29 August 2014

I'm an Illiterate Idiot with a B.A.

I've heard it said, in discussions about the situation of people who live in the USA but do not speak proper American English at all times: "Well, if I were going to move to another country, I would learn that language, so they ought to do the same if they want to live in America."

KFC advertisement in China
 A KFC ad--here, the restaurant is called Ken De Ji Zha Ji

What I find interesting, however, is that none of the people who have said that to me have ever moved abroad and learned the language of their chosen country.

That's all well and good. I believe it's excellent to flourish where you're planted and that being a vagabond just for the fun of it isn't necessarily a desirable thing. Leaving your native country is not a necessary life experience--sure, it can be really cool, but I think you can have a very good life even if you never leave your native state.

However--now that I actually have moved to SouthEast China, where English is not widely spoken and I have learned the language--in fact, I've done precisely what those who use this argument as a complaint against immigrants with minimal English have claimed that they would do if they had to. I have a 4-year Bachelor's Degree in Mandarin Chinese. And let me tell you what this experience is like:

In ordering a meal at Burger King, I have to ask the guy at the cash register to please repeat what he asked me 3 times before the words click and I realize that yes, I do just want a burger and not the entire value meal.

I smile and nod and at a dinner banquet I can only keep up with the main subjects of the conversation, not the intricacies and fast back-and-forth replies, not enough to develop timely responses of my own.

I try to understand an ad at the grocery store or a menu without any pictures and I can perhaps understand 80% of the characters but not enough to have full understanding of everything I'm looking at. Show me a newspaper and my comprehension drops rapidly because my working vocabulary is very limited when it comes to matters such as international political policy.

I meet new friends, and sometimes they can't understand me no matter how many times I repeat myself, so I write out what I want to say, then they read it and smile and repeat back to me what I just said. In my ears it sounds identical to what I said, but apparently there's an important difference in tone that leaves my speaking incomprehensible.

Riding the bus is stressful. I can't relax, I have to keep my eyes and ears open for the sounds and characters that I memorized for the stop I need to get off at. The speakers on the bus garble the sounds of the names of stops and I constantly wonder if I missed where I was supposed to get off.

In conversations with people I talk about inane topics: the weather, the price of items, how to get from here to there, how long I've been in China, what my job is, about my family, where I'm from, whether the toilet in my hotel room is broken. Discussions on advanced topics of concern around the world and even jokes and humorous stories are largely beyond me, or are too much work to formulate, so I give up.

In school, I was taught standard Beijing pronunciation, while in SouthEast China, many people don't use standard Chinese pronunciation. Training my ear to recognize the same word through different accents results in many a, "Bu hao yi si, qing zai shuo yi ci?" (I'm sorry, but could you repeat that once more?)

When I'm with my husband, we speak English immediately, whether we're in our own home or walking down the sidewalk. Because my Chinese is much stronger than his, I often have to translate exchanges between him and whoever he is trying to communicate with. English isn't the language of our new home, but it's the language we have in common, that we can speak most intimately in, and I have no desire to give it up.


The funny thing is, I'm one of the privileged few. My experience of being an expat and trying to flourish in a country where my native language is not the language of choice is only comparable in the smallest of ways to the experience of being an English learner in the USA.

My native language is one of the most powerful and widely spoken languages on Earth. I actually have a college degree in the language of the country where I now live--I spent 4 years and thousands of dollars of my scholarship providers' money learning this language.

I pick up languages more easily than the average American. I was considered a "star student" by my Chinese profs. There are lots of books available for English-speaking learners of Chinese, and I have the time and resources to buy them and hire tutors at my very whim. My current work contract provides Chinese classes for me. My Mandarin is actually comparatively good--there is a lot that I do understand, a lot that I am able to communicate, but it's not fluent, and there are many holes where vocabulary ought to be.

And, actually, if I wanted to, I could nest myself into an expatriate bubble here in China and get away with learning very little Chinese at all--many expats do (Clearly, these are not the same people who say, "If I moved to another country, I would learn to speak that country's language" right? They couldn't be, could they?). No one would look down on me for doing this. I don't prefer to, I want to get more plugged into the local community than the expat community, but that's my preference and choice.

The lesson here is that not being a native or fluent speaker of the language of the country you live in is difficult. People look at you like you're an idiot when they ask you for the 3rd time if you want a bag or not at the grocery store. Actually, I'm smart. I'm funny. I can talk about all sorts of things, but when I'm not speaking in my native language, when I'm trying to read a language I'm not literate in...I don't seem very smart at all. In fact, I seem like my mental capacities are well below average. I can just imagine people thinking, "And this person is supposed to teach our children? She can't even understand what I'm saying!"

