A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

I just finished reading this book: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo.  Here’s the synopsis:

Twenty-three-year-old Zhuang, the daughter of shoe factory owners in rural China, has come to London to study English. She calls herself Z because English people can’t pronounce her name, but she’s no better at their language. Set loose to find her way through a confusion of cultural gaffes and grammatical mishaps, she winds up lodging with a Chinese family and thinks she might as well not have left home. But then she meets an English man who changes everything. From the moment he smiles at her, she enters a new world of sex, freedom, and self-discovery. But she also realizes that, in the West, “love” does not always mean the same as in China, and that you can learn all the words in the English language and still not understand your lover.

Drawing on her diaries from when she first arrived in the UK, Xiaolu Guo winningly writes the story in steadily improving English grammar and vocabulary. Freshly humorous, sexy, and poignant, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is an utterly original novel about language, identity, and the cultural divide.

While this book is fiction, it is jam-packed with observations about British versus Chinese culture and the English and Chinese languages.  One passage that resonated with me was this:

I am sick of speaking English like this.  I am sick of writing English like this.  I feel as if I am being tied up, as if I am living in a prison.  I am scared that I have become a person who is always very aware of talking, speaking, and I have become a person without confidence, because I can’t be me.  I have become so small, so tiny, while the English culture surrounding me becomes enormous.  It swallows me, and it rapes me.  I wish I could just go back to my own language now.  But is my own native language simple enough?  I still remember the pain of studying Chinese characters when I was a child at school.
Why do we have to study languages?  Why do we have to force ourselves to communicate with people?  Why is the process of communication so troubled and so painful?

Have you ever experienced this?  Do you have answers to the questions she poses?  Have you read the book?


10 Things I Never Did Until I Lived in Russia (Part 2)

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Continuing from my previous list, here are 10 more things I never did until I lived in Russia:

1) Didn’t sleep in a “real” bed. Due to the small size of many Russian flats, space is limited and furniture sometimes performs double functions.  The most common is that of the sofa bed.  I found that many people didn’t sleep in what I would call a “real” bed.  Instead they slept on a sofa, futon, or other bed-like piece of furniture.  This didn’t present any problems until I moved into a new flat, decided to buy a bed and was met with incredulity.  Some people couldn’t understand why it was important for me to have a bed.  But when given a choice between a bed and a sofa, I chose the bed.
2)  Read cheesy books. The selection of books available in English in Russia is often quite limited, even in big bookstores like Dom Knigi and Biblio-Globus.  This meant that sometimes when I was so desperate to read something in English, I ended up reading books that I can only describe as cheesy.  Books that I would never read if I was in the United States and had more variety.  But sometimes you just need to read a book in English!
3) Saw my coworkers and boss naked. See my previous post on nudity.
4) Ate at McDonald’s. I don’t if there are any significant differences between McDonald’s in the United States and the ones in Russia but, in my opinion, the food at the ones in Russia tastes better.  It seems to have more flavor and is not as greasy or sickening.  I don’t eat McDonald’s when I’m in the US but doing so didn’t seem quite so bad while living in Russia.  Maybe it wasn’t even healthier, but it definitely tasted better and also gave a level of comfort and familiarity, despite the small differences in taste.
5) Knew Russian celebrities. When I was studying Russian as a university student, I was oblivious to a lot of Russian popular culture.  My professor played several popular films and songs in class so I was aware of a few things.  But while living in Russia, I quickly absorbed knowledge of popular films, who the actors, actresses and TV personalities were and other random knowledge.  Knowing about these things was also helpful in order to feel a part of the conversation, to understand jokes and make cultural references.
6) Drank tea. Like most people, I’d always associated tea with England.  I had no idea that Russians drank so much tea.  While I rarely drank tea on my own, it was something of a social activity at work and I soon found myself mindlessly drinking cup after cup of tea throughout the work day.  At home I never drank tea but always kept some on hand in case I had Russian friends visiting.
7) Drank sparkling water. Before I came to Russia I enjoyed drinking sparkling water but it wasn’t something I did that often.  It’s not standard in the United States and can be difficult to find in shops and restaurants.  But in Russia it’s almost the norm.  When ordering water at a restaurant or from a street vendor, it’s important to verify whether you want it to be sparking (with gas: с газом) or still (without gas: без газа).  Sparkling water is also the same price as still and is relatively cheap.  Consequently I ended up drinking copious amounts of it and came to enjoy it even more than before.
8)  Took a gypsy cab. In Russia there are official taxi cabs and then there are gypsy cabs: cars that ordinary people drive but are willing to offer you a lift for a price.  I never took them alone but, when traveling with friends, sometimes found myself in some random person’s car.  It was an interesting experience that while shocking at first, soon became the norm for transportation when taxis weren’t available.
9)  Drank straight vodka shots. Many are aware of the connection between Russia and vodka.  Before living in Russia, I rarely took a shot of straight vodka.  If I did, it was at a party or club with the sole intent of becoming drunk.  But in Russia I found myself taking shots at lunch or dinner and was told not to sip but to swallow the whole shot.
10) Had people be surprised I was skinny. In the United States most people expect you to be a certain size.  Your body is only commented on when it is either too big or too small.  Americans are known to be obese and Russians are aware of this.  I’ve always been petite but no one said anything about it until I lived in Russia.  One woman was surprised to find that I was American and said, “But you’re not fat!”  She seemed genuinely shocked as if being fat were a requirement for being an American.

