Written by Fina Short, (Tufts University) Student Correspondent Middlebury School in China: Kunming, Fall 2018
China looked calm from the bullet train window. Gliding through rice paddies and winding mountain passages at 200 km per hour, our program was headed to the remote village of 喜洲 (Xǐ zhōu) for five days of hiking, exploring and studying local culture. From the safety of my window seat, I still felt nervous: the five days ahead also required an independent study project, which involved interviewing 喜洲 (Xizhou) local residents and synthesizing our observations into a research report.
In English, this assignment might have been standard – yet in Chinese I was terrified my language skills wouldn’t be enough. Six weeks into our Chinese-only language pledge, I could ask people all kinds of questions. Understanding their responses was a different story. A common exchange while buying coffee:
Me: “你好，我要一杯咖啡拿铁!” (Hello, I would like a latte!）
Barista: [Rapid-fire Mandarin]
Me: “对。。。我要咖啡拿铁。” (Yes… latte?)
Barista: [More rapid-fire Mandarin]
Me, staring blankly: Uh –
Barista, in English: “Please pay for your drink.”
Me: “哦.” [Oh.]
Such interactions did not leave me with confidence in my ability to interview Chinese strangers. Nevertheless, three days into the trip I set off alone around the village, determined to interrogate anyone that would talk to me. My first stop was the lobby of our hotel. I loitered outside, reading and rereading the questions I wanted to ask on my phone. Upon approaching the two young men and women at the front desk, a jumble of unrehearsed Chinese immediately fell from my mouth.
“你好，我是美国学生, 我学习中文，我可以问你一些问题吗?” (Hello – I’m an American student – I’m studying Chinese – can I ask you a few questions?）
“可以，可以.” (Go for it).
Stuttering through my list of questions about China’s outdoor culture – my topic of choice – I didn’t understand most of our conversation. Yet the general tone of their responses, summarized by “hiking holds no appeal,” told me enough. Bolstered by this taste of success, I left the hotel for the cobblestoned streets of downtown 喜洲, weaving through piping-hot dumpling stands and horse-drawn carriages on the search for more people to lure into discussion.
“I love going outside, but we’re going to have to protect the environment more,” a shopkeeper told me as she hawked scarves, sharp shades of bright orange and red.
“Outdoor activities are cool right now,” a young coffeehouse manager shrugged. “I don’t have much interest in them.” He poured me cold brew refills on a Halloween-themed tablecloth.
Confession: I’ve missed many an opportunity to meet new people abroad, out of fear our conversation would be awkward. It turns out conversations in a language you’re still learning are in fact often awkward – and what’s waiting beyond the awkwardness matters most. My interviews were marked by misunderstandings and long silences, yet every new person I talked to was gracious, patient and willing to take the occasional pause while I looked vocabulary up on Pleco. Amidst free coffee refills and breathless requests of “could you please repeat that?” I found windows into a topic that had previously escaped me, clear perspectives and earnest opinions free of filters or Internet firewalls.
My advice to anyone else currently studying a language, whether you’re abroad or at home: Take comfort in the inevitability of your mistakes. Ask questions you might not understand the answer to. Find triumph in every new conversation you have, especially the ones that you were afraid to start. Leave the comfort of your seat behind the window; you might just stutter your way into the semester’s most thought-provoking conversation yet.