McDonald's Menu in China
 The menu at McDonald's

In general, people here are abundantly kind to our slowness when it comes to their language. Once again, this is because we are a privileged minority. I believe it is far, far easier to be an English speaker in China than it is to be a Spanish, Japanese, Korean, or Bosnian speaker in the USA. There are some signs in English here...sometimes very weird English, but English all the same. Expatriate Americans in China tend to be more welcomed and respected than the average Eastern European refugee or the Korean seminary students' wife or the Hispanic immigrant are in the USA. We are treated well in spite of our seeming idiocy because we are the favored few...but not being able to talk at length and with speed and accuracy still bars us from doing everything we'd like to do.

All this to say--I actually did it. I moved overseas. I spent years learning their language (because language learning is a constant and ongoing process, not something that can happen overnight). I have more language learning resources available to me than the vast majority of people...I absolutely love and enjoy speaking Chinese...and it's still really, really hard. Every single day I'm learning new words--by the end of the year I know my Mandarin will have improved immensely, but that doesn't necessarily help me today when I'm trying to understand the IT guy's speedy explanation of why I can't log onto the computer in my office at school.

So maybe, just maybe, that person who you can barely understand through their thick accent and broken English, or that family you overhear chattering away in their native tongue--maybe they are me, on the other side of the pond...and maybe, for my sake, you'll stop treating them like they're stupid. We can't accurately judge a person's intelligence or contribution to society by the state of their 2nd or 3rd language--because if you were to hand me a Mandarin newspaper right now, you'd think I were an illiterate idiot.

I appreciate immensely the fact that the Chinese people I meet don't tell me to "Go Home!" when I stumble awkwardly through my requests for garlic powder at the grocery store...I only wish that more Americans were so kind.
Angi said...

I think the difference is that 1) you're making a huge effort to speak the native language as much as possible, and 2) you haven't lived there that long. Personally, I don't think that people that have emigrated to America and aren't fluent yet are stupid. I applaud anybody who tackles learning English, I think it would be incredibly difficult to learn as a second language. My frustration lies with those who move here and have lived here for YEARS and have made no attempt to learn the language. For instance, we have a huge Filipino population where I live. I have zero problem with them moving here - legally, obviously. But there are some (more of the older generation) who have lived here 10-20 years and actually get angry with you if you can't understand them, or have someone nearby who can translate for them. That's where I don't have much sympathy.

Bethany Carson said...

Good points! Enjoyed reading your post--it certainly can be hard learning another language!

Cramer Coffee and Jesus said...

Ahhh man, did my comment not post?

Cramer Coffee and Jesus said...

okay I said... You are far better off than me. I think I would just point. Then if they messed up my order I would just be okay with it. haha. kidding. I would eventually make myself learn but WOW that sounds hard! Good for you for learning. Also, you've given me a different perspective on others not speaking English properly. I would never tell them to "Go Home!" but I have been annoyed several times, very easily. Now, I'll just think of you :)

Rose @ Ramblin' Rose said...

Thank you for showing the other side of things. I am definitely guilty of being judgmental of people who move to the US and cannot speak English, even after being here for years. Your post put this into perspective about how hard it is to move to a different country and not be able to communicate efficiently even if you have taken the time to studied and learn the language. It is totally different when you are being immersed in it 24/7!

Julie said...

Wow, I can't even imagine how difficult that would be! I am not one of those people that pick up other languages easily...honestly, I struggled in high school Spanish class. lol! Good for you tho, for taking on such a large task. You are awesome!

Kari said...

This is a great post, and I admire you so much for moving to another country. You have an interesting viewpoint, and I love reading your thoughts on this stuff and on your transition:)

Angela said...

I think it's so great that you guys are making such an effort!

Tayler Morrell said...

When I studied abroad in Wales, the biggest question I got was "why would an American want to know Welsh"? (especially because only a minority of Welsh people can fluently speak Welsh) but they were so kind and patient when I tried conversing in Welsh with them!

Cranberry Morning said...

Good post. I think we should be patient, not rude, to those whose first language is not English. On the other hand, if a person is relocating permanently to the USA, the best thing they can do for their own success in their new country is to strive to learn the language. It's one of the major things that unites a people, regardless of what country.

AwesomelyOZ said...

It's wonderful to hear how accepting and welcoming the folks in China are towards you and Angel. :) So you studied Mandarin and are learning which type of Chinese? I can only imaging how nerve wrecking it must be adapting to a country whose language you are not familiar with, kudos to the two of you sticking it out! Best of luck and have a great one Rachel! -Iva

Jen Lud said...

Rachel - this is one of those things people truly don't understand until they experience it firsthand. I am so glad you chose to write about it, if for no other reason than to spread awareness and stop the ignorant comments from people back here in your beautiful home country.

