As you might have surmised, I have issues with Chinese. Just as doctors make terrible patients; many language instructors are the worst language learners—I’m one of those. Despite living in Taiwan, I exist in an English bubble. I spend my work days in an English environment, and when I go home most of my recreation is also in English. My Chinese is an embarrassment, except when I swear, which is stunningly smooth, natural, and stylish, but that uses a different part of the brain. I usually refer to my Chinese as functional, meaning I can get around in Chinese and accomplish most things that need doing. Normal daily conversations are okay. If I have a patient audience, I can even have a deeper discussion. However, there are definite limits to what I can do.
One aspect of Chinese that causes me problems is the depth of shared history, literature, and culture that can be drawn on by Chinese speakers to make allusions that shape and shade their meaning. (For an introduction to this topic see: The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock and A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places). There is no equivalent to this in English. I cannot draw on five thousand years of shared English linguistic tradition to come up with allusions to make my speech more eloquent.
I have not heard many other foreigners complain about this issue. It might just be me. In my family, this comes up, and it’s frustrating.
On one memorable occasion, my wife made a statement to me, in Chinese, which I absolutely did not understand. When I asked for clarification, she launched into a very long-winded explanation of what she had said, and it went something like this: “Well, what I said was ‘blah, blah, blah, blah’. Now, in the Song Dynasty there was a famous poet, Su shi, who drew on the tradition of Lu Yu, a Northern Tang Dynasty poet and proponent of ci poetry that employs the rhythms of popular Tang songs. In the cadence of ‘blah, blah, blah, blah‘ you should have recognized a reference to the meter of that particular Song Dynasty poet, who in turn was making a poetic allusion to that earlier Tang Dynasty poet. As you know [no I don’t], the ci form linked poetry with other arts, particularly painting, so this shades the meaning of what I said to be: ‘blah, blah, [shadings of a holistic view of the arts], blah, blah’. Now, Su Shi himself was deeply political, as were many Northern Song poets, and spent years in exile for his opposition to the corrupt government minister Wang Anshi. So, you should interpret what I said as: ‘blah, blah, [shadings of a holistic view of the arts], blah, [with a dash of stick it to the man], blah’.”
Of course, all of this simply shades the meaning of the actual words. It adds color and implies a richer meaning than the words themselves. Someone educated enough to speak in this manner is considered eloquent. The audience needs to be equally knowledgeable to pick up these little linguist breadcrumbs. A shared history and culture are required for this manner of speaking to have any meaning.
The conversation simply left me going: “Huh?!? So should I wash the dishes or not?”
I don’t get the impression that many other foreigners run into this particular quirk of Chinese. I’m guessing because most Taiwanese are savvy enough not to speak in such a connotative way to second language speakers. However, my in-laws have a tendency towards this type of speech. Indeed, my family is staunchly Taiwanese and confuses the issue further by bringing in Taiwanese allusions and Japanese allusions, from the occupation period. I’m actually a big lover of Chinese art, literature, and history. I appreciate that the culture is rich enough that it affords opportunities for bringing this kind of texture and nuance to the meaning of a sentence. That is seriously cool. But, my Chinese is at a level where I’d be satisfied if when some random dude yelled at me, “Hey Dummy, hurry up and get on the bus, you’re holding up the line,” I’d be able to deliver a pithy reply in unaccented Chinese. I’m not there yet.
I find it endearing that my wife, and her family, have such faith in my Chinese that they think there’s any prospect I might be able to draw inferences from such sketchy linguist trails. I don’t know what in their experience of me makes them think there’s any chance I’d get it—but, you got to love them for trying.