Nudity and Cultural Adaptability Quotients

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

After reading this thought-provoking article on “Buff culture” by Sherry Vacik on Expat Harem, I began thinking about nudity in other cultures as well as cultural adaptability.  When traveling or living abroad, it’s a given that you’re going to have to adapt to a different way of life.  The ease or difficulty of cultural adaptation often depends upon the amount of similarities between two cultures.

When moving from your culture to a culture with similar values, adaptation will be relatively easy.  The relationship between cultures can be determined based on cultural dimensions, cultural values, language, etc.  For example, going from the United States to Canada (two individualistic cultures) would be relatively easy while a move to Asia would be difficult because it is a collectivistic culture.

The ability to easily adjust to different cultures is something I call a “cultural adaptability quotient.” However, because you can adapt to a similar culture does not mean your quotient is high.  In order to have strong cultural adaptability skills, you must be able to adapt to very different cultures.

Such adaptability, however, becomes even more challenging when we are faced with differences that shake our core beliefs and question our cultural identity.  I referenced the article on nudity because this seemed to be such a touchy subject for many people, especially women, and can be a huge obstacle to cultural adaptation.

Then I began thinking about my own experiences with nudity and why I didn’t have any difficulties overcoming this cultural difference.  Although my experiences are limited and I haven’t experienced nearly as much as what some of the people who commented on the article wrote about, I do can say that all my experiences so far have been positive.

So far the biggest obstacle I overcame while in Russia in regard to nudity was accompanying some of my colleagues to the banya or Russian sauna.  While I’d visited a sauna with colleagues before, we’d only worn bathing suits or towels and were never naked.  This time, however, they brought along birch twigs which are used to slap the skin and promote circulation.  The slapping must be done on bare skin.

I’d never experienced the birth twigs before and this time I wanted to get the full banya experience.  So I entered the sauna and found my boss and her sister in there, in the nude, slapping each other with birch twigs.  The invited me to join so I stripped and allowed them to do the same.  After that we all jumped in the pool, swam for a bit, then dressed and went to the common area to relax, eat and drink.

Some time later, I was invited to put honey on my skin.  I declined because I didn’t want to deal with the mess of it, although they swore it wouldn’t be sticky if I put it on in the heated sauna.  But I sat in the sauna and got a good steam while several of my colleagues again stripped down and rubbed honey all over their bodies.  Then it was off to the pool again to wash off.

I can honestly say that during this entire time I was aware how different this experience was for me, how shocked and uncomfortable I probably would have felt if it happened in the United States, yet how comfortable I was throughout it all.  But why was I so comfortable?  Was it because I knew and trusted my colleagues and some of them were also very good friends?  That might have been part of it, but I think a bigger part was my understanding of what we were doing meant in a cultural context.

