One evening this week, while preparing dinner, my roommates and I began discussing Planet Earth II. I shared, rashly I now realize, that I usually watch Planet Earth I or II at the dentist’s office because I like to be seen as watching “educational” material. As many of you are now likely shouting at your computers, yes, I do typically choose to watch reality television when I have my druthers. Particular favorites include Below Deck: Mediterranean edition, Real Housewives of the OC, Beverly Hills and New Jersey (but only circa 2010-2013). I also, of course, enjoy watching Keeping Up with Kardashians with Mairead over brunch.
Anyway, as I explained my strategy to my roommates, one of them paused and said, “We contain multitudes.” This saying struck me, beyond my television preferences, because it relates to something I have been thinking about lately, language.
Because of my language limitations here in China, the way in which I interact with people is different. I think my personality has even shifted a bit. For example, I am a bit humorless when I speak Mandarin. Understanding when someone is making a joke often takes me a few extra seconds. I don’t really speak well enough to make my own, though I have tried. One of my favorites involves making a pun on the word teacher, which in Mandarin is laoshi, or “old master.” When people tell me that I look young, as they often do when discovering my profession, I like to remind them that I am a LAOshi. Therefore I must be old. As you have likely guessed, no one ever thinks that I am funny.
But I do make other unintentional jokes. I mixed up qizi (“wife”) and qiezi (“eggplant,” or “aubergine” for my UK readers) once. This resulted in me telling someone that I was preparing their wife for dinner. Additionally, I find expressing large numbers in Mandarin difficult. Instead of dividing numbers in threes, they divide by fours. For example, English-speakers think 10,000 while a Mandarin-speaker would think 1.0000. So one time, someone asked my salary and I told them that I make 5 million a month, which is incorrect but I did not correct myself.
Though I am rarely chatty, even in English, sometimes I am rendered virtually silent. When I get my hair cut, for example, the gentleman who cuts it is quiet and doesn’t make conversation. I could but get nervous, so I sit completely silent for two hours. My nervousness is something I still have to overcome, since people don’t tend to give you conversation topics in advance and I should just get over it. But it is always frustrating when I can’t communicate exactly what I am thinking, or I can’t find a word with the connotation that I want. It makes me feel like a 2D person, like I can’t cram my whole being and all the things that I want to say into my relatively small vocabulary.
But I suppose this is the challenge faced by all language learners in all languages, including my students, and will improve with time. Additionally, some things are just untranslatable and that is why we learn languages in the first place. Though now when I speak Mandarin sometimes I feel limited, with time speaking a second language will be so freeing, as it opens up a whole new way of communicating!