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.”*
Imagine 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”…