Staring. One of the best ways to make a person feel a little uncomfortable, especially if they are a complete stranger.
When I was growing up, I was taught that it’s rude to stare at someone else.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.com/StevenDepolo
But come to China and try telling someone on the street not to stare. You might as well tell them not to breathe! It’s one of those phenomenons that has its roots planted deep within the culture and it shows little signs of stopping.
As a foreigner living in mainland China, it’s really easy for me to pick up on all the obvious cultural differences between my culture and the one I currently live in. The spitting, the staring, the squat toilets…these are just a few of the many things that go against what I think should be “normal.”
What’s much more difficult to discern is why the Chinese do certain things.
Today, I want to focus on their style of communication. As a general rule of thumb, Chinese mainlanders are more indirect than Westerners. We tend to be more black-and-white in our communication, while the Chinese tend to beat around the bush a little more.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.com/FutUndBeidl
You know those white medical masks that you see nurses and doctors wear in hospitals? Back when I lived in Canada, I never saw anyone wear one in public. But here in Asia, they are pretty common. In Hong Kong, it’s generally an indication of people who are sick – doctors usually instruct their patients to wear one until they get better. But in mainland China, these masks are commonly used to combat air pollution, China’s biggest environmental problem.
Though China’s bigger cities (like Beijing and Shanghai) typically have the worst pollution, smaller cities can also experience days where the pollution is pretty bad. I’ve become far more appreciate of days where I can look up to a blue sky, as we only get to see this a few times per month.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.com/lylo0u
Though there is little that we can do to control the air quality outside our home, there are ways to improve the air quality inside our home. Perhaps the most common method is by obtaining some sort of air purifier.
In many of our life endeavors, we will often face this thing we call the wall. For long-distance runners, this is that moment when they’re so tired that they feel like they need to slow down or stop running altogether. Writers experience this wall in the form of “writer’s block” where they feel like they’ve lost the ability to create.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.com/JPott
I hit a wall earlier this week. But it wasn’t the wall I expected.
Have you ever started a long-term endeavor and then completely lost track of how and when you started? This is how I feel about my Chinese studies. Sometimes it seems like I’ve been going at it for about a year, while other times it seems like I just started yesterday.
Whatever the case may be, I’m convinced that learning a new language is one of the most rewarding processes you’ll ever go through. It’s difficult. It’s exhausting. But it’s not something you will ever regret.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.com/TheJuniorPartner
I’ve been amazed at how much I’ve learned already. And I’m not just talking about the Chinese language. Sometimes the true lesson isn’t what you learn in class, but what you learn in-between classes. That’s definitely been the case for me.
Here are six lessons that I’ve learned after six weeks of language learning:
Picture this. You’re sitting at a Starbucks with your best friend, enjoying your drink and conversation, when suddenly a little kid who you’ve never seen before walks up and starts talking with you. You think it’s cute and engage with the kid for a little while.
What happens next?
Presuming you’re living in a Western country, you’ll probably hear the kid’s parent start calling their child. Either that or they’ll come get their child and give you a quick apology. Why? First, because you’re never supposed to talk to strangers, and second, because it’s considered impolite to interrupt someone else’s private conversation.
It’s a little different in China.
Not everyone speaks Chinese the same way.
Before I first came to China, my naive, un-traveled self assumed that everyone here spoke the same language. Now I suppose technically everyone here does, but in practice sometimes it seems like there are hundreds of languages in this one country alone. Just like the many different accents of English (American, British, Australian, etc.), there are also many dialects of Mandarin. Many of them are based upon geographical regions, while others are based on the different ethnic minorities. And some of the dialects can be pretty hard to understand.
You know how Mandarin has four basic tones, right? Not so much here in Sichuan province! If you’re speaking the local dialect here, your words are slurred and your tones become melded into maybe two or three.
Having trouble making friends in China? Let me introduce you to the English corner!
I’m referring to a typically informal gathering where you’ll participate with anywhere from a handful to a hundred Chinese students, most of whom are eager to practice their English-speaking skills with you. Those whose English isn’t as strong will still join in the conversation, especially if they have a friend with good oral English skills.
Lest this all sound pretty straight-forward to you, let me warn you that there will likely be a few curve balls that get thrown your way. In order to help prepare you for the chaos that may ensue, I’ve compiled a list of five things that you should be aware of before diving into an English corner!
When my wife and I were first studying 汉语 (Chinese) last fall, we both felt that we wanted to take a long-term approach to language learning. Most people who travel in China for only a couple months focus primarily on their oral/listening skills. Even those who plan on staying for a year or two will adopt a similar approach. And this makes sense. Learning how to read and write requires extra time.
Knowing that we wanted to full immerse ourselves in the language and culture, we decided to learn everything at once – reading, writing, listening, and speaking. It obviously requires more work and means moving at a slower pace (than just learning how to speak), but it’ll hopefully give us more comprehensive understanding of the language.
I’m a very a detailed and methodical person in general, so this has been reflected in my studying habits. If you were to equate language learning to building a pyramid, I’m the guy who grabs one brick at a time and makes sure that each brick is arranged neatly before placing the next brick. My wife, on the other hand, would be the one to throw a ton of bricks onto a pile and then arrange them afterwards.
We’ve been living here now for three weeks already and I’m still trying to figure out a study routine that works for me. I’m sure my study habits will evolve over the course of the next couple years, but for now here’s what I’m involved with:
I love playing games. Board games, real-time strategy computer games, video games…oh yeah, and sports, too.
Those who have played any sort of game with me know that I can be a pretty competitive person. I particularly enjoy the thrill of playing strategy games (e.g. Agricola, Dominion, Settlers of Catan, Starcraft, etc).
The only downside about being competitive is that I generally hate losing.
Being married has a funny way of helping you see your blind spots, and for me my overly competitive spirit was one of them. My wife and I even had to stop playing games with each other for a time since we’re both pretty competitive. Thankfully, we’re now able to enjoy the occasional game with each other, such as Tiny Wings or Ticket to Ride. (I highly recommend both!)
Along the way, I’ve learned a handful of things about winning and losing.