at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Category: Cultural Intelligence Page 2 of 6

Chinese. Language. Lessons.

Recently, Chinese has been in the news quite a bit as a newly popular language among foreign language learners. At least, in a way. Numbers of actual learners may have risen tremendously percentage-wise, but they are still small. No wonder, with Chinese being considered one of the hardest languages to learn.

Of course, that also makes it a language that the highly-gifted, greatly motivated, etc. want to know; preferably getting fluent in three months

And so, as always, there will be the question of what you actually learn, what you put the emphasis in your learning on.
After all, early China scholars were able to read prolifically and discuss the finer points of grammar and philosophy, but often had had no direct exposure to the spoken language, and couldn’t really speak it.
Many modern language learners study Chinese to get by in  China and brag about their skills, and consequently focus on the spoken language, but remain quite illiterate.
Even for one who can understand and speak, read and write, grasp of the language remains questionable.
There are finer points that will remain difficult to get – and how do you consider knowledge as sufficient when native Chinese language users will regularly have to look up how to write a character they don’t usually use?

Don’t fear heaven, don’t fear earth, only fear the foreigner speaking Chinese…

There’s that whole other layer to the language, though: In stark contrast to a language like German, let alone Spanish or, “worst” of all, English, Chinese is strongly connected with its ethnic roots and civilization.

The overlap is so strong that it often appears as if the expectation were that Chinese ability is somehow genetically predetermined: if you look Chinese enough, you are expected to be able to speak the language; and you are not fully Chinese if you are ethnically so, but don’t speak the language.
On the other hand, if you are a foreigner, your very ability to ever acquire the language is seen as limited (and obviously non-Chinese who know the Chinese language with native-like abilities are seen as rather wondrous phenomena.)

Together with the general ethnocentrism that one can often find in China, this makes for an often hard time – and a strange advantage: There is general amazement one should even try to learn the language, be able to pronounce some of it somewhat alright, that is motivating… as well as very embarrassing, especially once one gets to the point of realizing that something is still being mispronounced and consequently not really understandable, but probably gets commented on with high praises, anyways – and with the expectation of the praise being steadfastly refused, in just the Chinese fashion.

At the same time, the foreigner’s obvious outsider status runs alongside the perspective in which anyone who learns the language and attempts to fit into the culture is getting into the assimilative, civilizing, gravitational pull of the kingdom at the center, which makes for an easier time learning and remaining motivated.

So, it’s easy enough to not speak correctly and be difficult, if not impossible, to understand – but it also is not really expected of an obvious foreigner to speak perfectly. Thus, the pressure to achieve total native-like ability gets somewhat diffused by this expectation of imperfection. You’ll always, obviously, be a stranger anyways – yet, you can fit in quite a bit as long as you seek to speak the language and understand (and to quite an extent, submit to) the culture.

Contrast that to the attitude with “easier” languages and more closely related ethnicities, such as the American trying to speak Spanish or French, or the Southern or Eastern European immigrant to German-speaking countries. There, the attitude that arises immediately is that you, the other, aren’t all that different – so, why can’t you speak perfectly and properly? Immediately, just because there seem to be fewer obvious barriers, all differences gain even greater importance – even as they shouldn’t.

Perhaps, the comfortable feeling of belonging we all seek is making us truly stupid when it comes to intercultural (and multilingual) interaction. Sure, it would be comfortable to be seen as “one of them” in an ethnic and/or linguistic group that is an “other” to us – but the place apart, as dangerous as we know and instinctively feel it can be, is a position of power, of translation and bridge-building, as well.

So, learn languages, listen to foreigners with “strange accents,” be that stranger who is struggling to speak understandably, and learn to be happy with all the little progress towards a world that is less small-minded.

You can perhaps never be simply one of them in another culture – but really, you are not even yourself most of the time. Situations change, roles change, salient identities shift.
Add languages and intercultural situations, and – with a bit of training – your self will expand to encompass yet more.

Of Swimsuits, China, and Cultural Intelligence

In a world awash with online porn, it is fascinating to see that a mere four pictures in the latest (2013) Swimsuit edition of Sport’s Illustrated, featuring “ethnic”-looking Chinese as their backdrop, can still cause a ruckus making it all the way to the New York Times’ online blogs.

