Language skills limit awkward silences

One of the few regrets that I still have from my childhood is that I never learned Chinese, and when I had a chance to learn, I never really took the opportunity very seriously. Being ethnically Chinese, it would seem pretty obvious why I felt so bad about not learning the language. It’s simply because I’m neglecting my background and distancing myself from my cultural roots. That’s stupid. It’s asinine to think that I would need to validate my Chineseness to myself or anyone else.

No, learning a language is in itself a rewarding opportunity. Even if high school makes learning a language compulsory or teachers say it is needed to get into college, learning another language is one of the best ways to breakdown barriers between other people and explore entire new worlds of thought.

Last summer, I was studying Chinese in Shanghai, trying to learn a little more of the language that I had foolishly ignored in the past. Once classes finished, I packed up a small bag, dumped the rest of my luggage on some very gracious friends and set out on my own.

I wanted to see the country and take advantage of those opportunities that parents always complain about never having when they were kids. I was headed to the ancient capital of Xi’an.

Traveling from Shanghai to Xi’an is about a 16 hour ride by train, and I’ll say from my experience, most foreign tourists aren’t choosing the overnight train to go from one place to other. However, my train car wasn’t empty, as it was full of Chinese tourists wearing a multitude of different colored hats. Each color represented a different tour group.

So here I am, stuck on this train for 16 hours with a whole bunch of people trying their best to emulate the group mentality of Japanese tourists. The train car is setup like a military barracks. One narrow strip of walking real estate runs down one side of the car, and taking up the other 90 percent of the available room, a row of bunk beds, three beds high, runs down the other side of the car.

My neighbors seem pretty typical and were actually a little younger than the rest of the tourists, checking in around their late 20’s or early 30’s by my estimation.

Dinner time rolls around, and we all start breaking out the freeze-dried noodles, tupperware filled with food or whatever else we had packed away for dinner. It was at this moment someone from the neighboring group said something to me. At the time, I had been sitting on a chair that folded out into the already cramped aisle. I looked up to make sure they had been talking to me, and when I realized they were, I tried my best to figure out what was being said.

Sadly, I failed miserably and couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were saying. It might have been their dialect and more likely the rapidity at which they spoke, but I was quickly losing the translation battle. I asked in Chinese if any of them spoke any English, in hopes that I could understand what they were saying if augmented with a little English. Unfortunately, none of them did. After asking the question, they all started talking at once, with some of the conversation directed at myself and with some of them talking among themselves. This was the point that I felt a tad overwhelmed and retreated to the safety of my freshly steeped bowl of ramen.

That was the extent of any substantial conversations I had for the rest of the train trip. It was a little disappointing, since I had felt I was starting to become more comfortable with the language after studying in Shanghai. However, if this was supposed to be an instance of learning by hitting the ground running, then I basically started a mile too high and face planted into the asphalt.

I didn’t make that mistake for the rest of my time in China. I learned not to give up as easily as I had done on the train. Looking back at that moment, it was a shame that the language barrier was the difference between a lively conversation to perhaps learn something new and 16 hours of silence. It is a barrier that’s slowly coming down, but the incident would never have happened if I hadn’t been shortsighted as a kid.

So don’t make my mistake, and you should jump on that opportunity to learn a language as soon as it presents. It only gets harder to learn as you get older, and its good to see students at Tech are getting the message. For example, the Chinese program has seen the number of participating students nearly double in the last few years.

To the say the world is shrinking is too cliché, but the world is definitely becoming more connected. Taking a language allows you to tap into another line of communication that was previously blocked. A whole new realm of thought is also open, allowing you to learn ways that other people approach a problem. Simply talking to people from other cultures to understand how and what they think about is a gift in itself. Also you never know, one day it might save you from having to ride a 16 hour train through the heart of China in relative silence.