Often after I leave work I will take the commute home with fellow co workers. We walk to the station and then catching the subway together. During rush hour the Beijing subway is so tightly packed that sometimes people miss stops because they can’t get out before the doors close. People are forced into extremely close proximity and there’s not really a great deal you can do about it.
On this day we were squished in like the proverbial Sardines, a co worker and I were conversing away in Mandarin. All of a sudden the squished woman next to us began leaning her head in our direction, clearly keen to hear what we were talking about. This went on for a couple of minutes: us chatting away and the leaning head absorbing our conversation. When a gap in our conversation came about a couple of minutes later the curious woman turned to my colleague and asked “Is he an American?”
“No, he’s English.” She said.
”How is his Chinese so good?” asked the impressed woman, staring intently at my colleague, who at this point looked at me and asked “You studied Chinese at university, right?”
“Yes” I said.
“He studied Chinese at university.” My colleague informed the woman.
“Oh, okay. How long has he studied it for?”
Again, my colleague looked at me and said “how long have you studied Chinese for?”
“6 years.” I replied, marvelling at the absurdity of the conversation.
“6 years.” repeats my colleague to the woman.
“6 years? No wonder it’s so good.” she says, still avoiding my gaze. “You don’t come across many foreigners with Chinese like that.”
My colleague smiled and nodded in agreement.
Now, I enjoy being complimented as much as the next man, but this the most peculiar compliment I’ve ever received. Although I suppose technically I didn’t receive it, my co worker received it on my behalf. The funny thing is she didn’t seem to think this was odd at all. It’s almost as if this bizarre method of indirect complimenting is commonplace and I am the strange one for not understanding that. So, in the name of adapting to new cultures, the next time I eat anything delicious in a restaurant I’ll head to the shop down the street and tell the vendor to head over after I’ve left and let them know I had a lovely meal.