Read More

I Hereby Pronounce Thee Like a Foreigner

Somehow, in a bout of bad timing, I got quite out of language learning at just the time the internet made it ever easier to seek out other languages. Not only that, with the web there was (and is) even a community of people who define themselves as polyglots and language learners, who support and inspire each other – or brag and make a business of their language-learning ways, but at least still learn.

Me? I’d count two languages in which I’m fluent – and as we’ll see, that’s being put into question – and another… 7? 8? 9?  in which I’ve dabbled and feel like I’ve forgotten more than I ever learnt.

Not me, probably not you, hardly anyone of the great and fast language learners I’ve ever heard.

With all the forgetting and lack of practice/study, like so many others, I’ve been wondering if maybe I am just not all that good at languages. Or maybe, I was quite good at it, but only so much as to never have to invest the time and effort that really needs to be expended, and thus never sticking with it for long enough.

One particular problem that has been raising its ugly head ever more often – and that does not get mentioned all that often in such a direct way – is the strange attitude we find towards the speaking of other languages as/by a foreigner.

To Teach, But Not to Speak ‘Correctly’?

Then, there was the English teaching I did in Latvia: I enjoyed it, but I don’t sound like a native English speaker, even though this is a language I tend to use (certainly in writing) more than my first language, German.

With the German teaching in China, the (almost the same) usual problem applied: As an Austrian, you are a native speaker of German – but of its Austrian variant. Of course, there’s more of a difference between “High” German and some of the German dialects in Germany than between it and Austrian “High” German, but not coming from Germany raises some concerns.
This is particularly funny – and/or aggravating – because other Austrians tend to switch to a less-dialectal form when talking to me, assuming that maybe I can’t understand dialect because I don’t – and can’t really – speak it myself…

Now, having to take a pronunciation course as part of the (English) teacher training I have taken up again, getting feedback on my pronunciation – and having lived in China long enough to have had lots of experience with “getting the tones wrong” – the scale tips strongly in favor of “you just can’t sound right.”

To Learn – Or Not to…

Aside from the oft-wasted effort at remembering verb conjugations and such, it is pronunciation that makes you stand out like the obvious foreigner  and that is all-too-common an issue that makes people give up on other languages.

The challenge in learning another language is not only that the foreign language learner has to get his/her head – and tongue and jaw – around sounds which don’t exist in their first language. No, not only do other languages potentially sound barbaric in the original meaning of the word – a barbar being someone whose language sounded just like the supposedly ignorant (of e.g. Greek or even, already, Sanskrit and earlier Indo-European) and stammering “bar bar bar” sounds of others.
No, even when speaking the other, better language that is foreign to you, you may (probably will) still sound like the barbarian at the gates, butchering some sounds of it – unless you are one of those rather rare people who can master another language’s sounds completely.

Making yourself at home in this world does not necessarily require  that you know languages other than the one spoken in your surroundings (usually the one you grew up with), anyways; and even if you need or want to fit in somewhere else, or just simply want to be a part of the wider linguistic and cultural diversity  of this world, a non-native pronunciation will make it obvious that you are not – or “not really” – at home in that other area, that language.

Or so it seems.

What True Sound?

The funny thing is that native speakers need not sound truly “better” to not be called out on their pronunciation quite as much.

Of course, they do speak differently.
A foreign language speaker will probably be recognizably different from any native speaker, and thus stand out.
Native speakers, though… just go from Harlem to the Hamptons, from one social class to another, and people will sound different. Put a British speaker together with an Aussie and an American, and even if they all spoke “proper” English, it would be considerably different – not to even begin to think about an Indian or Nigerian who may have grown up with English as (one) first language but will sound rather different again. Wrong, even – unless, of course, you realize the context.

Where racism is strongly discouraged, linguistic discrimination is just normal, though.

“Just learn to speak properly.” There’s a difference between the two, of course, since you can learn better pronunciation and you may simply not be understandable if you get things wrong. There’s also a level where it becomes ridiculously stupid to discourage or get discouraged because of pronunciation differences, though – and we find that view, too.

