On Mandarin Becoming
A Little Less Chinese.
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.
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.