The Intertwining of the Chinese Language and Culture

Sidewalks are not safe in Shenzhen, China. For reasons that continue to baffle me, motorcycles are banned throughout this young city. Even though Shenzhen was built only 30 years ago, the city didn’t think it necessary to build streets that could accommodate two-wheeled vehicles. Therefore, bicycles and e-bikes have taken over the city’s sidewalks. Pedestrians are relegated to dodging honking two-wheeled vehicles and precariously walking on the uneven sidewalk tiles made worse by the excessive weight they aren’t meant to bear. Add a sea of people to the mix and even Keanu Reeves would find it challenging to navigate this matrix.

Now, a year and a half after arriving, sidewalks are still a struggle for me. Every day there’s a new hazard throwing me off balance. Lately, the sidewalk has been covered with a plethora of parked bicycles, an unintended consequence of the shared bikes that have no official parking dock. No. I don’t walk around Shenzhen with ease. But that doesn’t stop me.

Just like navigating the sidewalks in China, navigating the Chinese language is a constant struggle. When I first arrived, the characters and tones baffled me. I stumbled over simple words like “Hello” and “I don’t understand.” Even though I can say a few more things in Chinese today, the Chinese language often prevents me from doing the most basic things just like the honking e-bikes that often stop me in my tracks.

The other day, I went to the grocery store to buy some laundry soap. Sounds simple, right? There are many grocery stores near my apartment, and I happened to pick the one that didn’t carry the brand I bought last time. First step: find the laundry soap. There was an aisle, two end caps, and another display scattered throughout the store that had bottles of soap that appeared to be for laundry. I want laundry soap that doesn’t irritate my sensitive skin. Unfortunately, cleaning products are often unsafe and unscented is not an option.

I found a white bottle with a picture of a baby on it; generally, a good clue for sensitive skin. But, was it laundry soap? Was fabric softener? I had no idea. The characters on the bottle were written in a curved line, so Google’s translator refused to help me. I laboriously wrote two characters into my Chinese dictionary on my phone: Gold Spin (??). Also, not helpful. A bottle on the shelf next to my supposed sensitive skin bottle said “laundry sanitizer” in English. What’s laundry sanitizer? I looked up the characters for laundry soap (???). I couldn’t see these characters anywhere on any bottle, including Tide! By this time I’ve spent an excessive amount of time looking at plastic bottles of soap, and I still wasn’t closer to finding laundry soap. I left the store empty-handed.

Learning Chinese is not just about learning vocabulary, grammar, tone, and characters. Chinese is, at it’s heart, the culture of China. Every character is a piece of Chinese history. To find laundry soap I don’t just need to know the characters; I also need to understand that China has unsafe and ineffective products, especially cleaning products. I need to understand that in a tropical climate where people don’t have clothes dryers, laundry sanitizer is essential for preventing musty and moldy clothes. I need to understand that everyone wants fragrant products, except me.

I moved to China to experience living in another culture and to learn to speak another language. I had no idea how intertwined the two would be. Understanding a conversation in Chinese greatly relies on knowing the context. With more than 20 different characters that have the pronunciation of shí (second tone), the context is the meaning. Understanding the context often relies on knowing the culture. To me, speaking the same language doesn’t mean speaking the same words, but instead it means speaking the same meaning.

While I am still often frustrated when doing simple daily tasks, I also find it intensely rewarding when I am able to connect with someone. For me, asking for help is difficult. Yet, it is only when I ask for help I am able to connect with another person. In China, people love to help you, especially if you are a foreigner. Even though I’m saying very simple things like “Where is this?” and pointing to the Chinese word on my phone, I’m making a connection with someone. Yes, it’s humbling. But ultimately it’s these connections that make life rich and full. I came to China to learn to speak another language, yet I stay in China because of the connections I’ve made. Learning Chinese is still important to me, but not as important as connecting with lots of different people.

Jill Wigert

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