Monday, June 15, 2009

On Mandarin Becoming a Little Less Chinese, or "The Art of Familiarity"

On Mandarin Becoming
A Little Less Chinese.

"It sounds Chinese to me..."

There was just three westerners in my Mandarin Class. Though we weren't the only English speakers, we were the only English natives. Often, our teacher (老师) would pose a question in Mandarin.

"I don't know, it sounds Chinese to me!" We would chuckle to each other under our breath.

Tongue-in-cheek, it may be, but there was truth to it. The sounds, tones, syllables: all completely foreign to our western ears.


There are moments still when I walk down the street. If the sun is just right; if a scent hits my nostrils; at the most unexpected moments, my mind transposes my body and eyes to when this place was new.

Only but a moment, these feelings disappear as I realize the familiarity of the ground beneath my feet.

What a change. Scents, sights, sounds... they're comfortable now. I'm less wide-eyed and wondrous as I walk around.


I noticed it first in the Bangkok airport.
Admittedly, it was strange being in a foreign land and not being able to use my new second language that is now impulsive. I can't make heads or tails of the Thai language. That goes for the writing, too. Thai and Thailand were different and new and foreign.

But the airport. When I found my terminal, I heard Mandarin for the first time in days. Immediately, my ears perked up and I began to listen for words I understood: "(S)He... is... but... good... really?.. really!.."

Sure, it's not enough to effectively eavesdrop, but what hit me then, was that I had missed hearing Mandarin. This foreign language became... familiar.

When did that happen?

The Art of Familiarity

Today I met a student who has spent the last two years studying in Midwest America. There's only about a hundred Asians at her school. She told me that she feels the Asian community isn't understood or respected there. She feels like people don't like her and her friends.

This made me sad. When she told me she had plans to transfer to LA, I assured her she would be well-received there.

"Why?" I asked myself.

It's simple really: Familiarity.

In my life recently,
I'm discovering it is easy for us - as people - to keep at a distance what (or who) we don't understand. It takes little effort to ostracize ourselves from others who are different. It's much easier to demonize something or someone we are never in contact with.

But if you take that gap away, perspectives change.

Not long back, I read a study that cited the only way to effective racial reconciliation was to put the contrasting groups in a situation where they were forced to work together to achieve a common goal.

Common goals.

Sometimes I fear we forget we have more in common than we'll admit. When we place our motivations and agenda over that of another, we risk losing sight of the other's humanity. That humanity includes Culture, Beliefs, Lifestyles, Priorities, and Habits that are no less worthy of respect than our own.


Tonight, I came across a new blog. It's not often that a mega-blogger impresses me with their content the way Chris has done. Not only does he take an Unconventional look at travel, but that uncoventionalism crosses over to every aspect of his life into what he calls, "The Art of Non-Conformity."

In a piece titled "28 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Traveling", Chris echoes the point above when he reasons:
"Most important: don’t be a colonialist... Don’t assume that your culture is superior. People are not stupid just because they don’t speak English or think like you do."

Now, I am not trying to advocate a wishy-washy "Everything's A-OK in my book", blind-and-postmodern look at the world. This planet wouldn't function without the right to agree to disagree. This isn't a plea to say everything's fine and should be fine with everyone.

But, it is to say things look different after conversation and true community
. When that common ground is found, it is a lot harder to ostracize or demonize.


After 9 months of living my day-to-day in another culture, I've adapted. I'm conscious, now, of derogatory beliefs, jokes or broad-stroked and blind stereotypes made at this culture's expense, and even more subtle nuances like political climate.

I've experienced, first hand, reconciliation
- the establishing of common ground - through the Art of Familiarity.

But what have I really learned if I take this lesson here,
but ignore it in other aspects of my life?

So I find myself asking,
"Who have I chosen to ostracize or ignore?" "How did it happen?" and "What can I do to reestablish community with that person or group?"


My ears are forever acclimated to Mandarin Chinese.
No, I'm not fluent, but it's much less a foreign language now. The same goes for the culture and the people.

I hope I continue to grow in my understanding of this language and culture - both while I'm here in Taiwan, and after I return to my original familiarity.

Most of all, I hope this becomes a Habit. With all of me, I desire to practice this Art of Familiarity with all those I come to encounter on my journey.


Don said...

Well said and well reasoned. Another blogger I follow is currently in Jordan where she has family. Just like you are getting familiar with the Taiwanese, they are getting familiar with an American. It's a two-way street, "It's much easier to demonize something or someone we are never in contact with." You are an ambassador and community builder. Most likely, the changes in you are permanent. ;-)

the girl in stiletto said...

who doesnt like familiarity ?i agree. like myself, who's living elsewhere, i've to admit, no matter how much i actually like living in this place, i often welcome the sense of familiarity especially when it comes to the language.

Anonymous said...

Well said.

floreta said...

beautiful post, Chase! and you used my favorite punch word, postmodern ;)

i think you might like a book called Angry Black White Boy. It's about racism and social acceptance from the perspective of a white boy that wants to be black. interesting read.

Chase said...

@Don, I do hope they're permanent. "Permanent Changes" as a result of this year has been something i've reflected heavily on.

@stiletto, such a great point. I am hoping to expand on my idea of "The Art of Familiarity" in later posts or projects. But I feel as though it takes the next step, as an art, to find the familiar in the foreign -- as you are doing, living abroad.

@tease, thanks! :)

@floreta, I thought your ears (eyes?) might perk up when you read "postmodern" ..haha :P You've mentioned that book before... I gotta add it to the list.

Readin said...

Don’t assume that your culture is superior. People are not stupid just because they don’t speak English or think like you do."

Now, I am not trying to advocate a wishy-washy "Everything's A-OK in my book", blind-and-postmodern look at the world.

Well said. Finding that middle ground can be very hard at first. Culture shock can make the desire to "go native" and the desire to isolate oneself very tempting.

It's not that all cultures are of equal quality, it's that all cultures have strengths and weaknesses. As a human being it is your right, perhaps even your duty, to try to distinguish which is which.

Readin said...

I didn't live in Taiwan long enough to be able to learn the language well. I'm not sure I would like becoming too familiar. One of the joys of living in Taiwan is that a simple routine thing like walking down a street looking for the right store could be challenge rather than hum-drum ho-hum. And beyond that it could be a learning experience as I studied the signs and attempted to recognize characters and make sense of character combinations.

The other reason is that I just LOVED not understanding the advertisements! Most signs on a city street are just annoying and insult your intelligence. Instead of conveying real information they seek to mislead or simply to remind you of a name for no other reason than name brand familiarity. It was so relaxing not having to ignore that crap.

SuzANNE said...

This entry was almost poetic. Great job. Glad you're getting so much out of your journey.

jlc said...

hey! just found your blog via jon and steph and got incredibly fascinated. haha!

just wanted to say hello.

Amy said...

Love this post. There are far too many colonialist tourists out there.

In terms of familiarity - I still find many aspects of Australia odd, even after three years here. Having been brought up in an Asian country, even when I don't understand the language, I feel more comfortable with the people and cultures.

Amber G said...

Hey Chase, that was well said...I leave for Israel in 17 hours, and the thought of cultural differences, language barriers, etc. can sometimes pose as a threat or a fear in me... But the points you brought up are assuring! Keep bloggin ;)

Anonymous said...

Heya Chase,
Very well said. I am always curious about other cultures and languages and have always taken to heart that I will one day get a job that will allow me to experience these. I love the Mandarin language, and though it isn't my mother tongue, I've take some classes before enough to get me by when once again, out of the many 100 times i get mistaken for a Chinese, to respond politely in Mandarin that I don't understand and please can you say it in English? :)