Taiwan, part 7: What You Can Learn When You Don’t Understand

It’s a particular failing of mine, and it’s not a common one, to see only my shortcomings when it comes to using foreign languages. The better my Chinese gets, the more sharply my poor usage of connecting phrases or prepositions comes in to focus, and my inability to recognize a character I’ve seen thirty times becomes intolerable. Too, there’s something uniquely frustrating about having studied a language for a long time and yet still be unable to converse as fluidly as you do in your first language. It doesn’t even matter that the conversations I’m having are all at native speed, with idioms thrown in; it can be hard to cut yourself slack sometimes. That said, our history course right now has been both immensely frustrating and illuminating.

First, the facts: if you’ve never taken a history course in a foreign language, beware. It has a lingo all its own. Think how a Chinese student would feel if, after years of learning English, he or she walked into a class on the American Civil War and heard the following: “But of course the strategy that worked at the first battle of Bull Run would not have been effective at Gettysburg or Appomatax.” What’s wrong with that sentence? Well, for starters imagine you have no idea what Bull Run, Gettysburg, or Appomatax are. Imagine, too, that professor is speaking so quickly that you’re not even sure the three things you heard were names or specific historical vocabulary. Expand that feeling into an hour’s-worth of speaking and you’ll have my experience last Wednesday. I understood the professor’s opening comments perfectly, and also understood her twenty minute explanation of the Taiwanese viewpoint on the Japanese very well, too, but the middle chunk, the prosciutto-and-ham of our morning’s academic sandwich, escaped me completely. I cottoned on to the overall topic, and picked up the occasional fact or two, such as why Chiang Kai-Shek was unable to go to the aid of Heilongjiang (then Manchuria) when the Japanese invaded, but otherwise I just sat in my seat squinting intensely at the front of the room in the hopes of understanding more than a few sentences in a row. That’s discouraging, let me tell you, even given how hard it can be to shift between subjects.

Just before we broke for lunch, the professor was fielding questions and one student got to her feet and asked one of the requisite sabotage questions, which mainland students regularly ask in the hopes that they’ll get a chance to criticize you. Foreign teachers get them all the time. Things like, “What do you think of the western media’s treatment of China?” You’re expected to answer in one of two ways, either “I think it’s very fair,” in which case a smug student will tell you how wrong you are, despite having never read a single western newspaper or magazine, or “I think it’s horrible,” in which case you have brownie points galore. In our class, the student asked, “How do you feel about the Japanese?” Again, for many mainland students there’s only one correct answer: the Japanese are a horrible, oppressive people who don’t understand the evils they’ve committed in history, the implicit contrast being that “we Chinese” are ipso facto opposites. Our professor knew what she was being asked, and didn’t cater to the questioner. Instead she spent quite a while explaining how important it was to seek to understand another person’s viewpoint. “I grew up in the Taiwanese republic, and that has shaped my viewpoint,” she said. “I would not expect to completely understand you, and you shouldn’t expect to completely understand me. But that also means you shouldn’t criticize.” She went on to clarify the complexity of the Taiwanese view of Japan, which I’ll summarize this way: “We recognize the terrible things the Japanese have done in history, but they have also made great contributions to Taiwanese society. Our roads, our universities, much of our infrastructure, were constructed partly or largely with Japanese aid. Too, they have been involved with Taiwan for much longer than the mainland, so our view of them is entirely different than yours. In addition, we must remember that the current generation of Japanese students is not to blame for what happened in the early 20th-century. Nor are they to blame for their understanding of history. They are a product of their education system just as much as you’re a product of yours. If you want progress in your country, you must seek to understand that, and to understand what it means when a person grows up in a different place.” That answer, which is of course an abbreviated version of her full comments, earned her a round of applause.

The afternoon session was equally hard for me, but this time I sat back and tried looking at the experience from a detached perspective. I watched the watchers, so to speak, and reflected on the dynamic between student and teacher. I should note that the professor took no notice of me at all aside from the perfunctory nod when she called my name on the role, and the obligatory query as to how long I’d been on the mainland. There was no stunned exclamation and extensive questioning as to why I was in China and how well I spoke Chinese, like I received at Nankai. It was as though my being there was normal, or at the very least not remarkable. The gist of the afternoon session dealt with the chaotic arrangement of China’s territories in the 1920’s and 30’s, and how it affected the government’s policy towards the Japanese. Again, I understood only the barest amount which, although it was enough to allow me to grasp the essentials, was not enough to allow me to participate in the dialogue within the class. The professor was particularly animated towards the end, gesticulating at the class and punctuating many of her remarks with the emphatic Chinese “dui bu dui,” which is best translated “right?” It makes the speaker sound like he or she is delivering a pointed message rather than an academic lecture. It’s also something I appreciate about Chinese academics, both the mainland and Taiwanese variety. There’s an implicit understanding that what one says and does has very real consequences. Nothing is ever “just” said. In answer to the “dui bu dui,” most students nodded and said “dui” in unison, and occasionally had something else to say to a neighbor. At times it felt like a call-and-response hymn at a gospel church.

This was capped off with a thirty-minute test which, of course, I failed miserably. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I don’t know for a fact that I failed, but given that we had three questions and I answered only one, and that probably not very clearly, I think it’s a safe bet. I was very discouraged, and took advantage of the fact that everyone was very tired to go back to my dorm room and lie down for a while. Failing at something is always hard, even when you have every reason not to feel bad for doing so.

