymore, especially in Beijing; there are so many foreigners, and most speak at least a little Mandarin. There may be surprise at my fluency, or accent, but I don’t get so much of the blank stare, the assumption that whatever sounds come out of my mouth can not possibly be Mandarin. It’s more likely to happen in smaller cities, especially in tourist places, that see foreigners come through with no Chinese at all – where the assumption is that I’m speaking a foreign language. In Beijing I’m least heard by people accustomed to speaking to foreigners in English – therefore trying to find English words in my Mandarin sentence. But the more I work on my accent and fluency, the less these misunderstandings happen. Definitely a good reason to keep working on my language!

* We actually called it “Pot Plant Syndrome” but I soon discovered that this phrase carried a very different implication to Americans. After a while I got sick of having the story derailed while I explained what “pot plant” means in Australian English, and the whole interesting concept being lost in giggles about “pot”…

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10 thoughts on “Conversing with House Plants

  1. Glad you strayed away from calling it pot plant! ha!
    Here’s to hoping this will happen to me in Brazil with my Portuguese!

  2. Pot plant could work.

    In any case, plant is a funny name for this syndrome. It’s always annoying when you speak actual Mandarin and the person just doesn’t want to comprehend you are saying it. But yes happens less often in the big cities.

    It’s also annoying when everyone says “you speak such good Mandarin!” I never know how to respond to that, in my own case I know it’s not true. Sometimes I halfheartedly say 谢谢, sometimes I politely say 哪里哪里

    • I don’t find it annoying – there’s rarely malice involved. It’s hard to comprehend how strange it must be for a small town person to hear a foreigner speak Chinese – English speakers are accustomed to people of all races speaking English, it’s spoken natively in countries on every continent. But China is the only place, and Chinese the only race, who speak Chinese natively (other than immigrants). But yeah, getting far less common.

      I used to say 哪里哪里还差得远, which at first delighted Chinese people, but once my language abilities developed past a certain point they would crook an eyebrow and tell me it clearly wasn’t 差得远 (still lacking a lot) and that such false modesty wasn’t appropriate. Then I switched to 过奖了- meaning “you praise me too much”. That works most of the time. Sometimes though I just say that after ten years here it’s only natural that I speak decent Mandarin.

  3. It’s even worse when we try to speak Mandarin to Chinese people in the States! They have no category for white people speaking Mandarin.

    I found it goes both ways though too. I was always amused in China when people called on the phone trying to sell us something like insurance, and it would take several answers of us saying something like, “I’m not interested in this because I’m a foreigner” until they finally would say, “Wait, you’re not Chinese?!?” Apparently if you can speak it well, you must NOT be a foreigner. Such low expectations for us! :)

    • At least when they respond to me in Mandarin and THEN realise I’m a foreigner they’re over the hump of knowing they CAN engage in conversation with them. Although it doesn’t always work out smoothly – just yesterday a Chinese woman I had had several text message and voice conversations with in Chinese saw me in person, realised I was a foreigner, and then proceeded to speak to me only in English.

    • It’s funny to look back on this now – I live in an area of Sydney with a significant Chinese population, and I’ve learned which staff at my favourite Chinese restaurants can handle me speaking Mandarin and which flip out ;)

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