How I felt Chinese for a moment

Somewhere I read that Chinese people sometimes have trouble understanding Americans who try to speak Chinese simply because Chinese people don’t listen for Chinese from Americans.

I found that hard to believe. More likely, that’s just the story Americans tell when their pronunciation is so bad no one can understand them.

Or so I thought the other morning.

Yesterday morning, going through the checkout line at E-Mart, the cashier said, “Shah-ping pae-guh.” That’s as well as I could remember it.

It stumped me.

When they tell me the price, even if I can’t always catch the exact number on first pass, I can usually get pretty close. I can definitely recognize when I hear numbers. She wasn’t telling me the price.

Her voiced had turned up when she spoke. That meant she was probably asking something. More than anything, the pause in the checkout process confirmed that.

The question that used to get me was about some kind of point card. I still don’t know all the details about that one. I just know enough to recognize the question and say I don’t have one of those cards.

The only other non-conversational questions I commonly hear is…

Oh, that’s what she was saying!

“Shah-ping pae-guh?”¬†She was saying, “Shopping bag?” That’s the other question they sometimes ask. I quickly told her I didn’t want one, and she resumed the checkout.

As I replayed the scene over in my mind on the way out of the store, I realized she had spoken with a pretty good accent. She added the Korean “uh” to the end of “bag,” making it a two syllable word, but that’s typical. I live with that all day at work. Why didn’t I understand her?

Then I realized why. I’d made the Chinese mistake, the one I thought wasn’t really possible. I had been listening for Korean, so I didn’t pick up on her English.

I take back my former assumptions. I guess it is possible to listen so hard for another language that words in your native language escape you. Pretty crazy how that works.

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