I forgot I was in China this morning. I struggled through disconnected dreams to the waking world and sat at my computer checking my email for a full ten minutes before I was brought back to China by the distant sound of a little boy throwing a tantrum somewhere in my apartment complex. I listened to him for a few seconds before I realized that I couldn’t understand what he was saying.
In Longgang, the seven American teachers, spread throughout the district, are the only foreigners around. Literally. Because every foreigner who travels through China has to report himself or herself to the police in the district where he’s staying, and no other foreigners have done so in Longgang. Western influence is much less pronounced here than it is in other parts of Shenzhen. For example, yesterday three of us traveled by bus for an hour and a half to the coast to visit the beaches in the district of Yantian, and there were so many Europeans, Russians, and other nationalities that it was jolting after just a few days in the isolation of Longgang. My roommate and I had a snack in a cafe called “Our Bread,” which also had an English menu and served (slightly suspicious-looking) hamburgers. There are no places like that in Longgang–although there are several McDonald’s! (Three American fast food chains can be found virtually anywhere in China: McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and the most popular of all, KFC.)
Everywhere I go there are missed opportunities for connection and conversation. The locals are very friendly, but friendliness eventually stops short of deeper interaction, when my limited vocabulary peters out and I’m reduced to shrugs and repeated “ting bu dong!” (I don’t understand!) Half the time, since the language that fills the air is unintelligible to me, it easily fades into the background. The rest of the time I feel frustrated with myself for being unable to understand, to speak, to read, to write, or to be in any way a literate, functioning, capable adult. I can’t even feed myself without making a mess! To be fair, I made a lot of mess at home with a fork and knife, too, but kuaizi (chopsticks) are a different matter entirely. I’m getting better, but for a while there I was just kind of throwing food at my mouth and hoping some of it would find its way to my stomach.
But there are also moments of success! These moments are worth their weight in gold. More than that, I suppose, since moments don’t really weigh anything. Because they are measures of time. But if moments had mass (who am I kidding, they probably do, but I am pretty much the opposite of a physicist) then they would be worth their weight in gold.
Anyway! In an electronics store, my friend (who is Chinese-American and who, though not fluent, speaks way better Chinese than I do) needed some type of converter, so he disappeared to look for that while I meandered over to the recliners that give you a massage when you sit in them and push a button. The saleswoman approached me almost immediately. Because China is in the business of giving jobs to whoever needs them, stores are always ridiculously overstaffed, making the shopping process much more crowded and hectic than it needs to be. This woman approached me and gave me a greeting that I couldn’t much understand, and then followed up with the usual “Ni shuo de Zhongwen ma?” Do you speak Chinese? I said a little, and she went off speaking too quickly, and I had to say, “ting bu dong.” Instead of laughing at me or moving away, she simplified her language and spoke a little slower so that I could understand. I finally heard “gongzuo” which is work, so I was able to tell her that I’m an English teacher at Ping Gang Middle School. She asked me how I liked China. I said I loved it. I felt triumphant.
The second success: On the bus on the way home from Yantian, a young couple sitting in the seats in front of Jessica and me keep staring at us and then cuddling and kissing one another, and then staring at us some more while we tried to ignore them. I pulled out my Chinese book and began going through the lesson on transportation, taking a bus or taxi. As I was reading the vocab aloud to Jessica, the Chinese couple’s interest was piqued, and they sat up, and the guy asked, in Chinese, whether or not we speak Chinese. We said a little, and then embarked on the longest conversation in Chinese I’ve ever had. My brain hurt afterward! But it was very fun. We discussed the air-conditioning on the bus, discovered that we were all roughly the same age, told them we were English teachers, and the guy gave us his card–so I don’t know exactly what he (the card says his name is Yang Chang Fa) does, but he has business cards for it–and that the girl knows a big of English (probably more English than we know Chinese!) but was too shy to use it. And then Yang Chang Fa told us that the other man behind us was his younger brother. So I told him I also had a younger brother. This was all more exciting than it sounds, I promise!
It took us a very long time to understand the next part, but Yang Chang Fa worked with us until we got it, pantomiming a heart and spelling out the characters on the window: “Nimen you kai xin.” You have open hearts. Because we had come to China and were trying to learn the language. The effort is what impressed them–many foreigners come to China as tourists, to eat and drink and make a mess, to use the country and leave without truly experiencing it–the fat, greedy Western stereotype exists for a reason. They could see that we were there to live and learn.
We felt the same way about them! I hope that foreigners who have come to America knowing only a little bit of English have been lucky enough to meet people who are half so patient and generous as Yang Chang Fa and his girlfriend were to Jessica and me. Too often in the U.S. I’ve heard, “if you can’t speak English, you shouldn’t be here.” It’s such an ignorant and unkind sentiment, especially coming from the melting pot of cultures that makes America what it is. There’s too much to learn from other people to be turned off by the language barrier. And as difficult as it is, there are ways to fumble through a conversation with someone who only knows a little bit of your language. Speak slowly, use simple words and syntax and grammar. As hard and frustrating as it may be understand what they’re saying, I know firsthand that it is so much harder to order food in a restaurant, take a taxi to their hotel, or go shopping for toiletries when the product signs are in a foreign language. All the basic, day-to-day functioning that is so easy in your native country is ten times harder without language skills in a foreign one.
Have an open heart!