One of the main purposes of going to the banya or sauna is to relax and promote physical health.  I understood this as well as the Russian relationship toward the human body and nudity.  Nudity does not always equal sex.  When going to a doctor and being exposed, one of the reasons this is tolerable is because we know the doctor is a professional, has no interest in our body in an inappropriate way, and that our exposure is necessary for our health.

If we adapt this perspective to other healthful activities outside of a doctor’s office or hospital, we can feel relaxed while doing them.  Why?  Because there is no cultural significance!  In other cultures and in other activities that may not be health related, nudity is acceptable because it does not have a strong significance.  Nude beaches, for example, are there for relaxation and enjoyment.

So in analyzing my experience, I concluded that I was comfortable in the situation because I understood what it meant.  I knew that I wasn’t engaging in anything taboo even though it might have been taboo in another place (country, culture, etc.).  This understanding allowed me to relax, embrace the cultural difference, and relish the experience of trying something new and different.  If you can reach an understanding of a cultural on a deeper level, I believe it will make it significantly easier to adapt despite some seemingly shocking differences, thus raising your cultural adaptability quotient.

What challenges have you had adapting to a vastly different culture?  What techniques have you used to help you adapt, understand and accept the differences around you?   How is your own cultural adaptability quotient?

Reality TV and Cultural Differences

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

If you look close enough, you can find examples of intercultural interactions in almost every aspect of daily life.  This week, I noticed quite a few instances happening in reality TV shows.  The first that came to mind was Wife Swap.  The show began in the UK and a US version quickly followed.

The basis of the show is that two families change wives for two weeks.  The families are usually complete opposites.  At the beginning of the show both families are presented and their lives are detailed, showing their lifestyle from their perspective.  The women go to the other’s house, look around and read the “household manual” which outlines the family’s beliefs, daily routine and rules of the house.

During the first week, the wives must adhere to the rules of the house.  This often causes a lot of conflict and strong reactions.  The families respond with shock, laughter and sometimes outrage as they find the others to be naïve or stupid as the two extreme, opposite points of view clash.  The wives are also able to observe some of the things they perceive to be wrong about the other family’s way of life.  They usually speak with the children and find out how the parents’ decisions are affecting them and what they would like to change.

The second week gives the wives the opportunity to change the rules and enforce some of their own beliefs and ideas.  The wives tell the family about the changes and the family must obey the new rules.  The family is often resistant at first but sometimes comes to see the benefits of the changes and come to a compromise.

At the end of the swap, the two husbands and wives reunite and discuss the changes and what they’ve learned from the others.  Some time later the family is re-visited to see if they’ve incorporated any of the differences.

The show seems to parallel what someone might experience when encountering another country and culture.  The families are encouraged to open themselves up to new experiences and ideas, see a different perspective, and think about their actions and why they do what they do.  The exposure to new ideas helps challenge ones beliefs and preconceived notions about life and the world.  In the end, the two families/cultures influence each other, compromise and find the best of both worlds.

After a quick search on Hulu for other reality shows, the only other one I came across was a show called Battle of the Bods.  On the show, five women appear in front of a two-way mirror.  Behind the mirror are three men who rate the women based on various physical attributes.  The women must try to anticipate how the men will rate them.  If their guesses are correct, they win money.

What struck me as interesting was the differences between what men and women find physically attractive in women.  It seems that beauty values between the genders are different.  When approaching gender as culture, the concept of the show illustrates differences in cultures.

What other reality shows illustrate cultural differences?  Can watching such shows really help us understand cultural differences?

