Maria Holland

Awkward Wednesday … and Thursday

In Uncategorized on September 10, 2009 at 10:23 pm

Before 10:30 this morning, I had been to 4 offices, which would normally not indicate a good day in China. However, my several-hour adventure this morning culminated in my application for a Permanent Residence Permit, so it was actually good.

Perhaps more importantly, and certainly more excitingly, I had a major discovery this morning. In my semi-regular and usually-disappointing perusal of Chinese bakeries, I came across a loaf of French bread. After asking several times “甜的吗?” (is it sweet?) and being reassured that it was not, I bought it. Immediately upon opening it, I was greeted with the lovely scent of fresh-baked bread. It is legit. Now, if only I could get my hands on some cheese or butter . . .

The rest of my day was not incredibly good. In fact, the last two days have been dominated by slightly uncomfortable, extremely awkward, and occasionally creepy interactions with Chinese guys. Up until now, I haven’t really talked to a Chinese male besides the much-older men in the dancing group. They seem to be afraid of me, and I don’t really care one way or the other. English corner was the first time I really interacted with any guys, because the demographic was pretty heavily male. They were all nice, I enjoyed talking to them, gave several my phone number, and have received a few perfectly normal texts from them.

Yesterday, though, I finally installed QQ, the popular Chinese instant-messaging service, in English, and the awkwardness began. A bunch of random people added me, and because I couldn’t figure out how to look at their profiles, I didn’t realize I was conversing with 30-year-old men. The first one asked a lot of questions, which I was fine with until I told him I was an American and he started asking to meet me or see my picture. After running the conversation by my Chinese friend in America, I blocked him. The next guy conversed entirely in emoticons, beginning with a rose and a heart and eventually moving on to beckoning fingers, so I blocked him, too.

Then tonight I had dinner with a large group of foreigners and one Chinese guy. He ended up treating us, and I felt a little bad because we had spoken entirely in English and he didn’t understand much. As soon as I started talking to him, he asked me to teach him English in exchange for teaching me Chinese. I don’t think he would be a good teacher, though, because he thinks my Chinese is very good and speaks really really quickly. I didn’t understand most of what he said, but I do know he is an exporter and wants me to find him a buyer in America (because obviously, as an engineering student, I have these sort of contacts). I think I’m going to have lunch with him once or something and then tell him I’m too busy.

Being asked to teach English all the time has made me think about just how to go about doing that. I realize more and more each day how special my introduction to Chinese was and how difficult it would be to reproduce that situation. Most language-learning interactions are characterized by a tug-of-war in which each member fights to get more time speaking and hearing their target language, but my “teachers” last summer had no desire to learn English. This put all of the burden on me, but also gave me the best learning environment. As someone who came to China to learn Chinese, I simply can’t replicate this.

It’s interesting thinking about my feelings associated with using other languages. Sometimes I selfishly want everyone to speak English, but sometimes I selfishly wish no one did. I know how grateful I am when I’m doing some casual traveling and someone speaks English, but I also know how grateful I am now for all opportunities to use Chinese. I know how guilty I feel when I use English over here, and how much regret I feel over the opportunities I’ve missed to improve my Spanish. I feel jealous sometimes of the other foreigners here who get to practice a second language all the time, even when speaking English with me.

Also, nowhere else have I witnessed so keenly the truth of the saying “To those who have much, more will be given; from those who have little, what they do have will be taken away.” The path of least resistance, which we humans love, is to use the language shared best by all those participating in a conversation. Thus, those who speak a language well are able to dominate conversations and keep them in that language, while those who know only a little bit usually end up talking in their native tongues. I’m happy that my previous times in China and my class this summer have been able to help me become someone who has a lot [relatively], but I definitely feel guilty about it sometimes. I feel very selfish a lot of the time here, but I came to China to learn Chinese.

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