Living in Chinese
There’s this scene in Family Guy that goes like this: The Griffins are on a train and Brian tries to strike up a conversation with a Mexican immigrant.
“Hola. Mi llamo es Brian. Nosotros queremos ir con ustedes.”
And the guy responds in perfect English:
“That was pretty good, but actually, when you said ‘mi llamo es Brian,’ you don’t need the ‘es.’ Just ‘Mi llamo Brian.’”
Brian lights up.
“Oh you speak English!”
“No, just that first speech and this one explaining it.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
Language is a cornerstone to a human being’s identity. It is the way in which that identity is expressed. Its allowances and its restrictions dictate how you tell your story. We are almost entirely dependent on words to tell us who we are.
I am fluent to, probably, a level beyond native-level proficient at describing where I come from, how much time I’ve spent in China, what I did with that time, and what I’m doing with my current time. As Socrates said: “We are what we repeatedly do.” I have this conversation every day, 10 times a day. I am so mind-numbingly good at telling people why I came to China in the first place. I deserve medals and trophies for how good I am at telling taxi drivers what America is like and offering thorough and honest comparisons to China.
They tell me, “Fuck, your Chinese is good.” They tell me, “I’ve never met a foreigner who speaks Chinese like you.” And, believe me when I say this, I am damn good at responding humbly to that statement.
I, a lifelong advocate for the abolition of small talk (http://www.tloebthinks.com/home/2016/8/5/small-talk), am so fluent in Mandarin Chinese small talk that people are compelled to tell other people that happen to be standing in the general area or walking by or driving past with their windows down. Sickly grandparents are fetched from back rooms and wheeled to my feet. And they say they wish their own sickly grandparents were still around to hear me talk about the mild summers but brutal winters in my native New England.
And then that sentence comes. Some sentence. Some sentence that contains one-too-many words that don’t ding my tympanic membrane in the right way. And I maybe smile and laugh and say, “Right, sure,” even if maybe they’ve just told me that this sickly grandparent who has just been wheeled to my feet has an especially shitty form of terminal cancer and that they will probably ”not be constant” pretty soon. Or I say, “Sorry, I didn’t understand.” or I rapidly scroll through my translation app.
And I am an infant again.
The elevation to medium and ultimately big talk, one of my greatest joys in my American English speaking life, is now like a fart in an elevator. It changes everything.
When I first lived in Shanghai, back in 2011, I had a Korean girlfriend. She did not speak English. I did not speak Korean. We both spoke Chinese badly. We were 20 years old. It was not a relationship based on mutual intellectual admiration. It was kind of like a 3rd grade relationship, like where we asked each other our favorite food and color repeatedly. Except, then we would get drunk. She met my sister once and they sat in a room and smiled at each other for 30 minutes, which is an incredibly long time to be sitting in a room, platonically, with someone your age that you can’t even talk about favorite colors with.
But, that was fun, that whole experience.
Because words are also a responsibility. Words hold you accountable. You can’t do anything wrong if you don't understand. You also can’t do anything heavy. Think about a child, maybe 8 years old. They are conflicted. On the one hand, their age precludes them from things: special tables at Thanksgiving, movies with boobs, people legitimately caring about their opinion. On the other hand, their age affords them an excuse, a way out, and the pleasure to not have to pay for dinner or commute to work. The pleasure to check out. The pleasure to be mentally unaccountable. Such it is with someone who does not speak like the natives speak.
But, this kid has never sat at the adult’s table, has never seen movies with boobs in movie theaters, and has never been solicited for their thoughts on the repeal of Glass-Steagall. The not-native speaker has. And it can be very hard and endlessly frustrating to go back to the kid’s table.
It can be phenomenally rewarding to live in another language. It is, without question, one of the most lawfully mind-expanding things available to human beings. To know of a “computer” as not just a “computer” but also as a “dian-nao,” an “electric brain,” is beautiful. To know that in French, paper clips are “trombones” is beautiful. To take something that was once only a particular sound—a vibration in your ear—and give that vibration expressive quality is fucking beautiful. It also, on a deeper level, is the most literal way to see that there are many, many different ways to perceive the world. In many senses, it is fantastically liberating, living in a language that you don’t think in. It allows you to absorb life in a much less intellectual way, in which words are less psychologically cumbersome. “Cao ni ma” will never hit me in the way that “Fuck your mother” does. “Wo ai ni” will never roll off the tongue with as much anxiety as “I love you.”
But, like anything important, these good things about living in a foreign language are also the bad things. Subtlety is hard. Metaphor is a bitch. Wit is, as they say in Chinese: “Hai di lao yue,” “to try and fish out the moon from the bottom of the sea.” That is, impossible.
I have some good friends in China—people that I have known for years. But, do I know them? Do I understand their essence? Can I put them into words? And vice-versa. You become an entirely different person. You become more of a caricature, a curious creature. You become someone with an infinite list of acquaintances and a short list of friends. You become a perpetual small-talker.
That Family Guy scene masterfully captures that moment of conversational shift. You can feel it. When you have to say “I don’t understand you.” What an intense thing to say to someone you just met. I don’t understand you.
Language is a means of communication. A way to tell others what your brain is telling you. Language is essential for finding bathrooms, asking for the bill, haggling. But, through language we also love and vent and display our emotions. Babies cry. People speak. Babies don’t have meaningful personal relationships with anyone that didn't create them.
Rather than culture, I think language is one of the main reasons people stay where they are. Literally, where they are understood. It's human to want to be understood. I love living in Chinese, though. All of the difficulties, I love, because it’s so damn interesting. I think I loved being a kid for the same reason. Because I was learning new shit every day. Just constantly being surprised and wowed—the childhood of a curious child. I guess the point of being a kid is to be an adult later. And the point of learning a language is to be fluent and communicate and be able to no longer be learning, but to really know. That will happen someday for me. Someday I will feel in this language. Someday I will be a complete Mandarin Chinese adult, able to access places that are inaccessible to the uninitiated. Able to like, totally understand. Able to be me.