Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Your’re in China: Speak Chinese!

Mostly, the Chinese are thrilled that I can speak a bit of their language. Thrilled and surprised. Sometimes shocked. Like the woman at the farmer’s market who approached me with the bargain deal: if I buy fruit from her, she will only charge me 1Yuan for each ‘Jin’ (about 500 grams). When I told her – in Chinese, that I was committed to buying this farmer’s fruit, but that I would come see her next time, she threw up her hands is horror and exclaimed that she didn’t understand me. Her husband swatted her on the arm and said: “What don’t you understand? She’s speaking Chinese to you!”

That poor woman became the butt of many jokes at the Farmer’s Market. I am now a celebrity of sorts.

Sometimes I do run into people who simply do not want to speak anything but Chinese. Is there anything wrong with that? Probably not, especially since we are in China. But, in formulating this entry I have to tell you I have a certain person in mind.

Her name is Della. Well, her English name is Della. She does not like it. Her boyfriend Ken gave it to her. She prefers her Chinese name: Chun Xue (tchun shway) – meaning Spring Snow. Beautiful name for a beautiful girl. But a rather obstinate girl.

As you know, Ken is fairly well versed in the English language. To him, it is important that his future wife also be, if not fluent then at least conversant in the language. Among his many arguments is the fact that she works in travel; she is likely to have to deal with foreigners at some point in time. That is a valid contention. Another point he likes to make is that, learning something new is not going to hurt her in any way. Enrichment is good, is his motto.

She is a thoroughly traditional Chinese girl. If people come to China, they should be able to speak Chinese, she holds firm. If not, there are plenty of Chinese people who speak English; no need for her to learn any. Much to Ken’s frustration.

And the sad thing is, she can speak some English. Not very much and not very well, but if she applied herself, she would probably be good at it. She is not a stupid girl, and she has the support and encouragement of her boyfriend.

Somehow, that issue always rears its head when I come to town. It could be because Ken and I speak English and she gets left out. It could be because Ken does not get to enjoy his time with us when he is translating back and forth, instead of participating in the conversation. Or it could be because I like to hang out with her while Ken is at work and doing so it difficult because of the language barrier. There is only so far I can carry a conversation in Chinese. Whatever the reason, Ken gets to a boiling point because Della simply refuses to learn English.

In a sense, I have to agree with her contention: if you are in China, you should speak Chinese. Just like many Americans who feel that, if you’re in America, you should speak English. But, for the first time in my life, I am on the other side of that fence.

I’ve never had to worry about language. In France I spoke French, in Germany I spoke German and in America I spoke English (and a little Spanish). In China I speak a little Chinese. I have to admit I am dependent on the good graces of those who do speak English to get some things done, like major banking issues or trying to find someplace that is listed on a map but somehow, mysteriously moved before I got there. When I first got here I was largely reliant on my English speaking students to help me learn how to get around.

Is it fair to say: “You’re in China! Speak Chinese!” Likewise, is it fair to say: “You’re in America! Speak English!”

The stress of living in a strange environment is huge. There have been times I have not wanted to get out of bed, leave my apartment, leave campus or go into town because I know I cannot communicate. I cannot read and I cannot understand when someone speaks to me. I cannot order a meal in a restaurant (without a menu written in English). I can buy fresh food at the supermarket because I can recognize what it is (mostly), but when it comes to preserved stuff or kitchen staples such as salt, sugar and the like, I’m helpless. I have to look at the picture of what that container houses and try to figure out if it is what I’m looking for or what I need. I am here with no family and no community that speaks my language, looks like I do and has the same customs and mannerisms that I do. If there were such a community, I would immediately flock to it.

On top of all of that, is it fair for people like Della to insist that, now that I live in China, I should somehow, miraculously be able to speak Chinese? Isn’t there any consideration to the fact that learning a new language takes time? And what about managing the stress of daily life and the depression of isolation? What about the grief of having left everyone and everything behind? One would have to be a virtuoso to be able to manage all of that and still master a new language in time to manage a new life in a new country.

Is her attitude fair? If I had been living in China for three or four years and still had not advanced beyond the basics, yes: I have to say that her attitude is justified. But, having just moved here last September and only immersed myself into society after I got over the terror and depression of being here, I do not think her attitude is justified. If there were a large community of expats I could routinely commune with and thus not need social connections with Chinese people, her point would be moot – and my being here would be fruitless, insofar as learning about the culture and the people.

Although Della is perfectly charming and lovely and welcoming in every other way, her dogged insistence on not learning English does not serve her well, and it is rather dismaying to me. How can I establish more than a superficial relationship with this girl who means the world to my good friend? And, why does she insist on putting him on the spot and in the middle, instead of accommodating his desire to be social with his foreigner friends by learning a new language herself?

Lastly: with China growing more global every day, why does she not see the need or have the desire to be a part of it?

Think about Della the next time you have the urge to say: “You’re in America! Speak English!”

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