Language is thought to be a barrier that separates people of different countries. There are examples of languages becoming trendy based on world events. Interest in Arabic spiked after the 9/11 attacks and with China’s growth; interest in Mandarin is increasing exponentially. Language is not the only separator; culture is also a barrier that separates people no matter what language one speaks. The smallest action, even asking a seemingly innocent question, can cause tension between people.
During my junior year I went on a school trip to four cities in China. During our stay in the city of Shenyang each of us stayed with a host family. Our guide told us some of the families might be very formal but not to be discouraged. When my host girl and now pen pal, Angel, introduced me to her parents I was greeted by smiling faces and a hug from her mother. I was treated like a member of the family. I was given my own pair of slippers to use in the different rooms of the house, my own bedroom, and was “initiated” into the family as we gathered around the table together and made dumplings. Angel’s aunt and grandmother cheered me on until I made my first perfect dumpling. The bubble I thought would exist around this family did not appear to block me out. Not yet.
During dinner I observed Angel’s aunt and uncle having a very animated conversation in Mandarin. I asked Angel what they were walking about and she said “work.” I had Angel ask her uncle what he did for a living, anxiously hoping for an opportunity to get involved in a conversation. When she did, his smile went away and he gave me a serious gaze and asked why I wanted to know. The room got eerily quiet. Bam! A wall of silence hit me and I was cast out of the bubble. Everything had been going so well with the family and my question seemed to ruin an entire day within five seconds. I felt horrible. I quickly apologized and explained that I was just curious. He accepted my apology and told me he worked for the government. This reminded me of something I had learned before I went to China about the secrecy of the communist Chinese government. It made me realize how different China and the United States are. Unlike China, I could ask anyone in the States what they did for a living without a problem, even in tough economic times, but this did not seem to be the case in China. If we really expect to improve relations with countries like China, Americans must become more aware of global customs.
It surprised me that a simple question could cause so much anxiety in a room. Learning how the littlest things can cause tension has made me more aware of these differences and I now understand that good communication requires more than speaking another person’s language.
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