The Chinese national identity has long been tied up with its language, for natives and foreigners alike.
There's an experience common to many first-time visitors to China, who often recount it with surprise, delight, and a sense of discovering something uniquely Chinese. It happens when they utter their first sentence in mandarin to a Chinese stranger -- a taxi driver, a watermelon vendor, or an old man practicing water calligraphy in the park -- and see the person's face instantly light up in amazement. That amazement might turn to reverence if the speaker can demonstrate even a shaky comfort with the language. Waiguoren -- foreigners -- are no longer a rare sight in many parts of this briskly modernizing country, and with the worldwide boom in studying Chinese, an increasing number of them bring language skills. While the novelty is wearing off, Chinese continue to be fascinated by foreigners able to speak their mother tongue. It's a fun moment of cross-cultural bonding, but it's also a product of China's complicated relationship with its own language, which for centuries has been tied up with its national identity. As China and its place in the world are changing, so is the meaning of the Chinese language for natives and foreigners alike.
Most recently, this fascination manifested in Chinese web user's reactions to (and obsessive viewing of) a viral Internet video, in which a young half-Caucasian, half-Asian American impersonates 12 different characters, among them a Beijinger, a Hong Kong Chinese, a Taiwanese, a New Yorker, an African American, and a score of non-Chinese foreigners speaking English with exaggerated native accents. His immaculate Chinese and jarringly precise grasp of the slangs, accents, and subtleties in the language's regional variations amazed his Chinese audience. "What are you trying to do?" Some users, pinching a line from his skit, asked on Weibo, where the video, which has over 5 million views on Youku, has been forwarded more than 435,000 times.