After a hearty hotpot meal on McDonnell Road, my gweilo colleague and I took a taxi home. We told the driver we first needed to be dropped off at the number four ferry terminal and then my place.
He repeated the number in English and drove off. When we arrived he said, "Here you are, number four."
After my colleague left the taxi to catch the ferry that would depart in two minutes, I remarked to the driver that his English pronunciation was very good.
"Us older people will say the words even if they don't come out right. We're not afraid," he said.
I added that young people today don't speak English very well and he said that it was because they had fewer opportunities to use their language skills. "I've seen them try to explain something simple in English and can't even do it. One time someone asked why the taxi covered the "hire" sign [to indicate it was a taxi that wanted to cross the harbour] and the person couldn't even explain it clearly.
"Also there are gweilo who say to them, 'You're speaking Chinglish'." The driver implied it wasn't fair to someone speaking a second language. "The most important thing is communication and getting through to each other.
"But you know, those dark-skinned people, they are very talented. They speak Chinese, both Cantonese and Mandarin very well," he observed. "Some speak so well they hardly have any accent. Some have come here for a year and only started speaking when they arrived."
I suggested perhaps they were very good at listening, but also because they had an interest in learning. "Most gweilo don't know any Chinese because they don't have to learn because they know people will speak English to them."
The driver continued on about his amazement of Africans and their ability to speak Chinese. "You," he said, referring to me, "have a bit of an accent, but them, if I didn't see them, I wouldn't even know they were foreigners."
Ouch. I need to practice my Cantonese even more!
I have heard of some Africans speaking perfect Mandarin in Guangzhou and Beijing, and some don't mind being performing monkeys on television to give themselves more exposure. But they understand the importance of learning the language; another theory is that because most Chinese are not comfortable around Africans that speaking the local language could disarm their fears.
Either way they have a really good strategy to win over the Chinese. Now that's soft power.