China is Different

China is different.

That sounds like a completely obvious statement, but it’s worth starting with it. I’ve travelled all over the world, and I’ve never felt the sense of being on an alien planet as much as last week in China.

Partially it’s the language. I don’t speak Chinese. Heck, I’m an American, I don’t speak anything except English. (Some British friends would even challenge that claim.) But, everywhere else I’ve travelled, I can pick up a few words. Those few words, a positive attitude, and a genuine smile have gotten me everything I’ve wanted.

Not in China. As a tonal language, it’s maddeningly difficult to pick up as an adult. The same word, in four different intonations, can have four completely different meanings in Mandarin. (Nine in Cantonese.) And it’s not like those four meanings are “green,” “greener,” “greens,” and “greening”… to grab one example at random off the Internet, different inflections of “yi” can mean “aunt,” “doubt,” “suitable,” and “to shift”!

So, unless you inhaled Chinese before you were five years old (when your language circuits were still forming in your brain), or unless you have an unusual flair for languages, you’re not going to just “pick up” Chinese. You’ll either need to find the time and money for a two-month total-immersion course, or you’ll need to survive without speaking the lingo.

(Or you can cheat. More about cheating later.)

The written language is, if anything, worse. Once you know the 26 symbols of the Roman alphabet (double that for upper/lower-case), you can puzzle out any word ever written. If there are root words that you know, you can probably take a stab at the meaning. If not, there’s a simple algorithm for looking it up in a dictionary.

Learning the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets gives you the same freedom in those areas which don’t use the Roman alphabet. If, in Moscow, you sound out the Cyrillic “PECTOPAH” and find that it sounds like “RESTORAN”… well, you can guess that you can probably get a meal there.

Again, not in China.

For thousands of years, the Chinese have used an ideogram-based written language. It’s not an alphabet, although there are some core symbols that they build on.

The learning curve is astronomical. Instead of having to learn to recognize and reproduce 26 symbols, Chinese students need to be able to reproduce three thousand symbols to be minimally literate. So do you. And it takes years.

In the words of 19th century missionary William Milne, learning Chinese for the English-speaking is “a work for men with bodies of brass, lungs of steel, heads of oak, hands of springsteel, hearts of apostles, memories of angels, and lives of Methuselah.”

So, assuming you don’t have those years, you’re going to be functionally illiterate in China. Add in your inability to speak more than “hello” and “thank you”, and you’re going to look like a moron. And I submit that it’s far worse in China than in any other country I’ve ever visited.

(Japan and Korea have the pictographic languages, but everyone I’ve ever encountered speaks enough English to hold a basic conversation. Fewer Russians speak English, but the Cyrillic-to-Roman transliteration gives you an ability to communicate, or at least use a dictionary. Etcetera.)

The inability to communicate — or even to take part in the shared space of signage — was a dominant element of my ten days in China. I hate feeling stupid, and here was an entire country that made me appear stupid. (I suspect that the sheer mental challenge of becoming fluent and literate in Chinese is one reason that Chinese-American students have earned a reputation for hard work and for brains. If you have to work this hard just to read, calculus and C++ programming are a breeze!)

Trivial example: At one particular rest stop on one of the national park trails were were visiting, there were eight signs posted, all different. Seven of them were only in Chinese. The eighth had Chinese, English, and a universal icon: “No smoking.” Whatever information was being communicated by the other seven signs, I will never know. The thousands of Chinese tourists tramping by inhaled it without a second thought.

Or driving down a brightly-lit urban street at night. The Chinese have adopted neon in a big way. But you and I have no idea what the signs are saying. Could be “RESTAURANT.” Could be “BANK.” Could be “REVOLUTIONARY HEADQUARTERS OF THE LOBSTER LIBERATION FRONT.” You and I have no clue. None.

Changsha street scene

Hey, Blair McIntyre, here’s an idea for augmented reality: an iPhone app that recognizes all Chinese characters in the camera’s field of view, then superimposes the English translation. (Or vice versa.) I expect that will be a clunky “geek-only” capability five years from now, smooth and functional ten years from now, and the world will be unimaginable without it twenty years from now. Which is good, because China and the USA are going to be seeing a lot more of each other.

View: The China Posts