Understanding each other: the vagaries of communication across a language barrier
Before I came to China, I was faced by an important unresolved question. Just how good were my language skills? After a couple of years of study, I have been alternatively satisfied and frustrated by my progress. It’s been incredibly difficult to judge how much progress I’m actually making at any given time. Although I couldn’t ask for better teachers than professors Chiang, Zhang, and Huang, the fact remained that almost all of the speaking experience I had was in a classroom setting. If I could answer questions on a test, so what? Would I be able to talk to someone who didn’t know the vocab words from my textbook? As I boarded the plane, I happily wondered how useless what I learned might be.
Once I arrived, I was immediately put to the test. A customs agent wondered where I was staying during my trip. How to explain I didn’t know the Chinese name of our organization? After generous charades-like gesticulation, helped by an English handout that Dena had in her bag, I managed to get a point across—most probably the one I intended to make. Either way, she let me enter the country (success!).
This interchange set the pattern for what has so far been a very common experience here. I can say talk on some topics reasonably well, and so far my comrades-in-conversation have been extraordinarily understanding. Nonetheless, communication is a very start and stop affair. Just today, I wanted to see if I could switch from my current room (with no window) to another that might have natural light. Simple conversation? Apparently not… As it turns out, I could get my initial desire across fairly well, but when the desk clerk responded, I was left stumbling and repeating “Zai shuo ba?” (say that again?) over and over.
At times this can be very frustrating. Yesterday, the other volunteers and I had planned a day trip to Suzhou, a small (by Chinese standards) canal town between Nanjing and Shanghai. Once at the station, however, I was unable to understand why the price (70元 ~ $10 for one way fare) was so much higher than the Lonely Planet guidebook had suggested (22元 ~ $3). With the pressure of a very long line of people all waiting to engage in efficient, effective ticket-purchasing activities, I ended up deciding I just couldn’t go. Annoying, to say the least.
But there’s an upshot. To be honest, most of the time my efforts at conversation, or “adventures in misunderstanding” if you will, have been more fun than anything else. Although I hardly look dignified, on the whole conversations with the students, waiters, and hostel folks have been, well, hilarious. By laughing through my mistakes, I also have shed much of my apprehension about messing up. As a result, I’m already able to talk much longer before I hit a blank stare (or chortle) from my partner in conversation.
The other wonderful side of this is that, despite the obvious limits on my language skills, I’ve actually been complimented on my Chinese fairly often. This has been more rewarding than any gold medal. Even if the 3rd graders bend in half laughing when at first I can’t understand “why is your arm hair so funny” (or something like that), I know that I’m getting better, and I can laugh with them because, well, arm hair is funny when it comes down to it. Also, pointing and acting is a good way to look silly.
Maybe this speaks more to the basic friendliness of Nanjing-ers (or “radishes,” as they’re nickname goes) than anything else, but at the end of the day, the odd ritual of trying to get my meaning across makes me feel closer to people than I might have if I was totally fluent. A good dose of humility and a big smile seems to be the best way to learn and make friends. So, Nanjing is teaching me a lot about the power of a bright outlook and effective non-verbal communication. It seems like I’m even learning a little Chinese, too.
Keep on laughing,