POSTCARD: Sorry, I Speak Your Language

SHANGHAI, China—When I met my boss at the newspaper I am interning for in Shanghai—a newspaper that publishes entirely in Chinese—I was surprised when he greeted me in English.

"Hello!" he beamed, confidently extending is hand for a handshake—a western custom many Chinese find uncomfortable. "To our department, we welcome you with happy."

Biting my lip a little to stop myself from smiling too much, I responded in Chinese. "Thank you, I'm looking forward to working here."

"You speak Chinese!" he said in surprise. "But we are international department, now that you join us. We will only speak English with you! Together we can have good English. Together we make you happy, we happy. That is our destiny."

I chuckled a little at the word “destiny," wondering where he had picked up that word, of all words, to use in daily conversation (he used it at least twice more that day). A few minutes later, when we were talking about movies, he mentioned that he had watched Slumdog Millionaire multiple times. Ah, so that was where.

It's not just my boss (whose self-given English name is O'Sullivan) who shows so much enthusiasm for American customs and for learning and practicing English. It's my coworkers, the cleaning lady at my hotel, the Expo volunteer being bombarded with questions, and the man I see during my morning runs.

It's funny because here I am, having taken three years of Chinese, and eager to become fluent, but people want to hear my native language instead. They're excited that I know Chinese, but they encourage me to speak English, and they repeat my words in an accent that makes me marvel at the way languages morph when combined with a different speaking habit. I wonder just how ridiculous my Chinese sounds to them.

The real irony is that though you'd think I'd be relieved to communicate in English, I actually dread having to speak it here. It probably helps them learn, but for me, the communication lag is more excruciating. While English is taught in school often from an early age in China, and pricey ESL programs like “Disney English” and “Wall Street English” thrive, people don’t always have the opportunity to really practice it. Just like how I took 6 years of French in middle and high school, but I might as well be mute when I talk to a real French person.

I've sadly realized I'm selfish with language. When my coworkers speak to me in English, I find myself automatically completing their sentences when they pause to find the right word—filling in their thoughts before they have a chance to do so themselves. They rarely complete my thoughts for me when I speak Chinese, waiting patiently without even a hint of exasperation.

It's not a lesson of language; it's one of patience. Perhaps it's one that many Americans have to learn. I teach ESL to Chinese immigrants in Boston, and it's easy to have patience in the classroom setting for only two hours a week. But these immigrants have to have the patience to understand and be understood every day. I'll never forget how one elderly student, when asked to write about his weekend for homework, gave me a heart-wrenching story about how he had approached the local senior center to find out what they were doing for Thanksgiving (he had no family in the area). He speaks English well, but very slowly. He said the receptionist rolled her eyes as he spoke each halting word and got frustrated at him, eventually yelling at him to go away and get a translator. He went home and spent the holiday alone. Reading the story nearly brought me to tears, but to him—and all my students—such short-tempered encounters unfortunately are common.

As my boss said yesterday, “International exchange of the culture. That is our dazzling destiny.”

Vidya B. Viswanathan ’11, a news writer, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House.   

Tags