Linguist left speechless
By Lin Shujuan
Updated: 2008-02-29 07:11

 

Brendan O'Kane not only speaks Chinese like a native, but also writes a popular blog in Chinese. Guo Yingguang

Anyone who has been in Beijing for a while knows how the taxi drivers behave - they talk a lot about everything. Hence the other day, Brendan O'Kane, an Irish American who has been living in Beijing for the past four years, was not surprised that the cabbie started chatting even before he'd gotten comfortable in his seat.

For about 10 minutes, the driver tried to convince him that "foreigners can never really learn Chinese".

O'Kane was amused. Apparently, the taxi driver had assumed he was a Chinese. Dark brown haired, O'Kane is of medium height and has a slim figure. He admits that from time to time, people in China mistaken him as a Uygur.

"I am American," says the 24-year-old in articulated Mandarin, as clearly and fluently as one might expect from a native speaker.

The taxi driver was suspicious. For a while, he threw several glances back at his passenger.

"Of course, there will always be some exceptional few who might really make it. But that's only because they have some Chinese ancestry," continues the taxi driver, sure that he would at least this time strike a chord with his Chinese-like foreign passenger.

But he was wrong again.

Born to an Irish father and an American mother, O'Kane grew up in Philadelphia. He doesn't know of any trace of Chinese blood in his family tree, at least not within the last five generations.

Yet he can not only speak Chinese like a native, he reads Chinese classics, recites poems from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), reviews and translates Chinese modern literature.

He also writes as well as a highly educated native Chinese. Over the past few years, he has been contributing to a number of Chinese newspapers as a freelance columnist. And his popular blog (http://www.bokane.org/chinese/), called Zai Beijing Zhao Bu Dao Bei in Chinese, or "disoriented in the orient" in English, discusses topics ranging from introducing astronaut cuisine to the Middle Kingdom, to Mandarin translations of Dante's Inferno.

In the netsphere, he is known as "the American who keeps a Chinese blog". "Foreigners writing in Chinese is still novel to most people here," says O'Kane. "That's the reason my blog is getting so much attention."

O'Kane admits he is a little uncomfortable about this. For him, the popularity of his blog is more a demonstration of the "talking dog effect" rather than his excellence in Chinese writing.

"Compared to those Chinese bloggers like Wang Xiaofeng, I am still nobody. And I am happy to stay that way."

It's not that O'Kane dislikes fame so much. Coming from the United States, a migratory country, O'Kane says he is used to people from other countries speaking English very well. Hence it seems incredible for him that in China, people can become celebrities for simply speaking Chinese.

"But I guess I just have to get used to it," he says.

O'Kane admits that he has inherited some linguistic talent from his parents - his father can speak five foreign languages, his mother six.

By the time O'Kane started to learn Chinese as a high school student in 1998, he had already learnt Irish, Spanish and Italian. "Yet none of them sounds so natural to me like Chinese. I was addicted immediately."

In summer of 2001, O'Kane visited Beijing for the first time on a summer program jointly organized by Stanford University and Peking University.

Before he arrived, O'Kane thought he had mastered a decent amount of Chinese, only to find it difficult to fathom the heavily accented Beijing Mandarin.

"I love the accent, but it is terrible for those learning the language."

Undeterred, O'Kane made his second venture to the Middle Kingdom the following year as a full-time English teacher in Harbin, the capital city of Heilongjiang province.

Compared to Beijingers, people in Harbin speak clearer Mandarin. The moment O'Kane arrived in the city, he felt like he'd stepped "into a Chinese textbook".

O'Kane's Chinese improved a lot that year. This helped immensely during the outbreak of SARS, because while many foreigners left China, he was able to communicate with locals.

However, O'Kane says that becoming fluent was no easy task. In a sense, he agrees with the taxi driver - to really learn a language, be it your mother tongue or a foreign one, "it takes forever".

Harbin in 2003 was like Beijing in the early 1990s when foreigners were like "rare animals from the zoo", according to O'Kane. He says that his presence on the street in Harbin caused traffic accidents twice.

Since foreigners have now become a common sight in Beijing, there are far less stares. Moreover, according to O'Kane, it is "possible to have real friends, not those who are talking to you mainly because you are a foreigner".

More importantly though, O'Kane said he favors Beijing because it is "the most exciting city in China".

Comparably speaking, Shanghai is more livable and Westernized, where O'Kane, based on his limited knowledge of the city, believes that businessmen and backpackers will feel most at home. However, in Beijing, which is a big city and has so much going on, "you can decide whatever experience you want to have".

"Whether you're a student, a businessman, a tourist or an artist, you can find your own turf," he says.

While many have attributed this to the language barrier, O'Kane believes this is an excuse for those preferring to stick to their comfort zone of "being foreign".

"Chinese is in fact an easy language, at least not any more difficult than other languages," he says.

Thanks to his proficiency in Chinese, O'Kane says he has been able to kickstart a career as a freelance translator and writer.

He says that he used to see a lot of the city when he was a student, but now he mostly stays within the Second Ring Road, which in his opinion, is the coziest part of Beijing.

O'Kane says he is increasingly feeling at home in the capital: "After two weeks back in the States, I felt anxious to come back here." He has even found love - a Chinese artist who he has been seeing for about two and a half years.

However, despite these connections, O'Kane says that from time to time, he still feels like an outsider.

O'Kane recalls how one day, he and his Chinese girlfriend came across a caged mynah.

His girlfriend stopped first, and the mynah politely said to her in Chinese: "Ni hao!" But when O'Kane approached, the mynah greeted him in English: "Hello!"

(China Daily 02/29/2008 page19)