Thursday, September 15, 2011

Two Languages, One Friendship

Hai Yan ordered a lot, we had a lot to eat. But maybe because of the dirty, and we almost ate nothing. But, she was so happy. I think maybe it’s because she was a bride. She was so happy, and ate so much! Maybe I can reach a conclusion that a nice heart gives you happy life. Or else, even she ate something special or expensive, she is not happy.

            Here’s an excerpt from a writing exercise my roommate gave me to check over. As you can see, he loves to use the word “maybe”. For him, “maybe” is a comfort word as he approaches the English world with uncertainty and indecision. My roommate’s name is 郭将(Guo Jiang). At the age of 33 – making him more than 13 years older than I – he is studying to get a doctorate in international affairs and economics. He doesn’t have any classes to attend. His one and only job is to get an academic paper published. He’s been putting off his work lately though. He prefers to study English.
            In two words, Jiang is good-hearted and sociable. Many peers in my program know him as the Chinese roommate who is always looking to strike up a conversation. As a language student of over 10 years, he is a clear product of textbook English. He knows an impressive amount of vocabulary but still has a hard time with pronunciation, rhythm, and listening.
            Like a true academic, Jiang has taken more of an initiative about my learning Chinese than I have myself. For this, I am very grateful. Before I arrived I was a little worried that I’d have to force myself to always speak Chinese with my roommate. However, Jiang and I have quickly formed a solid friendship, and I speak to him with just as much a desire to carry on our friendship as a desire to practice my Chinese.
            I can’t even tell you how helpful he has been. When we first met, he told me that he didn’t think four months was enough time for me to really get good at Chinese. Since then, he has changed his mind. I don’t think he realizes that my rapid progress is greatly due to his guidance. If he is in the room while I’m doing Chinese homework, he’ll have me recite my entire lesson aloud. He’ll correct my tones. He’ll correct my rhythm. He’ll make sure I understand the text. He loves teaching me Chinese. And I definitely love to learn.
            There is certainly a language barrier between us. Although I talk with Jiang every day, I still can’t have the close relationship with him that I have with my American friends here, solely because of our mutual inability to dig deeper into each other’s native language. However, with every new word or phrase learned, I add more and more ways to communicate and thus establish a greater connection with my roommate.
             I think getting more comfortable with Chinese has relieved me from feeling lost in an unfamiliar world. There’s a certain satisfaction I derive from just knowing how to say “hao hao shui” [sleep tight] to Jiang at night or from being able to use Chinese to make him laugh. Studying Chinese is definitely difficult, and I often find myself wishing it were more like English. But I push on and challenge myself every day to get better. I love that as my sentences become more and more complex, my personality begins to shine more and more through my new tongue, and I start to feel closer to the language and think more like a native speaker.
            English, undoubtedly, has many more nuances than Chinese, and I pity Jiang’s struggle to master English. Just the other day, my friend Dustin passed Jiang in the hallway. Greeting him, Dustin said “You doin’ alright?”  Jiang, an English student of ten years, stood tongue-tied, unable to make sense of a phrase that simply meant, “How are you?”  I don’t run into problems like this with Chinese. I’m much more likely to struggle with tones or memorizing characters.
            Even after a mere three weeks, I know that I will keep in touch with Guo Jiang long after my four months here. Recognizing that I felt out of place upon my arrival in China, he has quickly made me feel at home, overwhelming me with his kindness and gift giving. He took me out for lunch my first week here and refused to let me pay; he regularly brings home fruit and yogurt to supplement my meat and rice-heavy diet; and he always ensures that I’m well-prepared for my Chinese class. That I consider someone with whom I can’t have a two-minute conversation without needing to consult a dictionary a great friend says a lot about Guo Jiang. Maybe I can reach a conclusion that you don’t need many words to make a good friend.  Maybe.
Guo Jiang and me outside the Shanghai Railway Station.

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