I spend close to 4 years in Germany and traveled to as many European countries as I could, never really "knowing" the language and feeling absolutely terrible about it every step of the way. I almost cried at the generosity and patience of the many locals who stopped what they were doing to help me find which stop me and my 2-year old needed to get off on - we were alone - woman and child - 2 lost non-natives trying to travel back to our military post. And this wasn't just a one-time thing....this was almost everyday. That kind of kindness rarely exists here and I was ashamed, deeply ashamed of my homeland.

I love America. My husband and I both fought for this country and lost friends in the war on terrorism. We're about as patriotic as they come....even with faced with American ignorance. English is NOT an official language in America.....matter of fact, America doesn't have one.....but haters will hate.

Thank you for writing this! Rare perspective on something I myself experienced and try to share with as many people as I can.

Ali Hval said...

I always, always admire someone who can speak more than one language, however hashed out and choppy it may seem. Languages are so difficult. Speaking them is even more difficult. Reading seems so simple but then actually exchanging those words without being able to see them and having to differentiate between nuances of sound and pronunciation is so hard. If I were to move to another country, yeah, I'd learn their language, but I know it would be difficult.

I had an experience the other week where these foreign exchange students from Colombia came up to me and asked me to take their picture next to a statue on the campus and I consider myself pretty fluent in Spanish, but it was still so tough getting out what they wanted. I saw a camera and I saw them and so I assumed a picture of some sort, but of what? And through pointing and some broken English and my floppy Spanish in comparison to theirs being so liquid and perfect, we managed to figure it out. Took like six or seven minutes.

This was a really awesome write.

Suzanne said...

I've always been painfully aware of this problem, having lived overseas and not spoken other languages as well as I'd have liked.

It is a humbling experience for sure.


Amy @ Swag On, Momma! said...

First of all, let me just say that you are very courageous!!! Even just reading your descriptions of difficult language situations gave me anxiety! ha! I get super nervous whenever I'm on a bus or subway system, cause it's so unfamiliar to me--add in a different language and I'd be sweating bullets! And, the IT guy at school situation, sheesh, I'd be panicking! And, I totally agree with your comparison to non-English speakers in America. People can be pretty harsh. I had many Spanish speaking friends in school, some whose parents didn't speak English, and as a teacher, my spanish speaking kids often translated to parents at parent teacher conferences. (I always told them that I knew enough Spanish to know if they were translating what I REALLY was saying or what they wanted their parents to hear! Ha!) That would not be easy as a parent. When I was in Japan, and later in Europe, it was humbling to see how many could speak English to me when I don't speak any language but my own! (Oh, and they often spoke another language in addition English and their native tongue!) Sometimes I think Americans can be pretty arrogant and we forget compassion.

Mrs.AOK said...

Thank you! This was such a well written and thoughtful post. I cannot stand to see the arrogance of others when speaking to people who are not from here. I get aggravated hearing, "they should go back from where they're from," it's harsh. I cannot imagine how difficult it is to learn English as a second language-- I'm always telling my own English-speaking-children, I know it doesn't make sense, but this is how we pronounce it. Our language *can* be tricky :)
Kudos to you & your husband taking on the world together!

Lori said...

Thank you for sharing this perspective. A person sees things differently when the shoe is on the other foot. I'm going to keep this in mind the next time I have to deal with someone who is struggling with English. Stopping by from SITS :-)

AdriansCrazyLife said...

I love hearing about your adventures in China. Even if you don't get all the words exactly right, I think you are doing wonderfully. Thanks for visiting my site. #SITSSharefest

Saxon @ Lets Drink Coffee, Darling said...

You articulated this so very well. I've often thought the same thing after my experience in China. Everyone was SO patient with my very very lacking vocabulary and grammar skills. It can be so frustrating when you're in public trying to just order a meal and no one understands you. Almost every situation, someone who could speak just a little English would come to my rescue and help me out - but the few situations where that luxury wasn't available were impressionable, and embarrassing.

This aspect of many American's attitudes really drives me mad. We are proud of the fact that this country has been built by immigrants (for most of us, that would be our family lineage), yet so many Americans are so judgmental of our current immigrants. Americans could definitely take some hospitality lessons from other countries.

Jessi (Two Feet, One World) said...

Fantastic post Rachel, this is something I defniitely don't have much experience of so it is fascinating to read about. Thank you for sharing!

Unknown said...

Such a well-written and thoughtful post. I find it so interesting that people get so angry by the in the US when they don't speak any other language but English! I always try to learn a few words in every country, but some of them are harder than others, so I can't imagine getting annoyed at another traveler. I just started teaching English here in the CZ, and many of my students tell me native speakers of English have made them feel embarrassed when they try to speak with them! How's not like the English speakers are bothering to learn Czech when they visit!
Sorry, rant over. Thanks again for sharing! And good luck learning Chinese--I tried really hard when I was there but I think I only managed to pick up about 10's such a difficult language!