I’ve been on the balcony of this Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel in Chengdu for a few hours now, watching the resident cat make his rounds, begging for food and showing off his acrobatic skills. I have been enjoying the cool, overcast climate (a welcome respite from the Amazonian-like Shanghai humidity that I’ve spent the last 1.5 months in. I don’t even have that inner-elbow stickyness yet!) Since I sat down at 9AM, I’ve seen about 10 12 14 groups of people eat breakfast at the surrounding tables.
I have heard Hebrew, German, Spanish Spanish, Colombian (I think) Spanish, and some other accent that I am not sure of. I have heard a lot of English, some British, some American, some Other, but not a single one of these other people has used a word of Chinese with the servers. In fact, the only other foreigner that I have heard speak Chinese besides me is nobody (Scott has been up in the room erupting out of both ends for the past 20 some-odd hours, so he doesn’t count.)
It amazes me how far a little knowledge of the language will carry you. In a culture as closed off to foreigners as China’s is (although this is not as deliberate as Western education might have you think), and with a language that is so intrinsically tied to the culture, knowing even some basic (more than ‘knee how, ‘shee shee’ and ‘boo shee’) is the key that will unlock a treasure trove of lifelong memories in China. I understand as well as the next (probably better) Westerner how daunting of a challenge it is to try to learn a language like Chinese, and how downright infuriating it can be at times, but (and I am sure this goes for many other cultures as well) knowing even a little bit can open doors that you never even knew were there. If nothing else, it makes the experience so much more fun–catching those snippets of Chinese spoken about you to other Chinese people, and being able to shoot them that ‘I heard that’ glance is worth it enough to at least pick up a phrasebook. In fact, in preparation for this pseudo-backpacking trip, Scott and I went to a market in Qingdao to buy backpacks. The lady helping us quoted us a certain price once she realized we spoke Chinese, and we were most of the way through the buying process when one of the salesperson’s co-workers came up to her and said (in Mandarin) “They’re foreigners, don’t forget to hike up the price.” Fail on her part. She got that aforementioned look, plus a quick reprimand from our salesperson. One of the myriad instances where knowing the language cancome in handy, if not for saving you some cash, then at least for providing a funny story to write about on the internet afterwards.
I know enough Chinese to know that I have barely scratched the surface of the language, and thus the culture, of these people. Chinese culture and language is still a very novel concept to me. Coming from America, a country with effectively no long history, an adopted language, and nothing to really call its own can, it is hard to grasp how a country’s culture and language can be so intertwined, and how deeply tradition can be ingrained into daily life. America is the Salvation Army of countries when it comes to history and culture–there is little to it that is inherently American. Hamburgers are a noteworthy exception even though they’re German, America got the burger so perfect that we can claim that as our own, dammit). Taking and improving other cultures’ contributions is not necessarily a bad thing–improvement, like insider trading, makes the world go round. What makes Chinese so fascinating, and so damn difficult, is the fact that so many terms and expressions in Chinese refer to historical events that took place hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. In order to truly understand the nuances of the language, one has to have an intrinsic knowledge of the history and folklore of China, both of which go back several millennia. There are whole collections of Chinese idioms whose meanings literally cannot be understood unless the piece of history or the person they reference is known. This makes Chinese so beautiful, as feelings that cannot otherwise be put into words can be conveyed through referencing a poem, a battle, a folk hero, etc. Without knowing the culture, then, idiomatic phenomena like idioms also build an almost-insurmountable wall to attaining fluency in the language.
Despite all this, I have definitely noticed my proficiency in the language improving. While I am nowhere near anything but rudimentarily conversational in Mandarin, I have noticed my understanding of natives improving exponentially. There is seriously nothing like immersion to learn a language, and with Chinese, which is so fundamentally different than a phonetic language like English, immersion is imperative if you really want to get a grasp of the language. I have improved more in the past 7.5 weeks than I have in the past few years, and I am looking forward to the coming four months, because after a lifetime of unaccomplished goals, I feel like I am finally doing something that is worth the time and effort I am putting into it: I am finally achieving one of the most important goals I have ever set for myself. I am living in China.