"Frankly, the world doesn’t revolve around you and you can’t expect it to."
Speaking with local people in their native language, or attempting to, is invaluable to the image of foreigners residing abroad, as well as your own experience.
I have been living in Ningbo, a city about two hours south of Shanghai, for just over a month now. In spite of the fact that I attend Ningbo Nottingham University, a campus owned and primarily run by its British counterpart, I was surprised when I arrived by just how few people here speak English. As all of the courses are taught in English, domestic students have excellent levels of both spoken and written English language. However, outside of this group, very few people can converse in my mother tongue with me. Many of the shops and restaurants on campus require at least a rudimentary knowledge of Mandarin Chinese to be able to buy, order or pay for the things that you want. Plus, once you take one step out of the university, into the so-called ‘real-world’, you may as well abandon any hopes that speaking slowly and loudly in English will get you anywhere.
However, outside of this group, very few people can converse in my mother tongue with me. Many of the shops and restaurants on campus require at least a rudimentary knowledge of Mandarin Chinese to be able to buy, order or pay for the things that you want. Plus, once you take one step out of the university, into the so-called ‘real-world’, you may as well abandon any hopes that speaking slowly and loudly in English will get you anywhere.
This, admittedly, is very hard to adapt to. It is quite stressful to have people speak, or sometimes shout, so quickly at you in a language you don’t understand, that you sometimes doubt whether it even is a language at all. I am myself guilty of getting frustrated sometimes when local people haven’t understood my English – even after I’ve spoken slowly, loudly and in truly ignorant fashion. At these times, I hadn’t been considerate enough to think about how equally frustrated the poor Chinese girl I was speaking with must have felt, too.
Linguistically speaking, Mandarin Chinese and English could not be more different.
Their differences include different word orders and grammar structures, different speaking patterns (Mandarin is a tonal language, meaning it relies heavily on the tones used during speech, whilst English does not) and different writing systems. This can make it particularly hard for a native English speaker to pick it up in comparison to, for example, Spanish or French, which have a lot of cognates and similar Latin roots. I learnt this the hard way, through realizing that unlike my time spent learning Spanish, it was unlikely that I could say an English word in a target language accent and ‘get lucky’ by the word happening to be the same in both languages. In fact, aside from a handful of borrowed words, it was very unlikely that this strategy will work outside of a single language family.
Therefore, the only solution was to roll up my sleeves and start learning Mandarin. Sure, I had had some exposure with the language before, though this experience didn’t stretch much further that being able to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. What if I actually had to do something important, like order food, pay a bill, or sort out my visa issues? Turns out that before long I had to do all these things (Who would have guessed?), and when the necessity arose, though it was a struggle, I very quickly started to pick up the words that I needed.
I’m sure that my transition into living in China was not the smoothest of all, and that there are better ways to handle the struggle of moving to another country that does not speak a language you are familiar with. So what could you take from my experience to make it easier for yourself?
Frankly the world doesn’t revolve around you and you can’t expect it to.
This sort of superior attitude is incredibly damaging to effective inter-cultural communication. It’s hard to admit to yourself that you feel this way, but I’m fairly certain every person every person holds a least a little bit of a feeling with them that they’re ‘special’ or that their life experience is the most important. And perhaps this is true for them as an individual, but it certainly is not on a global scale. I don’t think I came to terms with the fact that I personally felt a bit of this, what I’ve decided to call ‘superiority sentiment,’ until I threw myself into this completely different country and was offended when it didn’t bend over backwards to accommodate me. Just in the same way the world keeps turning, whether or not I’m there, China carried on working as it always has, unchanged by whatever impact I tried to have on it. This is to say that everyone on this planet has their own background, customs and language, which are just as valid as yours or mine.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Whilst it may be difficult to get past this fact at first, once you do, your language learning will very quickly improve: Making mistakes is okay. Just as much as you wouldn’t expect a newly arrived immigrant to be able to speak perfect English, the vast majority of Chinese people here don’t expect you to speak perfectly fluent Mandarin. They just appreciate it when you try. Speaking from my experience with using very – and I mean VERY – broken Mandarin, most people are very happy and excited to hear a foreign person attempt to converse with them, with many finding it endearing, or helping you with your pronunciation. It is essentially the best way of learning anything: doing something incorrectly, realizing what you said was wrong, and then changing the way you do it the next time.
From a cultural standpoint, every country is unique and rich in their own traditions.
These are definitely worth immersing yourself in, as it can be incredibly humbling and interesting to see how other peoples’ lives are so different to your own. I have personally found learning about other people to be the most rewarding experience because it allows me to see how small I am in the scheme of the entire world, and how things that I may think are strange are things that come so naturally to others.
All it takes is a little effort and consideration to try your hardest to at least pick up survival sentences in a foreign tongue and respect other people’s cultures to dramatically improve both your perception of a new country and that country’s perception of you. A few faux pas (Pardon my French) are inevitable, but that doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. It actually means that you have succeeded in trying to bridge the cultural gap between you and another, which is the only way we can move forward and understand each other.