After all, just go somewhere another language is spoken, see what the difference is between you only speaking your own first language and trying to find someone who speaks that, or you being there and speaking the language spoken there, even if somewhat badly…

Culturally Intelligent Language Attitudes

It’s just one of those (many) ways in which the world doesn’t necessarily subscribe to our desires – but to know more, live better, not get mired in stupidity (worst of all, the stupidity of our own resistance to doing things so we learn and live better), we’ll just have to deal with it and go on anyways…

Still, with languages, the contradictory attitude is quite perplexing, as well as problematic. You don’t sound like a native – whatever that would really sound like, given all its diversity – you are standing apart. At the same time, at least you speak the language, and if it is fluent and correct enough, it’s all well. Except when it’s not.

Cultural intelligence, in this context, seems to be something that arises best only when both parties in a communicative situation know the trouble with learning another language and thus agree to overlook the “barbaric” sound of an other in favor of communication.
For one person, one language learner, alone, there’s just one way to be culturally intelligent about it: give it your best, but don’t get concerned about a perfection that doesn’t really exist.

Funny thing in this context, to harken back to the online, paragon, language-learners:
They typically don’t even learn too much of the writing, just of the speaking. They typically define fluency not the way it’s officially done, but simply as being able to participate in a conversation over a longer time without totally lacking in words or understanding.
The pronunciation? Typically, obviously imperfect – but who cares when you managed to get to decent-enough conversations in a new language in three months, and it’s the tenth language you’ve tackled?

Of course, it won’t help me with my pronunciation-for-teachers course. That, too, has a funny side to it, though: there are so many teachers and teacher-training students who should have taken that course, but still don’t all sound “like a native” – and often enough, make enough other mistakes as well. It seems to be the very focus on perfection, which they then also transmit to their students, which keeps them from simply communicating as well – and typically, understandable – as they could, all for the self-consciousness caused by the constant nagging thought about their imperfect grasp of the language.

No native speaker has the perfect grasp of all of their language. That’s why we can tell what region of our own language area someone comes from and what social group they may belong to, and that’s the reason why children learn their first language for the longest time at school (and may still have more to learn if they go on to study a particular discipline and all its vocabulary and phraseology at university).

So, learn, communicate, make yourself uncomfortable – and get at home in this imperfect world, imperfect as you are. Just speak.

Looking onto dance class

The Expat Tango

Recently, the trend in writing about China seems to have become focused on the theme of exodus. Long-term expats are leaving, and telling all about the reasons. Mark Kitto – already famously? – gave one reason in the very title of his article: “You’ll Never Be Chinese.

There is a lot to be said for his argument, and quite something against, but it’s the general theme of home I’d like to take up.

After all, somehow, even  people proposing international, nomadic, location-independent living often talk about the pleasures of living free and unencumbered by ties to any place – but all the while, the notion of “home” figures prominently in their lives.

Sure, there are some who just tick off the countries they’ve been to, the places they’ve lived, without much of any apparent care for where they find themselves. Sure, there are different things that are important to different people – and if you seriously enjoy being in the mountains, but were born and raised in flat land (such as me, here), you may want to consider moving.

It’s often less about living nomadically and being free from ties, so much as it is about the latter, though: an attempt at finding a place to call home, a place that just feels right.

Looking onto dance class

They dance – but are you a partner or an outside onlooker?

Well, a move can help with that. At least, a different context may make for a different frame of reference.
Go somewhere else, and things look different. Whereas you wouldn’t buy foods on the street where you come from, because that’s what you do only in a sterile-looking supermarket (which is boring), it’s normal and even pleasurably exotic in another country (regular digestive problems notwithstanding). It’s all (at least more easily) accepted somewhere else, and the fun and exoticism may make it more of the home you imagined sitting “at home” in a place you felt you knew only too well.

There’s quite something to the notion that you may not simply be at home somewhere, and especially where you grew up. I’m a strong proponent of the view that it’s better to feel a bit uncomfortable, especially in the place of one’s origin, rather than feel comfortably at home without ever experiencing any other place (and its people and culture).

Even the average corporate expat willing to go abroad probably didn’t feel quite “at home” where s/he grew up, studied, lived, and thus has a rather less “natural” tie to any such home.

