The Laowai Psychological Street Fight

I’ve always been a lousy liar. Remembering whom I’ve told what to is difficult for me when it’s the truth, but add in the complexity of deceit, well… forget it.

About five years ago my buddies and I started up a weekly Texas Hold’em game, and this taught me the “bluff”. Now here was a lie I could get into. It was limited in scope, non-committal, and expected. Sadly (ok, not too sadly) backpacking Europe and S.E. Asia got in the way of honing my skills to a Johnny Chan level.

However, over the course of time I’ve been “in country” here in China, I’ve subtly whet this skill without even knowing it. My bluff? That I speak Chinese.

You see, rarely a few days go by when I don’t find myself in a situation where I walk by a group of (almost always male) 20somethings that mumble “safsefaeadfaelÇŽowàiawkfjal awfd ahwdawh awdawhadwwÇ’càoasdw wfaw”. This is usually followed by the Laowai-hair-raising “Hellooooo!”

And that’s where they make their face-losing mistake. You see, as pitiful as my Chinese is, it’s better than their English. In no small part because I live in China, and am married to a Chinese woman, while they most likely are not spending six months a year in Aspen and dating some 外国女人.

So, time to bluff. As soon as they start referencing me (always in the “he can’t understand us, or this shit we’re talking about him” way) I ready myself for the coming “Helloooo”. When it arrives, I pounce with an overly sincere and surprised: “你会说英语吗!?!”

This simple sentence is the cornerstone of solid psychological street fighting in China.

In one easy to remember (and more importantly, easily understood) sentence of Chinese, I castrate my opponent by not just letting it be known bluffing that I understood every word they just said about me, but I also force them into admitting that their bogus English greeting was, in fact, the extent of their extra-lingual skills. And the cherry on top, it’s done while demonstrating (or rather, bluffing) that I can speak Chinese.

Now sure, if I was certain of what was being said about me, I’d likely rip ’em a new one (I’ve now got the vocab). But when I’m not 100%, this is a simple little method of keeping some chalk on the Laowai side of the scoreboard.

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