Maria Holland

The Language Game

In Uncategorized on June 26, 2015 at 10:38 am

Today was a pretty good day.  I finally mailed the first batch of postcards (the hotel staff “doesn’t do that” and the guy at the campus mail room wanted me to fill out a form for each of the 22 postcards with their intended destinations).  I bought an awesome bike raincoat that I’ve been eyeing since I got here; it covers all the way over my bike basket in the front, protecting my legs and the contents of my backpack, all while allowing a refreshing breeze to cool me while biking.  I couldn’t do laundry, though, because it was supposed to rain today.  (Heaven help us if we’re waiting for sun; I haven’t seen that since last week.)  

I went into Tsinghua for the weekly seminar.  The first speaker was an American professor, and I got specially introduced to him before the talk.  Like the rest of the event, this exchange was a slightly awkward game of language tug-of-war.  

There are so many factors at play in a situation like this.  First of all, we have to start with outward appearance.  He’s of Taiwanese ancestry – I’m not quite sure of the distance, but he was born in the US.  Basically, he looks Chinese and therefore, in China, is expected to speak Chinese like a native.  I very much do not look Chinese, and thus no expectations are placed upon my language abilities; anything I do is above and beyond expectations.

Secondly, there’s language ability.  Surprisingly, it’s generally not the factor with the most influence.  According to a labmate of mine here who recently studied with him for half a year, his Chinese is 一般 (“average”).  I was personally super impressed that he gave a research talk in Chinese – that vocabulary is not easy, and it was not obtained in a classroom; intro language courses don’t teach you “adhesion”, “micrometer”, or “elasticity”.  The average Chinese person is impressed by my Chinese, but of course it’s all relative to expectations.  (As he pointed out, he hasn’t spent a year in China, so in a colorblind world the burden of expectations would weigh much heavier on me.)  The truth is, both the visiting professor and I speak simply and struggle with tones.  Our struggles are common – he hesitated before saying 蜜蜂 (“bee”) in exactly the same way I have done many times before, making sure I don’t say it backwards instead (because 蜂蜜 is “honey”).  This makes it easy for us to understand each other, but also marks us as intermediate-level non-native speakers. 

Finally, one of the most important factors in the language game is face.  It’s complicated, but I think you get face by speaking well, and lose face when you mess up.  You also seem to lose face if someone has to accommodate you, but gain face if you are able to accommodate someone else.  This often interacts with (and sometimes opposes) another factor, which could be characterized as generosity.  Here you gain points for graciously accepting someone else’s effort, and lose them for snubbing such an attempt or making someone else lose face.  Related to this is the question of larger audience – are other people around who would be excluded by the choice of language?  Are the other people important?

So, given all this, consider this situation:  my Chinese host, whose English is probably on par with our Chinese, introduces me to this professor in English.  The professor says, “It’s so nice to be able to speak English!”  Then, my host mentions that I speak Chinese.  Question: What language do we speak after this?

Answer: an awkward mix of mostly Chinese.  I switched back to English after the formalities (yes, I speak Chinese, I studied in Xiamen for a year) but he persisted in Chinese so I switched back.  I would say it was partly feeling each other out, gauging the other’s ability; partly courtesy towards Prof. Feng, who was in turn being courteous to us; partly the environment (we’re in China!).  But also partly absurd.  Why are we not speaking our mutual native language, for these few moments at least??

He gave a very interesting presentation on three of his research projects, all very “sexy” (as in, exciting and accessibly to the general public) topics in biomechanics.  He spoke at a manageable pace for me, and I learned lots of new words.  But he has a Taiwanese or southern accent, plus a little bit of the careless (or unclear) pronunciation that I sometimes I catch myself using, so a few times I was surprised by what I thought I heard until I figured out what he meant.  For example, when he was talking about self-cleaning materials, he told us to imagine that we were covered in xiǎo kēlì (小颗粒, “small particles”) but I thought he said qiǎokèlì (巧克力, “chocolate”).  I don’t know, it sounded like a laundry commercial, you know?

After each of the three sections, he invited questions.  Almost everyone asked them in Chinese, and he was generally able to answer them, in Chinese.  But one person spoke her complex question quickly and quietly from the back of the room, which left our visiting professor completely lost.  A very Mark Zuckerberg moment . . .  He looked around for help, and a professor up front ended up restating it for him (in Chinese) in about 10 simple words.  Why couldn’t that have been done the first time??

Most people think it’s insulting to speak slowly, loudly, and clearly to “foreigners” (which I say as a joke, really meaning people who don’t speak your native language), but I think it lies somewhere on the spectrum between making an accommodation and causing someone to lose face, depending on the actual language ability of the listener.  Personally, I know my limits in this language and I love it 95% of the time.  I cherish those Chinese people who are masters at the speaking of their language with foreigners.  

Anyway, after that debacle of a question, one woman asked her question in English.  And then the professor began to respond in Chinese.  Nervous giggles spread through the room.  Too many layers for me to unpack, but each of them was simultaneously making a generous effort on behalf of the other, and forcing them to accept accommodation.  Which wins?  And how does rank play into this (the two parties being a graduate student and a well-known visiting professor)?  I’m still not quite who lost face there.  Maybe they both did?

