Saturday, October 13, 2012

Fluency and cultural integration

Should I learn the language?

This is a central question for most long-term expats.  Language learning is difficult, time consuming, frustrating, and confidence-draining.  It impedes interactions while I search for the right words; it impairs connection when I am reduced to expressing only simple ideas using a poor accent.  There are just so many important things that have to be set aside to make room for hours of practice

But on the Yes, Absolutely side, it’s central to residency and immigration, to awareness of what’ going on in the community, to participation in social conversations.  It help me to appreciate nuanced meaning in ideas and differences between cultures.  It drives integration and acceptance, even if only for being seen to ‘make the effort’.

So, I was intrigued when NPR’s This American Life recently explored the relationship between language fluency and cultural integration among American expatriates living in China.  The program is fascinating, revealing both the benefits and limitations of learning to speak the language.

One aspect is how native speakers view foreign speakers of their own language. The first portion of the program explores experiences of Americans drawn into Chinese media appearances.  The feeling is that they have, first,they are being presented for their  novelty value  and, second, that they are being made fun of. A “performing monkey’ is the recurring characterization.  But long-term expats fluent in the language discover that the situation is more complicated, tangled in perceptions of race and class.  Benji comments Foreigners are considered cute and adorable. ‘Look, he's trying to speak Chinese.’  It's kind of like a baby who can't take care of himself and needs to be loved. 

Will fluency enhance feelings of participation if it also brings clear realization of how others perceive you?

A second segment explores integration through Kaiser Kuo’s experiences.  Kaiser runs an expat news service and weekly podcast through his Sinica blog and podcast.  Fluency facilitates both broader and deeper awareness of the Chinese community around him.  But it comes with a cost.  Living here as an expatriate, you're going to see things that will cause your blood to boil… To make it day-by-day in China, most people try to keep a narrow focus on the world in front of them. Improve what they can, without getting overwhelmed by the bigger picture. 

And this cuts both ways: Kaiser talks about the chasm that opens up during periods of misunderstanding between Chinese and US governments.  When the US accidently bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, he suddenly felt his American-ness acutely: That was a moment of incredible realization for me, that there's still a chasm that I'll probably never actually be able to cross.

Does fluency actually enhance integration if the existential fact of being non-native remains a barrier?

Participation brings realization: integration has its limits.  And, beneath it all, fluency both promotes and hinder the process.

I thought the program was fascinating, although many of the direct Chinese issues don’t have Dutch counterparts (or maybe I’m not far enough along to fully realize it yet).  It’s a relevant and thoughtful hour’s listening (or reading) for long-term expats putting their experiences into context.

You get over these moments as an expat here. You go back to living with the knowledge that most of the time you'll be welcomed, treated with grace. But in the back of your mind, you know there will be another day, someday, when you suddenly find yourself an outsider.


Jules said...

Integrating in China is made more complicated because China is, more or less, racially homogenous. If your Dutch is good enough, people might think you've got a funny accent but they won't really care. But in China, you'll always be "the white guy" first, and "the white guy who speaks pretty decent Chinese" second.

I'm a bit sensitive to this because, as a member of the "model minorities" (Asians) in the US, you're never allowed to forget that you're not like other people, even if you love apple pie and play football. It's even weirder now--because most Europeans assume that I'm from the Far East, and they always blink when I say that I'm from the States. The disconnect between the culture you physically represent and the culture you've been immersed in during your formative years can be a bit difficult for some people to process. ("You're from the US? But you're Chinese!")

Dave Hampton said...

Hi, Jules, and thanks for the note. I'm not sure that the Europeans don't, in fact, judge by outward appearances first and then by language and integration second. I've certainly seen it happen with colleagues from India or Africa. At the same time, I agree that I felt it was more pronounced in China.

With the widening disconnect between US and European politicians and recent articles tearing down each other in their respective media, saying you're from the US also leads to some negative conversations these days.