Friday, January 6, 2012

听不懂 Tīng bù dǒng

Today I’m celebrating our upcoming 5 month anniversary of living in China with a proclamation:

听不懂 Tīng bù dǒng.

Literally this means, “I hear, but I don’t understand.”

A dear friend and fellow expatriate taught me this phrase within a few days of our arrival here in Shanghai. It’s the proper way to let people know that you don’t have the slightest clue what they’re saying. But it’s not just for expats. I’ve heard my Chinese English students say it to me in class. It’s cute, really, to hear them say it, but then, I love my English students. I’ve also heard adults say it to people who are trying to talk to me in Chinese. And sometimes someone will say it to me when they realize I have no idea what they’re trying to tell me. It’s not so cute then, and not just because I feel it WAY too much myself to enjoy hearing someone tell me that I don’t understand. Mostly it’s not cute because of how prevalent the 听不懂 Tīng bù dǒng attitude is here for the Chinese themselves.

One prime example of this attitude is that no one uses their rear view mirrors here. If they can’t see you, you don’t exist and you’d better stay out of their way. A recent example of 听不懂 Tīng bù dǒng happened just this afternoon when a group of security guards and office management people (including one who I know speaks tolerable English) talking in front of my home refused to come ask me (sitting at the window looking at them) why someone (sitting in the car and whom they also refused to speak with) was leaving with a whole bunch of stuff from my home. No. They had to call our Realtor, who then called Rob. It was a simple answer of course, that our friends had just been storing a few things at our home in the process of moving from Mongolia to Nanjing. But all they could see was what they didn’t understand.

Rob and I are also really disappointed with many of the Expats who live here and walk around with a similar attitude, only their circle of who they connect with is even smaller than it is for the Chinese. We rarely speak to any Expats outside of our Church and home school family because of this.

You know, there really is something grand about living abroad where the language and culture and daily habits are so foreign from one’s native country. Here in China I am surrounded by writing and meaning I don’t even partially understand. I think often of how great it is to have this chance to stretch my world, and that of my family, in such a way that it is bigger than we ever comprehended before. The opportunity to love a people so separated from the Truths we know and yet still so rich with their own is truly awe inspiring. And yet there’s also something so oppressive about living abroad where the language and culture and so much of the meaning I’m surrounded by are simply indecipherable. Nothing wears on you like the ever present, and sometimes so completely unavoidable, message that you don’t understand. My sanity recently has come from using the energy from that frustration to push back and reject those who hear me but don’t understand and push forward to follow and protect the treasures and cares of my heart.

So, after 5 months, how do I like living in China? Do I have any regrets about moving here?

No regrets. We have connected with some fabulous people and experiences and opportunities here. No, we don’t love living here, for a variety of reasons. There are things we really hate about this whole adventure. But I’m learning to just prayerfully say,

听不懂 Tīng bù dǒng.


Celeste B. said...

I hear you, and I do understand! How would I say that in Chinese? That would frustrate me also. It seems that sometimes people don't want to understand any viewpoint but their own.

We are blessed that everything is written and spoken in "plain English" where we are, but the meanings are still NOT always clear. In the first few months I thought, "I know we are both speaking English, so why do we not understand each other?" People would just stare at me like I had two heads when I would try to explain different ways of doing things, which my way is usually very different or I would express other things I have read or studied.

I've come to realize how many different cultures there are in America. I'm beginning to, after nearly two years, understand the cultural viewpoints here. I've been told by MANY people who have moved here from other places that it takes 2-3 years to "get it". By "get it" they mean change to their understanding...they will never change to our way of understanding because it is so prevalent in the local culture. It has made me realize why large groups of people never change, they are sustained by each other in their ways, right or wrong.

It is clear to me now why the Midwest has never, and may never, take off on the Leadership Education crusade. The culture is still about 20 years behind in innovative thinking, they are followers rather than leaders, they look for comfortable routine rather than thinking outside the box, and they are extremely resistant to ANY change. Even a change as simple as moving to another room in the church building to hold a meeting is taboo because they have always met in such-in-such room. I see very little logical or rational thinking. It has been very frustrating for our family.

I hope your stay in China becomes less frustrating as you try to communicate with those around you. We are in America, yet feel just about as isolated as you do. We have no friends, even in the church.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating thoughts, Celeste! It's great to hear what other people are learning about our world. Even after a mission to Argentina, I'm still amazed at how big this world feels after living here.

It's funny, but after writing this post I care a lot less about speaking English in front of everyone. I still hate not understanding, but I care a little less about that too.