Living in a world that is becoming more and more globalized, with English seemingly deemed as the “Global Language”, many Americans think it unnecessary to study any foreign language. But when the likeliness of working with a Chinese partner in some aspect of one’s future career increases daily, the best tool one can have is cultural competency: the ability to adapt in any variety of situations, which people can only truly learn by living in a foreign country. It is evident that each culture has its distinctions, its language, its food, its lifestyles, and motivations. These nuances are impossible to learn out of a textbook, and nowadays, the most lucrative experiences future generations can have is a few months of pure cultural immersion.
Many aspects of a culture can only be understood through the language, and Mandarin is a prime example. From a culture that has over 5,000 years of history, each character, or Hanzi, is inscribed with full symbolic meaning. With even just a rudimentary understanding of Mandarin and Hanzi a cross-cultural relationship becomes much more meaningful. Think, for a moment, how Americans react to a foreigner who stumbles over their English pronunciation (how on earth do you pronounce “enough”?), garbles their tenses, and rolls their “L’s”? Quite often with impatience, and once in a while an under-the-breath “Go back to where you came from.” Yet, within reversed roles, if an American was struggling with Mandarin (or almost any foreign language), forgetting the necessary tones (pronounce “bi” with a flat first tone instead of an undulating third tone and you’ve got the difference between “pen” and “extremely-vulgar-word-for-vagina”), Americanizing the grammar, or disregarding all lessons on proper pronunciation, and they immediately have five or six Chinese surrounding them, praising how well they speak Chinese. What is wrong with this picture? Within the self-proclaimed “melting pot” of the world we certainly have some of the lowest cultural tolerance, yet in a country where foreign truly holds its original definition, there is extreme curiosity and unceasing interest in anything unfamiliar.
It seems that the bulk of the responsibility for fostering this new, budding relationship lies on the shoulders of Americans. Not only is cross-cultural exchange necessary for an improved, mutual understanding, it is also one of the most life-changing experiences any American could undergo. Very rarely does a student come back from time abroad with their eyes still shut, and their experience deemed as nothing more than a waste of time. Any culture, in any other location of the world, has something it can teach a person. That experience can come in the negative or the positive, but the end results, and the changes within a person, are invariably for the better.
The greatest gift we can give our future generations is the gift of knowledge, of understanding. And how better to do that than to live within a home, a city, a country that teaches them without requiring a textbook? That opens their minds and challenges them every day to find creative new ways to communicate, to see through their eyes, and to build relationships with the people in a country that will doubtlessly be an important partner in our future?
Azuraye is a senior International Affairs and Chinese major.
This year, as part of the application process, we asked delegates to submit an op-ed, academic analysis or creative piece on China or US-China relations. The editors at the Duke East Asia Nexus have selected some of the best ones to publish here in hopes of generating intellectual discussion before, during and after the conference. These are very short and not meant to be groundbreaking. Take them as conversation starters!