Extreme Culture Shock

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The recent film Mao’s Last Dancer (trailer here) explores various themes and doesn’t necessarily focus on culture shock.  Having recently read the book the film is based on, the author Li Cunxin describes his first impressions of the United States when he arrives there for the first time.  To say the least, his experience is extraordinary.  As a poor peasant boy living in China in the 1970s, the shock of coming to the United States would be expected.  But what I found even more interesting was how his ideas about the US conflicted with the reality he found there.  In the chapter entitled “The Filthy Capitalist America,” Li describes how “nothing [he] had seen so far matched the dark, decaying, depressing picture of America that the Chinese government had painted in [his] mind.”  Prior to his arrival, he commented that “for so many years [he] had been told that the West, especially America, was evil” and that he’d heard of nothing but “the mistreatment of black people, the violence on the streets, the use of firearms.”

He thought the smiles, happiness and kindness of the Americans were fake and says they made him “nervous,” thinking that “behind their smiling faces will be a hidden agenda” and that he would “find out what it is soon.”  Upon seeing “high-rise buildings, wide clean streets, [and] a green and orderly environment” he became confused because he didn’t think the Americans could have “built these buildings just to impress” him.  It soon dawned on him that “someone had lied to [him] about America being the poorest nation in the world and China being the richest nation.”

Today, when people travel abroad they usually have a pretty accurate idea of what to expect.  They might have seen a film or read a book about the place they’re travelling to.  Of course it’s also possible to look online or in a guide book to find out a lot of information beforehand.  But prior to Li’s trip, he knew next to nothing about America and what to expect.  This lack of information, coupled with his Communist education and beliefs, presented quite a shock.

After returning to China, he was able to compare and contrast the different lifestyles and felt even more restricted by life there after experiencing freedom and prosperity in America.  If you’re familiar with the story, you know that Li soon defected from China and lived in the United States.  The main point of this post is to comment on a type of culture shock that probably doesn’t exist any more.  Perhaps awareness of this can make us more appreciative of the mild culture shock that we ourselves experience when travelling or living abroad.

Return to Earth: The Ultimate Culture Shock?

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

According to MSNBC three astronauts returned to Earth on Tuesday after almost six months in orbit aboard the International Space Station.  Even more fascinating is the fact that they were from different countries: one Russian (cosmonaut), one Japanese (spaceflier), one American (astronaut).  I couldn’t help but wonder about any intercultural issues they’d faced while working together up in space.  But on top of that I wonder what they’re feeling upon returning to Earth.  This must be the ultimate experience of culture shock.  Not only are there physical changes to take into account, but I’m sure there must be some very complex emotions involved.  How do astronauts adjust to being back on Earth after extended stays in Space?  Also, what kind of support is provided for them during this transition?  While it can be incredibly difficult to adapt when moving from one country to another, at least we’re all on the same planet while doing that.  What about moving from Space to Earth.  In the future will there be planet to planet transitions?  Or moon to planet transitions?  Food for thought…

Culture in Film: Part 2

Monday, 24 May 2010

The second part of Culture in Film is on time travel and the cultural clash between time periods.  Many time travel films involve someone from the past who time travels to the future.  Hilarity often ensues when they can’t figure out modern devices and walk around in their historic clothing.  While most of these films are comedies and the seeming stupidity of the time travelling character gets a lot of laughs, there seems to be more than meets the eye.  Time travel is an extreme example but it can draw similarities to someone’s cross-cultural experience.  When we are in another country, we may find ourselves feeling as if we have traveled to another time and place.  Here’s why: 

1) Lack of familiarity with customs.  In a new environment it’s often difficult to understand what people are doing and why they are doing it.  This then makes it difficult for us to know what we’re supposed to do and how we’re supposed to react in various situations.

 2) Lack of familiarity with the physical environment.  It’s easy for us to take for granted the things around us and our knowledge of how to use them.  In a new culture some things are so drastically different that it may make taking care of basic needs a daily struggle.

3) We look different.  From (outdated) clothes to gestures or even hair to skin colour, depending on where you go, people can immediately notice that you’re different.

4) We’re misunderstood.  Not only do people not understand us and our home culture, they also don’t understand the experience we’re going through being in the new culture/time period.

5) We speak differently.  Whether it’s an accent, a different language or an archaic way of speaking, it’s easy to identify a foreigner by the way they speak.

The photos above are from the following films:
Black Knight
Just Visiting
Kate and Leopold