Can We(esterners) ever understand (the) Chinese

Written by Bala, BE

China Unlimited Europe 2015

A nostalgic foreword
In the mid 70’s, fascinated by the historical meeting of Chairman Mao and Dr. Kissinger, many young members of the American academia, mostly men, went to China, attracted by a mystical land, where beautiful women wore tiny shoes. As one such naive adventurer, I spent some time in the midst of villagers and peasants without being able to speak, read, write or understand anything or anybody around me. But what happened to me was an extraordinary human experience.

No, I did not learn any Chinese then. Instead, I was welcomed by the poorest folks of China as a dignitary and even offered warm food and tea by families whose children had little to eat. I was a ‘wàibīn’外宾, a ‘respected’ foreign visitor.

Those unhappy years of famine, impoverishment, pestilence, natural disasters and civil war have receded into distant memory. The Chinese nation and the people are becoming prosperous and a world force economically, politically and culturally, ostensibly for the first time in their very long existence. We(sterners) should welcome them with the same warmth and hospitality the Chinese have always shown. As our partners, We(sterner) must understand (the) Chinese.

China in a nutshell
The Chinese are(i) a multi-ethnic people with (ii) a predominantly unique and unifying language. If we can juxtapose these two vast hemispheres which together form the ethos of the Chinese people, we are ready to get to know a third of the world’s population.

The Chinese people are like every other people in the world. They have the same needs, emotions, dreams and responsibilities. The big difference between them and We(sterners) is that, unlike the latter, they are culturally introverted. They grow up avoiding confrontation or a ‘loss of face’ to all concerned. They are natural diplomats who never disagree but strive for a neutral terrain wherever possible. Even the slightest misunderstanding can be dispelled with some liquid like tea or even stronger spirits. Their only occasion to really fight is when it is time to settle the bill at the restaurant. Food related vocabulary in Chinese is vast (over 3000) and can replace any other topic. Notwithstanding a very polite, somewhat subordinate behavioural pattern, every Chinese is proud of her/his history. Their country invented papermaking, compass, gunpowder and printing. For many Chinese, even hamburgers and pizzas are also their domestic creations. Never far away are gods, superstitions, mythological stories and an endless number of moralising proverbs and idioms. The base is the family, which like in the old days of the West, is somewhat affectionately hierarchical and devoted.

The second and final hurdle for foreigners (and many Chinese) is the Chinese language. The rumour that it is impossible for a foreigner to master it is a complete fallacy and a myth. Grammatically, it is one of the simplest languages: it has no genders, tenses, plurals or conjugations. Phonetically, it is far fewer sound and tonal patterns than English. The sentences are often like in English. While it is true that correct tonal accentuation is an essential and integral part of spoken Mandarin, contextually, one is unlikely to be misunderstood. In the worst scenario, a mispronounced word might be deemed funny but can be clarified by writing it out the word on the palm of one’s hand or in the air. Thanks to technology, there is always help at hand with pinyin and smart phone dictionaries. All this boils down to being able to read and write or rather write and read Chinese. In order to reach proficiency in Chinese, one needs to know, actively (writing) and passively (reading) around 3000 characters and 6000 words (which are a combination of characters with different pronunciations of the former). If one could practise (write and write and write) say,30 characters a day, theoretically at least, it is possible to book your travel to China after three months. We(sterners) who want to impress the Chinese should learn to write. It is somewhat like playing music on an instrument by being able to read the music score. It requires practice and perseverance and patience.

Fortunately now, there are many places, resources and methods to study Chinese and bridges to connect the cultures. Learning a foreign language as an adult is always difficult and Chinese is no exception. The rewards for being able to travel in China independently, discover that the people there are curious, garrulous and funny, to shop and bargain endlessly and end each day in great company, are worth the effort and time consecrated to progressively become proficient.

Political sensitivity
China is a huge country with gigantic challenges. Like many other countries in the world but on a much larger scale, it has major problems with government, human rights, child birth, ageing population, urban air pollution, corruption and health issues. Such topics are best avoided in general conversations because they could be considered as condescending and insensitive. Good things will always come if one is patient. There are thousands of subjects for détente and relaxation. It is worthwhile to remember that every Chinese person considers himself or herself as a star singer and expects you to join in for the fun –in Chinese preferably. Moreover, it is always Christmas, New Year, birthday or some other celebration all the time and remembering someone with a small gift is sufficient to build a long-lasting relationship.

Personal note
I must confess to being somewhat fond of everything Chinese, not because I have been lucky to visit and work with the Chinese, or because I studied and even passed some tough HSK exams or because I can read a Chinese restaurant’s menu or that I can use a Chinese keyboard or the Weibo, but because as an old man now I know that wherever I go in China, I will be respected and be given plenty of food.

I am seriously toying with the idea of asking for an asylum in China where loneliness does not exist.

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