Wǒ shì měiguó rén

In The Art of Travel Fall 2015, Language, Shanghai by Miranda Burnham1 Comment

I remember one evening back in the US, I was watching Modern Family with my (modern-ish) family, enjoying the antics of Gloria, a Colombian woman married to a significantly older man, played by the beautiful Sofia Vegara. Now Modern Family is a great TV show in that it plays into, only to later whole-heartedly reject, “modern” stereotypes. Throughout this episode, the whole family enjoys poking fun at Gloria and her hilarious mispronunciations, such as “old tomato” instead of “ultimatum.” And although it was so enjoyable for the family and the audience, at the end of the episode, Gloria angrily tells her husband “…I wish you knew how smart I am in Spanish.”

This small moment in a silly TV show really gave me a reality check, and granted me a huge respect for people who speak multiple languages. Now in China, learning the language for the very first time, it is me who wishes people knew how smart I am in my own language. Or at least that I am not the illiterate idiot I am in Chinese!

The amount of times I have fumbled in this language are innumerable, because the amount of times I know I have messed up are the just the tip of the iceberg.

I knew I was in for an interesting four months from the second I got on the 14 hour plane ride here. I sat next to a Chinese gentleman  who knew very little English. Paired with my then zero Chinese ability, I assumed communicating would be completely impossible.

And yet, I found myself looking over and nodding in greeting, offering the armrest, as he gratefully accepted. We exchanged glances as a rude lady yelled at a flight attendant for no reason. Later, when we found out his TV wasn’t working, and would not work for the entire flight, I offered a sympathetic gesture and a sad smile, which he returned. Every time food came around, the man would offer me food first, and make sure I was served. He would make sure I was getting up and stretching each time he got up, and would not sit down until I had enough standing time. We looked longingly out the window together, and often glanced at the air-tracker available on my TV.

I wondered to myself what his purpose was in China, or what it had been in the US. I am sure he wondered the same of me, as I was one of the only “laowai” or foreigners on the plane. As we neared Shanghai, both of us looked wistfully out the window, and expressed mutual disappointment that we could not see the city. As we landed, he attempted to speak English to me, saying something along the lines of “China one, One China.” I thought he was trying to say that there is only one China, that it is unique, so I tried to speak about never visiting. But then it occurred to me that maybe he meant culturally it was one? As in together, or the same? I tried to speak back to him, but our eyes told each other what our language could not: we had no idea what the other person was saying. And so we laughed and smiled, content in the fact that we would never understand one another.

I had been wrong when I had gotten on that plane. Many times over I have read books describing different people being unable to speak the same language, but still able to create understanding, laughing and enjoying one another’s company. Every time I had read a scene described as such, I had no idea how this could possibly happen. I would become frustrated, thinking “how can their be any understanding when you cannot say anything!!??” But now, here in China, it all makes sense. There are universal experiences, feelings, and cues, that language does not cover. All around the world, though we may not say the same things, we still often feel the same way. We all share that human experience, living in this age and this time.

While in China, I have certainly not  been a silent observer. The sound I have used most often since coming here has been my laugh, used each and every time I have no idea what to say or how to say it. I used it when trying to buy pharmacy supplies, when trying to order pork and have been given a pen, when I say something ridiculous and am only alerted to that fact when everyone bursts out laughing.

Fumbling to communicate in Chinese makes me feel like an idiot all the time, but it invariably makes me smile, knowing that even though they don’t know the specifics, the people around me still understand me, and I them.

(This is a picture I took of some non-sensical T-shirt I saw in a store. There are even better T-shirts that say words but make no sense. New York and Brooklyn T-shirts are also incredibly popular, so when I saw a woman wearing one, I tried to tell her I was from New York. It soon became clear that she did not know what her shirt said, so I appeared as a crazy person pointing rudely at the words written on her chest.)

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  1. Miranda, this is a great post! I can totally empathize with your experience being unable to communicate except through universal gestures — it’s frustrating, but somehow very grounding and unifying. You seem to have such a great outlook on your language barrier. It’s wonderful that you’ve found so much happiness in getting to know people without spoken language. I’m sure you’ll soon be conversing like a pro, but for now, I wish you many more remarkable interactions like the one you had on the plane.

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