What It Takes

One month in. It’s time to take stock.

I’m still alive. Hooray! Let’s take a moment, first, to appreciate what it takes to survive in today’s harsh, cruel, cruel world. Money—that’s all you need. I don’t need to learn how to cook, as there are others who can do it for me. I don’t need to learn how to sew, as there is no shortage of garments and apparel ready for purchase. Hell, I don’t need to know how to do anything, as long as someone exists who I can throw my money at and receive their knowledge, or skill, or labor. I don’t even speak the language of the country I’m in! Just like the nearly identical pyramids and monuments that sprouted all around the world in ancient times, from people who, presumably, had no contact with one another, body language—and the language of pointing, specifically—is universally understood. At the most basic level, having money and being able to point have been the two things I’ve needed to do, to get anything and everything.

Of course, it’s not my short-term ambition to be a bumbling idiot who points and throws money at the things he needs. I need to learn Mandarin and, thus far, I’ve done a remarkably poor job of ameliorating that language deficiency. That’s why we need to take another moment to, second, appreciate the people who have helped me in however small or big a way. Even though I can fling money and look dumb to get things like food at restaurants or groceries at supermarkets, activating SIM cards, using public transportation, and even knowing whether I should head straight, or turn right or left, could not be done without the Chinese natives who also speak English. Though they are critical of their own ability to speak, my admiration for their ability to communicate with me is huge. Think of my simultaneous ignorance and arrogance: I am in China not knowing a word of Mandarin. Yes, I am here to teach English, but basic common sense would instruct one to at least pick up on a few phrases, or possess survival language.

While I speak Spanish and English and a little French, there is so little layover between those languages and Mandarin that I can’t tap into my knowledge of three languages to learn a new one. I say little layover and not none because the Spanish word for coffee, “café,” is pronounced almost the same way in Chinese as it is in Spanish. The word is spelled differently because of the substitution of the alphabet for Chinese characters, but if we did use the alphabet and wrote café using pinyin, which was developed by some British dude to translate characters to the alphabet, then café looks like kafei. Missing from my spelling and not the official pinyin spelling is the indication of which tones to use when you read or say the word, that is to say, the rising, lowering, neutral, or maintained intonation, which look like accent marks heading in different directions. I’ve never been so aware of my Adam’s apple as when I started to learn the pronunciation of Chinese words because I can feel my throat tighten for rising intonations or relax for lowering intonations.

One more thing, I say in my best Jackie Chan’s uncle voice: let’s appreciate technology real quick. While you may know how to cook, or sew, or farm and grow your own food, chances are you don’t know the first thing about how your phone or computer work. While I write this, there is a handyman fixing a leak in one of the sinks and figuring out why another drain backs up. He does not speak English and you already know I don’t speak any more Chinese beyond Hello and counting from one to ten. But we still talk. How? Translation apps. Take your pick, there’s plenty to choose from. I don’t know which one he uses, but he presses the microphone button on his phone, speak into it in Chinese, and out comes English, sometimes broken, sometimes exact. Even if the English comes out broken, the essence of the question or message remains intact. I respond in English and he hears my answer in Chinese. We hand the phone off to one another until we each say or hear what we need. If I can’t understand his question or he finds my answer confusing, I turn to acting to explain or answer what I need—think charades without specifying the number of words involved. My willingness to make a fool of myself has served me quite well in that regard, as I am not shy about moving however I need to move to make myself understood. In supermarkets, I scan products with my camera, Google recognizes the characters in Chinese, and translates them to English. I feel like Baby Boomers might have felt when you could start taking your phone with you everywhere in a compact case the size of an over-packed backpack. I’m walking around amazed the app is this good, even though the room for improvement is obvious.

But if there’s any consistent strand between these paragraphs, it’s that: The room for improvement is obvious. Communication, even amongst native speakers, is sometimes difficult. Words get lost in their intention, while others are lost in translation, not from language to language, but from speaker to listener, listener to speaker. That explains the comprehensive way in which we speak, like the volume of our voice, or the facial expressions we exhibit, or the gestures we involuntarily employ—it simply isn’t enough to read a text or hear a message. Communication is intrinsically incomplete, and therefore more difficult, without the ability to account for all the different ways we say, or try to say, what we’re saying. I am here to teach, to speak to Chinese students who are learning English, and so the way we communicate is slightly modified. I find myself using more synonyms, usually a simpler word, just in case whichever word I first used might have gone over their head. Now, my students are quite adept, so I don’t speak much more slowly than I normally do, but I take special care to point out difficult sounds in English and accentuate the movement the mouth needs to make to accurately pronounce a word. Still, I know the way I teach can improve—it’s obvious to me how. The following months can improve by learning more words and phrases. My standard of living can improve by buying a few more creature comforts for the apartment.

And if I used my Global Affairs degree to bring this up to a global level, well—maybe it’s best I save that for another post.

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