A different kind of bubble

When I first got to Chengdu, China, ready to begin a summer internship where I was meant “learn about a new culture” and “gain perspective,” it became obvious to me how arrogant I had been. I’d shown up to a country that I had very little prior knowledge of, where I knew no one, and where I couldn’t speak a word of the language.

But, that was okay. I would learn. I would meet people. I would pick up words in Mandarin, or rather, in the Sichuan dialect that is prevalent in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan, a southern province in China.

The catch: things I learned were mostly through conversations with other non-Chinese people. Most of the people I interacted with were from countries like the United Kingdom or the United States. Clearly, language remained a barrier.

The observation that knowing the language of a country helps you understand the culture is not a new one, but what has fascinated and worried me is how not knowing the language can cause biases even in people who are well-traveled and well-educated.

On my first day in Chengdu, I was told “the Chinese are very rude and will try to rip you off.” I was also told “girls in Chongqing [also a city in Sichuan] are the hottest” while the “girls in Guangzhou [a city in Guangdong Province] are mostly known for being timid.” I was told that “the people in Chengdu were simple and lived uncomplicated lives.” I was told to observe the strange custom of Chinese men holding their girlfriends’ purses like an aspiring zoologist is told to observe particularly strange animals. Following these series of generalizations were many attempts by the people I met to “explain China” to me.

Maybe my disdain at the comments was an overreaction cultivated by my “liberal Ivy League bubble,” as I was told. “Don’t be such a snowflake. This is China. They don’t care about political correctness” was a chastisement often repeated to me in my first couple of weeks in China. It took me all of a week and a little reading on the Chinese government’s political censorship to see the irony in that “political correctness” comment.

I hoped to find friends there who would not make such generalizations. Maybe even Chinese friends who lived in Chengdu, instead of just expats. But before I knew it, a bubble had formed around me.

To accommodate for the language barrier, I sought out bars that were known for being expat haunts, stores that were known for carrying imported items, clubs that Chinese people avoided, restaurants where the staff was mostly non-Chinese. In these places, I was able to communicate in English, which made me feel more comfortable. But it was a stark fact that I had more Chinese American friends back at home and in Princeton than I had in China. 

Which is why subtle comments about “the Chinese” made me uncomfortable. “The Chinese” don’t care about creating a mess. “The Chinese” are always late in doing everything. “The Chinese” have very boring and materialistic conversations.

All these comments were made with no malice, but also not with a hint of irony. And, in retrospect, I am imbuing them with a lot more cynicism than I experienced at the time I heard them. Although I knew how harmful these sorts of generalizations were, I couldn’t help but start to wonder if my lack of knowledge and experience in China was causing me to miss all these things that my fellow foreigners were seeing. I had seen the same kinds of broad and incorrect generalizations being made in Mumbai, where I interned last summer, and felt an appropriate amount of disdain for such comments.

In Mumbai, I had known the language and had been able to navigate Indian society very freely through my associations with people who lived there. I could hear first-hand how complex and diverse people in this Indian city were. I could not make any generalizations about “the Indians” because the Indian people I associated with on a daily basis would prevent anything of the kind. And it filled me with a profound anger whenever someone made a generalization about how “rude” or “childish” the “Indians” were. I could not understand this sheer disrespect of the complexities of the “Indian” identity. Yet, in China I was lending an ear to the same kind of ignorant generalizations and maybe even making them involuntarily based on what I heard.

As I travelled around China on business trips and in tour groups — as I met and spent time with women from Chongqing, went to KTV with my Chinese coworkers in Guangzhou, and hung out with friends in Hong Kong — I could filter out the generalizations that catalogued themselves in my mind. I let myself acknowledge my ignorance. I asked questions that were comparable to asking a black woman “Can I touch your hair?” in order to educate myself:

“What do Chinese people generally talk about?”

“Are all Chinese women told to be ‘cute’ by the culture?”

“Can I say Mandarin to describe the language that you are speaking?”

“What do you mean your Chinese name isn’t Flora?”

These sorts of questions were met with hilarity from Chinese people who had never been so brashly questioned by a foreigner. But the answers were kindly given, even if they were also condescending. I accepted it and took the time to understand that the answers were usually this one person’s opinion or explanation, not representative of the entire Chinese populace. After all, as an Indian American, I am intimately familiar with the experience of having to speak for an entire culture when asked questions about what it means to be Indian.

Although I met many people who were willing to answer my questions, most people in China weren’t prepared to accommodate a blundering foreigner who hadn’t bothered to learn the language. In all my arrogance, before coming to China, I had assumed that people here would speak English — that in this one key way, they would accommodate my Western self.

It’s hard not to get irritated when the restaurant cook dumps a bunch of beef into your noodles because he didn’t understand what you meant by “meiyou rou” (I don’t want meat). Or when the bus driver kicks you off the bus at the Chunxi Lu stop because he didn’t understand that you actually wanted to be dropped off “èr” (2) stops after Chunxi Lu. Or when the hotel you are staying at does not have a single staff member that can understand your complaint about how the ceiling is leaking.

It would be really easy to blame “the Chinese” for their incompetence in these situations. But, it is obvious that it is actually mine and my fellow foreigners’ own lack of language ability that leads us to frustrations like this. It is needless to say that making generalizations about the “rudeness” of an entire people based on a couple of bad experiences with certain individuals is ignorant. That is the definition of xenophobia and racism.

But, if there is anything that I’ve learned during my experience in China, it is how easy it is to fall into a mentality that suits you — a mentality that puts you above those who refuse to accommodate you. I have spent my entire time in China fighting this impulse and regretting that I don’t know the language. I am certainly not saying that I regret spending my summer in China; I'm saying that I am acutely aware that so much of my experience has been through secondhand sources with biases to boot.

While living in Mumbai, I learned how important language is to understand the culture of the city. While living in Chengdu, I once again learned the same lesson, but this time on the flip side of the coin. My lack of Chinese language ability left me unable to even marginally understand the place where I spent over three months.

My argument here is not just that learning a language is important to experiencing a culture — that is obvious. Rather, I’m saying that it is easy to fall into the trap of generalizing negative characteristics onto a group of people that you haven’t taken the time to communicate with. It becomes easy to slip into a mentality that stops just short of colonialist superiority. That is what I urge that we fight when we travel to countries where we don’t know the language. Or perhaps try to learn the language before we travel to a new place.

Bhaamati Borkhetaria is from Jersey City, N.J. She can be reached at bhaamati@princeton.edu.

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