Othering and Projection: Chinese is confusing vs. Chinese are confused

In English, a person says, “It’s all Greek to me,” when they do not understand the words of someone else. In Greek, when a person does not understand, they say it sounds like Chinese. Many languages have an expression that names another language as epitome of unintelligibility. It turns out that in a directed graph, most languages converge on Chinese as the unintelligible language.

Directed graph shows various languages as nodes with arrows pointing at other languages, eventually pointing to the 'Chinese' node. The 'Chinese' node points to 'Heavenly Script'.

This is understandable. Chinese writing, especially Traditional Chinese, is very visually complex. Chinese characters are logograms, which makes learning how to read Chinese difficult.

However, there is a difference between finding Chinese writing confusing and alleging that Chinese people are confused.

According to Wikipedia:

Popular in the United States during the 1960s,[1][2] a Chinese fire drill is a gag performed by a vehicle’s occupants when stopped at a traffic light, especially when there is a need to change drivers or procure something from the trunk: Before the light changes to green, each occupant gets out, runs around the vehicle, and gets back inside (but not necessarily in his original seat). If one of the participants lags, the others may drive off without him.

Figuratively, a Chinese fire drill is an act—especially, any large, ineffective, and chaotic exercise—by a group of individuals that accomplishes nothing.


Around the time of World War I, British English’s adjective Chinese had a slang meaning of “confused, disorganized, or difficult to understand.” Other examples include:

  • “Chinese puzzle,” a puzzle with no or a hard-to-fathom solution[1]
  • Chinese whispers,” also known as “Telephone,” a children’s game in which a straightforward statement is shared through a line of players one player at a time until it reaches the end, often having been comically transformed along the way into a completely different statement.
  • Chinese auction,” a “penny social”
  • “Chinese national anthem,” an explosion
  • “Chinese landing,” a clumsy landing
  • “Chinese cigarette,” a bent, smashed, or slightly torn cigarette.
  • “Chinese ace,” an inept pilot, derived from the term One Wing Low (which sounds like a Chinese name), an aeronautical technique[1][2]

It appears that when you are Othering, associative thinking can lead you to project your own state on to the Other. For example, if you are often confused by Chinese, then you may stereotype Chinese (language, people, culture) as having the typical characteristic of being confused. If you are confused by mixed-raced people, you might stereotype mixed-raced people as being confused.

This would be a reflection of yourself, not a property of the Other.

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3 Responses to “Othering and Projection: Chinese is confusing vs. Chinese are confused”

  1. FlawInTheSystem Says:

    “In English, a person says, “It’s all Greek to me.””

    It would not be uncommon, in the UK, to hear “It’s all Chinese to me” as well.

  2. pianycist Says:

    My French teacher in high school would often remark in English when someone’s French pronunciation was too American-accented, “What, are you speaking Japanese?”

  3. Zuzana Says:

    In Slovakia it is: “do you speak Italian?” – “are you Italian?” or “this is a Spanish village to me”..

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