If we are not simply at home in some place, if there is no home – here, or out there – just waiting for us, though, then that applies everywhere.

So, the problem is when the exoticism and excitement about a place becomes an expectation that things should be better there quite naturally, and that, if you feel rather better there – maybe even at home – things should just go exactly your way.

To the extent that we idealize a place, we impoverish it, reducing reality to a list of shortcomings.

There’s the rub. It takes two to tango, and as the stranger, you must make yourself at home. Yet as the stranger, you may not be accepted.

Power plays between people and countries, openness or closedness of societies, racism or other notions of superiority and simple ethnocentrisms, expectations and experiences,…  all come into play – and the expat who moved somewhere because he/she loved that country/culture so much may find that the feeling is not, or not always, reciprocal. Add in that the allure of the exotic fades away and the negatives may come to outweigh the fascination, and discontent can easily be bred.

China has been one of the best, and most difficult, examples of that.

The country is big and diverse, and thus offers great fascination, and it is a place with a landscape and climate for just about everyone. The people are typically curious and hospitable, and may even follow the notion that you are somewhat Chinese as long as you (struggle to) learn the language and fit into the culture. Of course, as everywhere, cultural conventions can make for a bit of a shock – and it’s typically not those stereotypical things like dog meat, but things like the unexpected openness with which visible differences between people – which would typically be talked about only in a circumscribed way, if at all, in ‘the West’ – are discussed: tallness, supposed handsomeness, soggy midsections, big noses… And when the situation somehow changes to a disenchantment with the foreign(ers), these obvious differences single out any foreigner, and the side of China where you are always on the outside if you weren’t born here and look, speak, and think like a Chinese can quickly come to the fore.

There is, of course, also your own set of priorities. China is on the rise, and China is and remains fascinating. Having lived in one place, even if it should be a part of China diametrically opposed to where you grew up, the fascination will be replaced by familiarity, though – and that may be comfortable (if not broken by rising ‘outsiderdom’), or a reason why other aspects, such as ‘outsiderdom’, but also pollution, career opportunities, etc., become more important.

As many of the expats now leaving have noted, once you have children, rampant pollution of air and water, food scandals, insane traffic and test-based schooling, along with legal uncertainties inherent in outsider status (and in China, also the status as citizen) easily become just too much.

As those who stay have started commenting, China is and remains fascinating, has more job opportunities for those who can navigate its market and offer something that is needed.

To me, the lesson is that one needs to make him-/herself at home, anyways, anywhere, as much as one can and wants to. And one needs to make him-/herself sufficiently uncomfortable, so to speak, to not only fall into an everyday monotony, but continually learn and do something more, better. Disenchantment comes everywhere, no place – and no person – is perfect. Handling that is a big part of what life is about.

Only part of all that is up to the individual, though; social acceptance in smaller social circles, for example, but not by the general population. It takes two to tango.

Avenue, Rio de Janeiro 1931

To Rio de Janeiro as an 8-Year-Old…

It was the year 1930. My grandmother was far from being my grandmother yet. She was only 8 years old, after all. Her father, a shoemaker, decided to join in the ranks of the many who sought their luck somewhere else – whether because he had fallen on hard times (which wouldn’t be surprising, given the economic situation in Europe at that time) or lured in by stories of success, we don’t know. In his case, the land of dreams was Brazil.

I wouldn’t normally talk about family history, but this story is old enough, and sometimes still influences enough, that it’s worth putting it up (especially, I find, on a medium that is as unawares of other times as the internet tends to be).

Also, there’s not much more to say, actually – my yet-to-be-grandmother had to return the following year already (alone, on the Cap Arcona liner, apparently), and her father returned a little later (having fallen ill, if stories are true).

There are, however, a few impressions to share:

The one missing image is one of the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin airship which visited Rio de Janeiro in 1930 – but that photograph was, according to family history, passed on to an Austrian ambassador to Brazil.

What always strikes me – of course, given the themes I’m focused on – is how much of “globalization” and technology was already possible and ongoing at that time, and how many things we now consider normal were hardly even imaginable. It is an interesting vantage point from which to consider location independence and what may still be possible in an energy- and resource-constrained future, not least…

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