I didn’t start studying Mandarin until I was 19 years-old. Even then, I didn’t really start studying until I was about 22 years-old, so I never had any silly dreams of speaking just like a native speaker. Now, more than ten years later, I know exactly which phonemes and syntactic structures I struggle with and have come to accept those as just being the defining part of my accent.
And so it has struck me as quite odd that three different people here in the Northeast have told me that I sound like a southern Chinese person when I speak Chinese. I’ve spoken to people on the telephone, and when we meet they express shock that I’m not Chinese.
What’s really interesting, though, is that Chinese people who often speak with foreigners can tell immediately that I’m a foreigner. They start to notice the different pronunciation, intonation, etc. that are unique to non-native speakers of Mandarin whereas people who don’t speak with foreigners probably just assume that it’s some accent from another part of the country.