May 29, 2014, by Tony Hong
A place where everything is held in the okay
By Abigail Aikins-Hawkson,
MSci Business and Economy of Contemporary China.
Chopsticks simply refuse to fit in my hand as well as a knife and fork does and in between wanting a hot cup of PG tips and needing it, I have come to realise, better yet understand, that comfort zones are comfortable for a reason.
China is China. It is hard to explain how China is because I still don’t quite know who China is as a country. To put a term on something that doesn’t seem to have completed its process into become whatever it is wanting to become seems silly, but there is one thing as a lǎowài that I know; China is a place where everything is held in the “OK”. From taxi drivers, to waitresses, to shop assistants, to passersby you’re asking for directions, as a foreigner you wait for that “OK” as confirmation, that whatever it is you are trying and perhaps maybe failing to express, has been understood. Or not. It could go either way.
If you don’t hear the “OK”, after your best attempt at relaying your pre-rehearsed sentences, 9/10 times you have not been understood and even if you do hear that “OK”, 2/10 times you still have not been understood. Beginners mandarin for foreigners living in China, is made up of hand gestures, ” Tīng bù dǒng”, ” Zhè gè”, shakes and nods, ” duì”, ” bù yào xièxiè” and most importantly hearing “OK”. I have been in situations where I’ve trusted in the “OK” of a taxi driver to get me to where I’m going only to end up somewhere else.
Often I would walk into a shop, ask a question with my mismatched tones and get a reply in a faster version of mandarin not covered in my lectures. I would then reply “tīng bù dǒng” and in return I would continue to be spoken to in mandarin and for a long time I could not understand why this kept happening. That’s the thing about us lǎowàis, we can be stubborn when it comes to communication. We already give up before the conversations starts and the irony in replying in the language you claim not to understand, but are now speaking in is a typical example of this. I’m sure if I actually listened to what was being said, I could make it out, but in my head I came to an English speaking University so I was therefore going to speak English in China but China, whatever China, is so much bigger than UNNC. It’s so much bigger than Ningbo and regrettably, it’s only just clicked in my head.
The whole concept of a year abroad, as daunting and frightening and cups of PG tips tea-less as it may be, the whole idea of it, is to live outside your comfort zone and not only that, but to try and enjoy it. I had no idea how different living in China would actually be. How strange, how frustrating, but sometimes enjoyable life would be here. That is the beautiful thing about concepts, they can be whatever you need them to be, no barriers, no restrictions. There is a kind of freedom in being able to feel everything and anything that you want because the concept is yours. Year abroads are a great opportunity for self discovery. The amount of interesting people I have met and the amount of life changing conversations I have had this year has been a blessing.
I still can’t use chopsticks, but I still can’t fly to the moon either.