Communication

Communication is a wonderfully curious process. It is as much a daily challenge here as anywhere else that I have visited. Rather than being frustrating it is fun because there is usually some sort of satisfying resolution or an amicable dead end.

I spent part of my layover in Beijing in a Delta lounge (I am a big shot with all of the miles) trying to compose some emails on the provided desktop computer. It was some challenging. Because it was a Chinese computer with Chinese software, it kept trying to transliterate (change from English to Chines characters) what I was writing. Chinese languages do not make words from letters like English. In this case a presumed Chinese speaker starts the process by typing an English word. Much like a Google search, the software offers Mandarin suggestions of what it thinks you are trying to say. The more you type the more refined (I think) they become. I was familiar with this process from watching others using their computers in China and Japan. The problem for me was that it didn’t know that I was a westerner trying to type in English for the purpose of communicating in English. I sometimes ended up with Chinese rather than English solutions. Here is an example:

In trying to say: I am using my computer but it is throwing Chinese characters…

The following came out:

I 阿门usingChinese computer 安定it is throwing in Chinese characters.

This 阿门is amen, 啊 aha (I get it) or ow (pain) and this 安定, calm down; expressing a feeling of safety.

Sounds are also a challenge. Learning Mandarin (or any Chinese variation) by exposure is apparently not a simple process. They have accepted English spelling to approximate the sound of Chinese words. In the old days the spelling was based was on a colonial English ear and pronouciation; now it is a Chinese one e.g., Peking to Beijing, Chung King to Chongqing. To many western ears, words or combinations of letters sound similar or the same. Therein lies (Susan/Catherine , I hope that lie rather than lay is the correct work choice and doesn’t cause a screeching sound in your ears) one of the dilemmas of Mandarin and Chinese dialects. For example, Xiao and _lou end with a sound like ow. Zhao and Zao are also similarly close to ow. My ear is pretty good so I often hear the nuances. More often than not, however, I cannot speak them without provoking a good laugh from everyone. Some of these can be embarrassingly incorrect. It is a good thing that most people here have a wonderfully forgiving sense of humor. Of course we are as mystifying to them with our English words. Many of our differences seem to be context rather than sound. Deer and dear are obvious examples.

While waiting at the gate in Beijing for my connection to Guilin, a young woman approached and asked if she could practice her English. Her’s was very good. She had a nice familiarity with some subtle nuances. This was doubly impressive given that she had never traveled to an English speaking country. She was very curious and full of questions about the US and WMA. When I asked if she was a teacher, she was both surprised and pleased by my guess. We could use a few more like her in the US.

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