The next speaker (yes, back-to-back seminars, in Chinese!  A mental marathon for me) was a native Chinese professor.  He spoke SO FAST, as if to make up for any time lost by the previous speaker’s nonnative hesitancy.  His research was on . . . I don’t know, there was something about microstructure and electrical charge, which is not my area, but then later when I paid attention again he was doing wrinkling, which kind of is, so . . . again, I don’t know.  I understood so little that even the English bits didn’t help at all.  Actual sentence: 

The DFT calculations are performed in the VASP code with PAW and PBE exchange-correlation functional.

Including articles and prepositions, I understand 10 out of those 16 words – none of the acronyms.  This sentence appeared twice, too, so it must have been important.  Sigh.  

Most of my labmates skipped the second talk (unfortunately, I didn’t realize that was an option…) so I ended up having lunch with just GuoYang.  This ended up being great, because he ‘had’ to talk to me the whole time instead of a few of them going off in rapid-fire Chinese conversation.  We talked about money – his parents still give him money, in addition to his stipend of about 2,000元 per month.  But their rent is less than 1,500元 per year!  One of the other EAPSI fellows had reported similar figures, but I thought there must have been a miscommunication until I heard them corroborated.  (My rent, in a subsidized on-campus apartment with the cheapest living situation at Stanford in which I have my own room, is over ⅓ of my stipend.)  He asked me if Americans drink water out of the faucet just like they do in movies.  

And we talked about families.  He’s his grandparents’ only grandchild.  I asked him to guess how many grandparents my 爷爷 and 奶奶 (my dad’s parents) have, and he clearly went out on a limb to guess 5.  By my reckoning, including my cousins’ spouses, there are 39 of us, plus 12 great grandkids.  I don’t know which he found more unbelievable – the magnitude of the number, or the fact that we don’t all get together at least once a year.  

The funny thing about this conversation is that words for family members in Chinese are very specific – your maternal and paternal grandparents are called different things, and that’s just the beginning.  GuoYang had difficulty with these terms, though, and I’d seen this with my Chinese roommate back at Stanford as well.  Yanyang sometimes asks me what your father’s older brother is called, for instance, or what’s the difference between 伯伯 and 舅舅.  I always thought this was odd, but now I kind of understand.  My family is so big that I have at least one of every kind of family member – my dad has sisters and both older brothers and a younger one, my mother has both sisters and a brother, and they all have kids.  When I learned the word 叔叔, I associate it not with “father’s younger brother”, but with “Daniel”.  For the average Chinese, the single child of single children, “father’s younger brother” is merely a concept, and not a familiar one at that.  (In a similar way, I really can’t keep straight the way that I would call my husband’s parents and the way he would address my parents, because they’re faceless, theoretical people.)

We also had lab meeting in the afternoon, which made for a long day of being talked at in technical Chinese.  I may or may not have dozed . . . 

But in between and after this, I got some work done!  My computer was magically fixed overnight so I can now run Abaqus with all of its functionality on my own desktop, which is awesome!  So I ran a sample job, and actually got it working!  They use a different Fortran compiler, and unfortunately it’s one that actually cares about line length, unlike ifort.  So for the time I’m  here I have to code as if it were going on punchcards like back in the day :)  

It’s a pretty trivial fix – a few line-continuation characters here and there – but is another item on the list of “trivial things Maria can and will frequently forget when coding”.  This list is greatly lengthened by my recent crossover from Linux to Windows: in addition to the backslash/forward slash (no pun intended!) difference I discovered yesterday (which doesn’t seem to be an issue, actually, because apparently Python is smarter than this?), Fortran files have to end in .for instead of .f and the command line is in DOS (so, ‘dir’ instead of ‘ls’  and “cls” instead of “clear”).  Plus some of my error messages are in Chinese.  Woohoo!

I ate dinner with a few of the guys, then biked home.  I stopped at U-Center for milkea (I hadn’t actually been back since discovering the Coco there!) and as I was leaving the building, was treated to a powerful (and beautiful) display of nature over this concrete jungle in which I live.  The sky to the north was lit up by near-constant lightning.  The pollution (around 150 today, just “unhealthy” with no intensifiers) diffused it throughout the whole sky, with no visible thunderbolts.  The wind, too, was building to a frenzy, and I was nearly knocked off my feet – literally, because my skirt was acting as a huge sail.  I biked home as fast as I could, keeping one eye on the incredible light show and one eye on the road as everyone else also tried to get home as fast as they could.  The atmosphere in the air was a little frantic; only I seemed to be enjoying it at all.  I’ve been in California for a while now and can only remember one thunderstorm in the last few years, so this was super exciting to me!

I made it home right before the downpour started.  Perfect timing to curl up with my milktea and the end of Three Men on the Bummel.  It was largely as enjoyable as its prequel, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog!), which I can’t recommend enough.  I particularly liked this quote at the end: 

“A ‘Bummel’ . . . I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started.  Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days.  But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand.  We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way.  We have been much interested, and often a little tired.  But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.”

I generally describe individual excursions in China (say, to buy a SIM card or to visit friends in Zhao’An) as “adventures”, with a desired destination but also openness to changes.  After reading this, though, I think each of my five trips to China could be perfectly described as a ‘bummel’.   


Today I learned: 

All animals take about 20 seconds to pee.  Similarly, bladder pressure is essentially constant, while bladder volume is roughly proportional to body mass.  An elephant’s urethra is about a meter long and as thick as your leg.  

Tsinghua University makes it own ice cream!

We have a ‘normal’ (which is a Western-centric way of saying ‘non-squatty’) toilet at work!  I don’t mind squatting all, but it’s nice to have options.

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