Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else
False Friends at Strange Shores
04/25/2014Posted by on
Probably the most foundational idea in my life isn’t religious, ethical, or relational. It’s a pretty simple observation, a rule of thumb really: an advantage can be a disadvantage, and a disadvantage can be an advantage, it depends on context. Not merely social context, but as an inherent property, most everything is a mixed bag. It’s pretty much the only that gets me through the day being, well, me.
As I’ve indicated before, my youth was troubled, even if I was too pro-social to be considered a troubled youth. I had – have – focus problems and impulse control problems stacked on top of a compulsive need to analyze and systematize everything. It wasn’t all bad. I was – am – a pretty smart and I was – am – a strongly intuitive learner, good with systems, patterns, and stealing extra efficiency out of a studying routine. It’s a gift of nurture and nature and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But for all of the advantages, there are some real downsides as well. I was unused to being genuinely bad at something. Even if I hadn’t been convinced that a lack of complete of all intellectual pursuits was a tremendous moral failure, my long reliance on intuition would have – did, does – doom me to frustration and failure, especially as a child.
If you sat me down before a list of things and asked me to memorize them, I’d get fidgety and bored fast. And then, when I tried my very best, I’ll turn out to be really bad at it – even worse than “normal” kids – which will frustrated me quite a bit. When you’re 7 and your parents are legacies of an effective but brutal rote memorization school of education, it just looks like you’re lazy. I certainly thought so anyway. 1 And as narcissistic and ridiculous as it is to complain about being so gifted that being brought down to normal is torture, when you’re 7, you don’t know any better. The bad habits have stuck around long past me getting a good dose of perspective.
It wasn’t just the let down from relying on a talent and having that talent fail you, but in some cases, that talent, that asset, led me astray. I have failed at a truly staggering number of things, and I carry a perpetual sense of shame for having “gotten away with” less than stellar work on multiple occasions throughout my educational career. As bad as all of that can be, nothing haunts me the way that failing to learn Chinese, and to a lesser extent, French has. Probably because of all of the academic failures and false starts, not knowing Chinese has cost me the most.
Non-native languages were – are – specially hard for me. English I snapped up about the same way every native speaking child does- through immersion and the magic of highly plastic brains in early childhood. I also just kept reading. I refused to use dictionaries, I just read the books until the context taught me what the word meant. Non native languages did not yield to this method. I just didn’t have the accumulated knowledge and hazy but accurate sense of rules necessary to intuit my way out. No, learning Chinese had to be done the simple, bullheaded way, and I was no good at it.
You might think that learning Chinese should be easy since, well, I am Chinese, however hyphenated, and it was even a language spoken at home. In part, I did grasp a lot of spoken Mandarin via immersion, but my reading and writing skills were – are – appalling. See, the spoken language and the written language of Chinese are only sort of related to each other. Mandarin uses up to one each of three sets of phonemes/syllables (roughly starts, middles, and ends) and then modifies it with a tone. 2 Now, the resulting sound may or may not actually have anything to do with the resulting pictogram representing that concept. Sometimes, the pictogram has a root placed on the left that indicates what class of concept it represents. Sometimes it is placed above. Sometimes it is missing. Sometimes a symbol is related to another word by meaning. Sometimes a symbol is placed to indicate that this word sounds like another word. Sometimes its just what some Chinese sage thought looked cool. There is no real way to tell, you just have to know.3 As someone who relied on his intuitive grasp of rules and patterns to guide him through every problem in life, well…
French wasn’t really that much easier. At least it had an alphabet, so I could sound out the words and take a stab in the dark as to their meaning. Here too, I got tripped up by what should have been an advantage. One of the interesting features of learning another language is dealing with false friends. False friends are sets of words or phrases that sound similar but actually have distinct meanings. For example, in French you have assister meaning to attend, not to assist. My intuitions let me quickly grasp the concepts surrounding conjugation, tense and the like, but that didn’t help me learn vocabulary or stop leaping to the conclusion that I needed someone to assiste me. According to my high school French teacher4 my problem was I tried to construct sentences in French with the same sophistication that I spoke English. Considering we were learning stuff at French kids learned in primary school, this was as silly of a learning strategy as it was natural and frustrating. In short, all of my intellectual assets were proving to be false friends. So, to my ever-lasting regret, I found some face saving excuse and I stopped learning Chinese. And doing that cost me my relationship with my grandfather.
Of course, I have -had – two grandfathers, one on each side, but it is with my father’s father I felt the closest. Ye-ye plays an outsized roll in my memory. I remember him, despite the toll that age had taken, carrying my backpack for me as we walked back from the gas station. I remember admiring him as he worked by hand writing a dictionary – an etymology chart, really – of Chinese words throughout the ages that no one would ever read. I remember him taking me in during a particularly painful period in my life, as we talked about my father and our relationship.
I remember being so very ashamed each time that I couldn’t speak to him in the only language he really knew.
Language is a tool – a system of ideas, rules, and symbols stitched together in unpredictable ways that don’t become clear until proper distance is placed between observer and language. That proper distance thing is key. If you really want to understand the mechanics and purpose of English grammar as a native English speaker, study a foreign language and then come back.5 Suddenly that whole tense thing makes a whole lot more sense. So language is a great analogue for culture. It is also a sort of culture itself, but it is more than that: it is the gateway to understanding what most people mean when they simply refer to “culture” unadorned.
No matter how Chinese I feel, without a solid grasp of the Chinese language, there will forever be a great barrier between myself and Chinese culture. And that meant a barrier between myself and my grandfather. I think he died without really knowing who I am, and I think I never really knew him. It took me a while to really understand that. Early enough to regret, too late to change.
It was in a moment of alienation that I understood it finally. Far away from home, I learned that the grandfather I loved so dear was going to die. And suddenly instead of the comfortable world where, my grandfather would be there when I finally had the time, and the money and the put-togetherness, I was at the strange shores of reality, where time is finite. I wish it hadn’t taken it so long, but I think it may just be the nature of things. I needed strange shores to get rid of my false friends.