This week I am doing one of the writing prompts at Mama Kat’s Writing Workshop over at Mama’s Losin’ It!
I was born to Chinese immigrants, am married to a Japanese man. I have been working with international students for the past 10 years. My whole life has been a lesson in cross-cultural communication, of which I am still a woeful student.
Differences in language can bring alot of chuckles and misunderstandings.
My brother and I will never forget the time my mother left a note for us on the kitchen table, reminding us there was some zhong – sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves – in the pot in case we got hungry. Except she mispelled zhong, and wrote the following: “If you get hungry, there is dung in the pot. Put some water in the pot and steam until the dung is soft and hot and ready to eat.” My brother and I literally fell to the floor laughing until our insides nearly came out.
In my own work with international students I have read about pubic policy, regular intercourse with supervisors, the investment bank Goldman Sucks. One student, in filling out a school application form, inquired about how to respond to the question of “Sex.” M and F were not indicated, and he proceeded to average out the number of times he had intercourse per week (but not with his supervisor).
Spelling as a secret code to discuss “inappropriate” or “confidential” topics before a child also does not work well in a household where the husband and wife don’t speak the same language. Sure, my husband Max could handle words like S-E-X or B-B-Q with no problem, but if I needed to communicate something like, “Hey, should we get the B-A-K-U-G-A-N or the P-O-K-E-M-O-N-C-A-K-E for Fred’s B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y?” Max would need to reach for that finger pencil of his and begin taking dictation in the air. By the time he’s figured out what I’d spelled, I’d made up my mind and ordered the cake.
But sometimes language foibles and difficulties are not so funny, like when they happen to me. I can still remember the time I decided to try my Chinese to order at a Chinese restaurant. The waiter started laughing and couldn’t stop. In fact, he could barely write my order down. I smiled awkwardly, semi-playing along, but dreading the whole time that perhaps he was mocking my Chinese. As someone who has done her fair share of laughing, I know there is usually no harm meant. But how differently it feels when the tables are turned.
At no point was language a more traumatic experience than when I lived in Japan. I had only planned on living in Japan for a year and thus never invested in studying the language. Little did I know that I would stay for nearly a decade, and by then a 70 hour/week job and, later, a baby and our own business left me with little energy or motivation to tackle a language as impossible as Japanese. I worked in an American department and I had a Japanese husband to rely on. The Japanese are gracious – unbelievably gracious – to Americans who don’t speak their language. Everyone from restaurant wait staff to medical doctors will apologize to you because they don’t speak your language. So it wasn’t humiliating to not speak the language well, but over time it began to weaken me, and one day I realized that I could relate to people who need wheelchairs, who can’t see, or who have lost use of an arm. For me it was not enough to simply be able to order take-out or even talk about our babies’ feeding habits; I wanted to relate with others intimately, to have the capacity to manipulate whichever word and thought I needed to fully express myself. I learned to appreciate the many immigrants and others who live life with only half their voices.
And this gap in communication worried me most in my relationship with my child. I knew enough Japanese to understand my toddler/preschooler well. I spoke to Fred in English while he responded in Japanese. Things are okay now, I had thought, but what if we stay in Japan permanently? What will happen when Fred gets older? His English words were very few and far between, and every time he uttered anything in English I would lap his words up like drops of water in the desert. It would be nearly 5 years (when we moved to the U.S.) before I had my first 2-way conversation with my son in my own tongue.
As someone whose life revolves around words and expression, I have sometimes wondered if it is not ironic that my closest loved ones do not share my native tongue. I speak in my moderately good but imperfect Chinese with my parents and my husband and I continue to stumble over cultural miscommunications. But at the same time, despite the barriers, despite the occasional frustrations at not being heard completely, they are my closest loved ones. They know me thoroughly and they love me. Somehow, words have not been an impediment. Or, perhaps because of the barriers, we have simply worked harder in other ways to understand each other.