Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Tower of Babel

Several days when we were in Lanzhou waiting for the train to Jiayuguan, we watched Babel (a movie that we spent all Summer trying to catch in Melbourne). Given the films's central themes of miscommunication and being a white person in a foreign land - it was quite timely.

The further West we have gone, the more I have been reminded of the China I remember from when I taught English here for 6 months in 1999. The percentage of people who can speak English abiblity has dramatically decreased as we have progressed, and we have found ourselves feeling powerless and staring a mutual wall of incomprehension more and more often. My initial reaction to some of these situations has initially been frustration - especially at some of the major tourist sites, where one would expect at least a minimal level of English to facilitate the smoothe passage of the tourist dollar. But I have to keep reminding myself that I am a guest and that the onus is on me as a guest to speak Chinese (I suspect I have also picked up a few bad habits from Cambodia where everyone tries to speak English and the unhealthy White-man-as-God complex still lingers).

I have also struggled to adjust this time to the Chinese way of social interaction - and how everyday conversation frequently escalates into yelling. Most of the time this is perfectly innocent, but sometimes it is not. The number of fights and scuffles that we have seen over tickets for buses and trains has been quite eye opening. I've often tried to remember whether things were the same when I lived further South in 1999.

Unfortunately, there have also been a few times when someone has spoken to me in what I instinctively perceived to be rude and confrontational and I have reacted in a rather unbecoming fashion - when I probably completely misinterpreted the original intent.

Lest I paint too negative a picture, I should say that the memories that I formed 8 years ago of all the incredibly friendly and hospitable people I met with has not changed at all this time round in China.

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