As a linguistics major, I am often questioned about my subject of study. It’s a reasonable inquiry! Language is a huge topic. One of my professors calls language the water that we all swim in starting from just five months gestation (when hearing develops in the womb). This stream of language universally infiltrates and powers our interactions. It’s more than how we name things in the world, but also how we build promises, buildings, governments, and relationships — things that last outside of the bounds of space or time. We use language to relate to others and to ourselves throughout the lifecycle. Each of us constantly adds to its currents. We Linguistics majors, few and proud, study the evolutionary, biological, historical, cultural, and sociopolitical developments and consequences of these vast depths called language. While linguists are more than polyglots, being in a new environment, immersed in another in another language and another culture, can make you aware of aspects (low key miracles) in communication overlooked in the causal hum of everyday swimming. Here were some things I noticed:
1) I’m recalling our first night in China. We got off the plane in Guangzhou and I was so excited to speak Chinese! Athina and I jumped into a taxi and I pounced on a conversation topic! “We are students from an American University. Sorry my Chinese isn’t great. I’m sixth generation Asian American. My parents were born and raised in San Francisco. My grandparents don’t speak Mandarin either…” I basically told this diver my entire life story and elicited advice for tourists in Southern China, but I could not exact more than one word answers from him. By the end of the cab ride, I had developed the opinion that he was a) a fast, borderline unsafe driver and b) kind of less than friendly. When we arrived at the hotel, he took out this laminated card. He pointed to the first line “Airport: 420 yuan.” We were the first ones there and I didn’t have the confidence to tactfully talk down the price. Oooft. I just finished Chinese306 and I got beat by a silent-but-deadly cab driver and lamination!
I learned you don’t need to be completely understood by everyone. Not everyone needs to be privy to my pursuit of Putonghua (Mandarin). Not everyone cares. Some people just want to get through their night. I respect that.
Other people will want to hear but possibly at inconvenient times, like when I’m on a hangry noodle rush, or when I really need to find a lighter to singe the edges of fabric for props, or desperately trying to procure six pairs of pink ballet slippers to outfit my Chinese dance class.
Be respectful of other people’s stories. When people stop you to praise your or ask questions about who you are, or make uncomfortable assumptions about who they think you must be, it’s important to be patient, both with yourself and with other people. Also, there are some losses that you just have to take. [Although I’m really sorry that you had to be part of that expensive cab one, Athina!] It’s still important that you, despite the high probability of making mistakes and looking like a fool, keep on trying. Don’t apologize for the Chinese that you don’t speak or don’t speak very well, or even speak excellently, but don’t be offended by what other people think you should be.
Language works like this: Words are cognitive shortcuts for communicating an object or feeling that exists in the word. When we use our words and grammar structures, we are walking in the cognitive footprints of our ancestors. Ways of speaking are developed over many years. If you don’t belong to that tradition of thought, you don’t belong to that speech community, so don’t be too hard on yourself!
2) A few weeks into our trip my host family and I went to eat dinner and make zongzi (a sticky rice made for Dragon Boat festival) at their grandmother’s house. She lives with my host mother’s younger brother and his wife and 5-year-old daughter. The husband and wife speak English really well. Mid-conversation on children’s television shows, I realized how comforting it was to speak in my own language. I told them about school and challenges in work. She told me about worries she had for her daughter’s education and how she compares her life to those of others’ on WeChat (kind of like Facebook).
It’s not bad to miss home or crave for someone to understand you, but it will teach you not take language for granted. It blows my mind to imagine that people, like my ancestors, have the courage to pack up and move to a different country to speak a new language and start a new life. That’s nothing less than amazing.
3) Living with a host family is wonderful! To be the recipient of their unfettered hospitality is a real honor! But trying to understand and live with new people is not without it’s challenges. At first it was really hard for me to understand my host family’s dynamic and way of speaking to each other. But as my time in Zhuhai came nearer and nearer to its close, my host mother and I took longer and longer walks together around the sports arena at night. We talked about Chinese history, racial bias, education, socioeconomic status, and dance, but also family matters. After explaining something really complicated to me, she said, “After talking about it with you, I feel better.” I don’t remember contributing much, but I felt really honored by what she shared with me. I think that’s one of my favorite things, when people trust me with stuff. That night, the rain caught us off guard without our umbrellas. Getting caught in the rain on one’s way home is my second favorite thing.
Relationships with people who might otherwise be strangers to you is hard, but it’s something I’m very thankful for.
4) Lastly, as big as language is, there are things of course that exist outside of it.
Our team trip to Yunnan was my dream vacation. The Linden Cultural Center was a brilliant combination of royal blue, dark honey woods, stone shingles, and light fixtures with an art deco pop. We hiked, road bikes, ate bread, tie-dyed, and played mafia together. One day, we took a bus to Chengshan mountain. It was very rainy. My first step on the trail landed me face down, hugging the mud. The climb quite literally took my breath away, but I had wonderful company 🙂 We picked berries like mints and shouted into deep canyons. It was a blast!
What I’m trying to say is that maybe you’ve never been there, but you probably know the feeling. Does something or someone ever make you so happy you feel as though you’re walking in a cloud? Maybe you’ve never had my host mother’s eggplant or sweet green bean and weed soup but you what it feels like to be warmed up by a meal someone made especially for you. There’s nothing like the feeling of watching your students perform the dance that you choreographed and practiced with them, seeing how they have grown, and watching them all lit up on stage. Absolutely nothing like it! But I can continue to be proud of them from right here in Perkins Library. I can miss my host sister’s sweet sheepish smirk and wish her well from anywhere in the world.
How people relate to each other and the words they use are different in different speech communities, but the range of emotional possibility is quite universal. The rain kisses the same no matter the terrain it’s falling for. Wherever the mud that you slip on is located, the earth will welcome you back with the same 9.8m/s gravity. Maybe the way and context for saying it is different but a feeling can manifest anywhere.
All of these are crash courses in humility.
Being in another place, in another home, I let myself feel the weight of being foreign — lessened control, increased wonder. I miss a lot of things about Zhuhai. There are a lot of things I don’t want to forget, but I’m especially thankful for the ways that being there heightened my gratitude for the miraculous things that are both linguistic and tacit, specific and universal.
We’ve had some really great times together! These are moments I hope to remember for a very long time. When I’m back home, I’ll… when I run into problems or into something beautiful, I’ll think of a time we solved a problem together in Zhuhai. I’ll be thankful for the support I’ve felt from my team members. When I’m tired, I’ll think of shouting noodle and anti-noodle on that mountain in Yunnan. When I get really excited about learning something, I’ll remember my kids working so hard in No. 9 Middle School and the way I’ve seen their eyes light up at the threshold between kid and young adult. I don’t know when I’ll be able to come back, but Zhuhai, the people we met, and the good things received — too numerous to contain in language — are also a part of me for good.