Imagine being in a place where because you cannot understand what people are saying, you are forced to understand what they’re not. Imagine being in a place where a food photo on the menu elicits a huge sigh of relief because finally you can order food you can see and recognise and understand. Imagine being in a place where you have to use your whole body to talk because you cannot just use words there.
Imagine that place, and tell yourself, “Welcome to China!”
I came to China with my wife some months back, and while not knowing the language is NOT an excuse in this country, not knowing the language has certainly become a blessing, in some strange, weird way. Of course I’m exaggerating a bit. I know the basics: enough to ride a cab, and find my way around the city, or make an order in a restaurant. But I’m sure I’m probably at less than elementary proficiency in Mandarin. I would be the same level as a 6 year old kid.
And the great thing about it is this: it’s really ok!
Some things I learned about not knowing the language:
It has forced both me and my wife to be self-sufficient: to ride the train, to go to the groceries, order from Starbucks, to know enough words to call KFC delivery (KFC is not paying me to say this!). At other times, I’ve had to use basic, simple (what you would call in my country as BAROK) English, complete with flapping hands and exaggerated body movements. I look funny.
But I’ve used the fact that I do not know the language enough to save my life to break the ice and many barriers. Many people have come up to me to try to practice their english with me. And there was one time in Walmart when they made a game out of guessing what country I came from! One came up to me, raised her hands in a praying position, and asked, “Thailand?” Another one bowed respectfully, and said, “Ohayou Gozaimasu.” If you know the storied history of China and Japan though, Chinese thinking I’m Japanese IS NOT A GOOD THING. I’m not sure it’s also a good thing for them to know I’m Filipino with everything that’s happening in the Kalayaan Islands.
I was visiting a factory once and I just insisted on speaking straight English even as they spoke to me in straight putong hua. It was straight-out-of-movies funny. But it worked. And we survived. And somehow we’re able to understand each other minus the words.
Which leads me to my second point— you do not need words to understand each other. Of course, words facilitate easy communication, makes things much easier; but really, when worse comes to worst, you really don’t need words. It has forced me to be extra sensitive to non-verbal cues: smiles and frowns, body movement that evokes discomfort or irritation. I used to talk to people without really looking at their eyes. Right now, I am forced to do it because I do not have any other way to communicate.
Many years ago, I was with a nice old Jesuit who was deaf. People have been telling him to get a hearing aid so he could function better. There was one time when he was seated quietly in a meeting. At the end of the meeting, we asked him how he thought the meeting went. And then he said, “Wa ko’y nadunggan!” (“I didn’t hear a thing!”) before walking back to his room with a smirk on his face like he had pulled one over us. We found it very funny at that time.
But now, in a foreign land, I understand what he felt. I come walking into a restaurant to eat and I could just tune out people because I could not understand a word they’re saying. AND IT’S A GREAT THING. It forces you to confront your thoughts. It forces you to be alone. It puts you back in a position where you are not the centre of the universe, where you are unimportant. I know it’s a very first world problem—to think that we are the centre, to have to feel important, to have to feel that we matter. But these experiences help you calibrate. Help you relativize the universe. It is a feeling akin to being in front of the ocean or the mountains. You are small. Just a grain in the sand that is the universe. The world becomes much much bigger when you remember that you are not its centre.
And just like that, you become grateful of everything, specially the little things: a food photo on the menu, people who smile when they realise you don’t speak their language, people who grab the very little english they know to communicate to you, Chinese words for right, or left, or u-turn. You do not take life for granted, because you can’t take life for granted. And you become a child of the universe all over again.
[by Eric Santillan]
About Eric Santillan
AngPeregrino lives with his wife in Shenzhen, China. He is currently on sabbatical to think about his next big step, knowing that he’s in a country of mind boggling opportunities. Before that, he was a management consultant specializing in sustainable business, competitiveness and culture management; and did counselling. He remains to be a writer for The Mindanao Current, and a retreat giver.