Still, though, and this bears considering: what would it have meant if I had understood everything, and written three pages of stunning thoughts on the professor’s three questions? What if every student in the class had been awed by my prowess with the Chinese language? What if the professor had come up to me after class and shaken my hand? What if. . .what if. . .what if. The truth is, what I had been a part of was not a class, but a family discussion, and like all family discussions this one had in-jokes, shared experiences, and concerns that no language prowess or love for the culture could possibly facilitate. Nor should it, really. It’s not my family, after all. I was about to write, “The problem is. . .”, but the truth is there wasn’t a problem. Isn’t a problem. But there has been and always will be an inherent power structure within language that is very difficult to overcome. I noticed it first in Taian when I finally switched to having Chinese conversations at dinner with my Chinese friends. The dynamic altered radically as a result. Whereas some of my Chinese friends had previously seemed affable but not particularly quick, in their own language they were witty, insightful, even authoritative, and as generous towards me in my fumbling Chinese as I had been towards them in their fumbling English. Most westerners I’ve met in China started out as teachers, and if not teachers, then at least people eagerly in search of Chinese friends. For the majority of them, all dialogue still takes place entirely in English, with the occasional Chinese interlude. That’s certainly the way I started out. It’s still that way with some of my oldest Chinese friends. Anyone who has made relationships that utilize no English at all will back me up when I say they’re immensely rewarding, but also immensely difficult.

Why? You can carve this in stone: it’s hard because I no longer have control. And I don’t just mean control over what I say, but rather control over interpretation, culture, meaning, the whole bag. When you’re used to having control, when you’re used to everyone wanting to converse in English and thereby putting you at the reins of everything that happens, switching into Chinese is not simply a change in language; it’s a hierarchical shift. I’ll go ahead and admit, with some shame, that I don’t like asking my classmates to explain things to me. Actually that’s not entirely correct. I HATE asking my classmates to explain things to me. And it’s almost entirely due to a pernicious belief that because I’m western I should be in control. My Chinese is at least good enough to discuss literary theory and philosophy, but I still fumble around much of the time, and that’s not what I want. I want to be back in control. I want to be able to dominate a discussion, not just watch it happen. I want to be part of the call-and-response gospel church that is my current history class. I don’t want to go up to Xuebin after class and ask him what in God’s name is going on. I want to already know, so that he’ll realize I’m brilliant. I want to teach, not learn.

Western academics is so far advanced into this dangerous zone that I don’t think most scholars even know it’s happening. My friend Peter Paradiso, with whom I used to teach at Tianda and discuss literary and cultural theory, pointed out to me once that there are scores of Chinese intellectuals publishing articles in English in the West, but almost no westerns taking the reverse route. Why? The lazy answer is that Chinese is too hard. It is, but so is English to the non-English speaker. When we say something is “too hard,” all we mean is that we don’t believe it’s worth the effort necessary to master it. The more accurate answer is that the West has shaped academic discourse for centuries, and there’s no sign that’s going to shift any time soon. All the dominant literary and cultural theories are expressed in western terms, and anyone wishing to participate must learn those terms, even if it means first having them translated into English. Have any of you ever taken a gander at critical discourse over the past few decades? It can be interesting, even bracing. Roland Barthes, especially when read in French, is so passionate a scholar that sometimes the integrity of his criticism breaks down. Paul Ricoeur seamlessly combines everything from Old Testament studies to Heideggerian existentialism, all without losing the power of either. There are others, too, but much of what I’ve read in journals and the occasional book-length study feels cramped and unnecessary, the endless discussion of a question because it’s there rather than because it derives from a real need, be it an academic need or a personal one. And whenever someone questions the efficacy of this system, like Jacques Derrida for example, the end result is still based on the same logic and strives for the same all-embracing syncretism. A kid with a Casper the Friendly Ghost Halloween mask isn’t any more Casper the Friendly Ghost than he is the president of Algeria, and Deconstruction isn’t any more fundamentally revolutionary than Aristotle’s first attempts to define rhetoric and poetics. It’s a valuable, even vital entry in the story of our civilization’s engagement with criticism, but it’s just a chapter, not a new book.

Here’s what I’m learning while living entirely in Chinese with Chinese people these days: it really isn’t until you NEED someone from another culture that you can really learn from them, because only then have you given them power. I don’t mean “need” in the sense of “I need your help to pass this test,” or “I need you to help me plan a trip,” although those are certainly important steps. What I mean is a paradigm shift in which we realize that truth itself lies in the interstices between cultures, in those places that neither I nor my Chinese friend can quite reach because it’s a combination of both of us. I wish I could define that better, but I really can’t. All I can say is the deeper you go into a foreign language, the less of your own ground you have left to stand on. It was while walking to meet Xuebin and Danting for dinner later that I realized the real difficulty with my not being able to understand everything I hear is that it reveals something about me that is difficult to handle. I suspect that western academicians don’t give much thought to actively seeking out the Chinese view in person because it opens up too much “unproductive” reflection. What you can’t publish or conduct a class on isn’t worth the effort. And that’s sad, because there’s something exhilarating about walking right through your own borders and waiting to see how you and another human being can work together to pick up the pieces, especially when doing so requires a reversal of everything you’re used to.

I’ll probably still fail the rest of our daily tests, though. Epiphanies aren’t known for translating into high test scores.


3 Responses to Taiwan, part 7: What You Can Learn When You Don’t Understand

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report

  2. elisa says:

    this is so inspirational? i wanna weep?

  3. Chen Zi Dan says:

    Wow. Just wow. This is some of your best prose.

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