Sunday, January 23, 2011

When I'm wrong, I admit it (sometimes)

I must confess, I hate being proved wrong. Probably this is quite common, but I have to admit, I really hate it. This being said, sometimes I agree to give up on the last word. This usually happens when insisting on my version would not only further show that I'm wrong, but also that I'm grumpy.

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about my first six months in China, and I have to say, my initial experience in Far East Asia made me draw some hasty wrong conclusions, among which the wrongest one was that I didn't want to stay.

My initial settling in Shanghai hasn't been easy, actually it was a proper shock mainly due to the language barrier. I'm comfortable in five languages, one being widespread English, so I thought I wouldn't have encountered so many difficulties, at least for the most basic things.

I quickly revisited my opinion when I realised I could literally count on one hand the people I met with who spoke a little English. Even at the hotel in Beijing city centre, none of the receptionists spoke English. I'm not a fan of "imposing" my language anywhere, this is why I like studying many different idioms, but admittedly, in China I was truly taken aback.

You don't realise the importance of the language until you absolutely need to make yourself understood by the person you are talking to and you are unavoidably met with a puzzled look of despair. This was my daily routine when I arrived in July until, well, not long ago.

Still now, the most common sentence in my personal vocabulary is "Ting bu dong": it looks like this 听不懂, and it means "I can hear you but I can't understand you". Mandarin Chinese is definitely a difficult language, and by difficult, I mean difficult. It's not words that you can just "pick up", if you don't know it, you are in the dark. It's like learning two languages, for between the spoken and the written there is no relation whatsoever: the written has 5000 characters, and as many years, under its collective belt; the spoken is a tangled web of tones that, although to a clumsy Western pair of ears sound perfectly the same, to Chinese people are totally different.

So, misunderstandings and the awareness of living in a nearly complete darkness, led me to regret my choice of spending six months in China and, as I started to think I will never be fluent, I didn't even want to learn such a difficult language.

All these seemingly impossible-to-overcome difficulties have been haunting me since the beginning but, oddly enough, little by little they are becoming the funny side of my stay in Shanghai. Now, I'm the first one to laugh when I don't understand or I can't express myself, and this is gradually revealing very helpful, firstly because I don't panic anymore and I just throw in all words I can muster, and secondly because people are more willing to give me the time to do such.

Apart from language-related adventures, recently I've been realising I'm slowly falling in love with China, its culture, its philosophy of life, its people.

This is a bit of a problem, and not just because here I can't get married (I know, it's sad, but not much I can do about it), but especially because I had different plans, which involved staying in China for a period between six months to a year and then moving to the Middle East for another six months to a year period.
However, at the moment, I can't see myself leaving China. Six months have already gone, the next half year will fly as fast as the previous one and I'm already thinking about extending my visa (again).

I'm not sure what has cast such a spell on me, probably the very easygoing aspect of pretty much everything in the Chinese lifestyle, or maybe the fact that you can do whatever you want and it will always be ok, or my gradual acknowledging that overcoming the challenge of integrating in such a different society is more rewarding than I thought it would be.

If at the beginning Shanghai was unsettling in a sort of "unwelcoming" terms, now it's the other way around. Feeling more "at home" than in any other destinations I've moved to is a bit scary, but certainly enjoyable.


Julia said...

Wow, I remember reading one of your first posts that you wrote on arrival in China. You were so apprehensive. How things change...and how strange that countries do that to us. I was dreading coming to Turkey, the first time we came just for a holiday (it was our cheapest option at the time) and then, the country grabbed us.

Glad you're happy! :)

AngelaCorrias said...

Thanks Julia! It's amazing, isn't it?!
I had even told my parents I couldn't wait for the first semester to be over and I would immediately leave for the Middle East (which I'm still longing for!), and now I've already extended my visa.
Even at the beginning, I could sense life was chilled out here, but I thought it would have taken me too long to reach such state of bliss :P
I'm glad I stuck to my plan, really :)

Katja said...

Lovely post. As an English girl living and working in Italy, I had similar feelings at the beginning of my stay. However, at about the six month mark I suddenly realised that not only was I comfortable living here, but that I was *happy*. It's weird how it just creeps up on you without realising, isn't it?

AngelaCorrias said...

True, you realise all of a sudden, honestly I'm the most surprised one ;)

Glad you like my home country. A while ago a met at the airport an English teacher who was going to live and work in Calabria. We were on the same Raynair flight and we talked quite a lot about what she should have expected in Calabria, probably not the easiest region to live in Italy. :)

Katja said...

No, Calabria's definitely not the easiest - that's where I am, in fact. I'm glad I didn't come straight here from England, because I think that would have been a culture shock too far. As it is, I had an easing in, living in the Salento (the southernmost bit of Puglia) last year. That was also a bit of a culture shock, after living in London for 10 years, but by the time my contract was up I was really sad to leave. Calabria is, obviously, different again, but at least I now have a reasonable grasp of the language, which really helps with settling in more quickly. There's nothing more disconcerting than not being able to communicate.

Jill - Jack and Jill Travel The World said...

I'm glad to hear how you start seeing the funny side of not-understanding and miscommunication... Definitely a key to start enjoying what a new place has to offer.

My husband and I are embarking on a long term travel to see if we can find an area that we feel like we 'belong'... hopefully it will happen :)

shahrzaad said...

Beautiful post.
That gave me a good insight of what i am going to face in China, before i move there lol

Even though Chinese seem to be horribly difficult language, the matter that Chinese people dont speak English, is proving me that their language will be the most popular, once they take over US & EU universities in science.

Hopefully at the time, we will be of those who speak Chinese, eh? lol

AngelaCorrias said...

Katja, it's so true, if you can't communicate it's a disaster. This is what made me feel uncomfortable in China at the beginning.
Mandarin Chinese is not a language you can "pick up" - you know it or you don't, and obviously I didn't! When I spoke to people and was constantly unable to make myself understood, I really realised how important is sharing a language.

AngelaCorrias said...

Hi Jill! How exciting what you and your husband are doing! The whole process of looking for a place is fascinating, and I'll be following your updates on your website!

AngelaCorrias said...

Right on Shahz, by that time we will be fluent in Mandarin ;)
Looking forward to welcoming you in Shanghai!

Connie said...

So glad to hear that you are starting to enjoy your time in China and continuing to practice your Mandarin even though you struggle. I had a really hard time in China myself, especially communicating with the locals. Unluckily for me, I'm half Chinese (but grew up in America) and my Mandarin is quite bad (I speak Cantonese at home). The locals were not so easy-going with me regarding my failing Mandarin.

Cograts on your decision to extend your visa and stay in China!

AngelaCorrias said...

Thanks Connie! I believe you might have had way less problems than me in China language-wise, as I mainly speak Chinglish :) Although I know that between Cantonese, Mandarin and the countless dialects, even between Chinese, sometimes they don't understand each other!

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ramblinbess said...

It's so interesting how we all have our cultures of origin, but for no reason we can put a finger on, we fall in love with some other culture. For one person, it's England, for another it's Kenya, and so on.

AngelaCorrias said...

So true, discovering new cultures is exactly what maks traveling so enriching :)

Rajasthan Tours Operator said...

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