As my Chinese is getting better, and I’m making more chinese friends, a thought has been taking shape. Is ease of communication an indication of who I should be friends with?

Let’s face it, speaking chinese with me is not easy. You have to work at it. You have to deal with my bad pronunciation and halting speech manner, figure out a way to say something a different way when I don’t understand it the first time, and remember my vocabulary and use it when talking with me. (This is something I do with my students as well, and the last point explains why I once actually said ‘the woman suicided’ when talking about a book. Yep, I actually said that because all my students were saying “suicided” and as it was a book discussion I didn’t want to stop their thoughts to correct them. Still, it was probably the most embarrassing mistake for a native english speaker.)

There are some people I can talk with easily, and others who even trying to make them understand the simplest thing is insanely impossible. And vice-versa. I wonder why? Why can one Chinese person understand me easily while another can’t at all? And why can I understand some and not others?

So I was wondering, does fate play a part? Like, is it because we are meant to be friends that we can understand each other? Should I work more on being friends with those I can understand easily, and give up on those I can’t?

Color is a perfect example. When I first met him he told me that he could understand me the easiest out of all the foreigners (this was before we were friends). Even as his english improved he still had trouble understanding other people, but never me. Is it a coincidence that we became best friends? Did we become so close because he could understand me? Or was it because we were fated to be friends that communication was easy?

Color had a recent surprise business trip to Hangzhou so we got to hang out!

Not just my best friend, but the best best friend I’ve ever had. We don’t share a culture or a native language yet we understand each other.

Then there’s my friend Abu. He’s Japanese and despite us being classmates one semester his chinese is miles ahead of mine. Being a foreigner himself he has always understood my poor, toneless chinese even when I was a beginner, and I’ve noticed he has adjusted his speaking level as I’ve progressed, so that I always understand him. He was the first person I could really hold sustained conversation with for more than 5 minutes. (We used to take hour-long walks together and speak chinese the whole time, which was a huge accomplishment for me a few years ago.) But no matter what my level was we always have a really fun time hanging out. Again, why?

Abu is one of my oldest friends here. He left Lin'an for awhile but then recently came back and we hung out a lot, taking walks, drinking milk tea and eating together. Until he suddenly went back to Japan to get a better job. Sigh...

Abu is one of my oldest friends here. He left Lin’an for awhile but then recently came back and we hung out a lot, taking walks, drinking milk tea and eating together. Until he suddenly went back to Japan to get a better job. Sigh…

And of course I can’t forget my little hairdresser. He can’t speak English so our entire relationship is based in Chinese. And we talk, so easily, for days without stopping. My favorite memory of our trip to Shanghai together was us sitting in a coffee shop (avoiding a downpour) for hours just talking and laughing.

I mean, he doesn’t understand everything I say. I know his “I have no clue what she is saying” face by heart, but he eventually gets it, and we have had some really deep, meaningful conversations even using simple vocabulary. He has also helped me a ton with Chinese, explaining difficult grammar patterns to me in a way I understand much better than my teacher and book. (Both of which use a little English.)

Me and Liu

Turns out his birthday is 2 days before mine. I thought he was just joking with me until he showed his ID card as proof. 

So again, is it fate? We’re we meant to be together and that’s why we understand each other? Or does our ease of communication give us a false sense of togetherness? If I was Chinese, or totally fluent, would we get along as well as we do now?

I think this question brings up a greater thought. While language is technically just a skill, it has a lot more meaning than say, knitting or mathematics, other skills we learn. Because we use language to communicate our thoughts, express ourselves and make ourselves understood. Our egos are involved in a way that they aren’t in other subjects. (Have you ever sat at a table with foreigners speaking another language and felt left out and completely embarrassed and uncomfortable? Or angry thinking they are intentionally doing it to leave you out? That’s the feeling I’m talking about. We might feel bored if at a table of astrophysicists talking science, but not embarrassed or angry.)

So I wonder if I’m not putting too much stock in relationships because I can understand someone easily. Maybe it has no meaning at all and it’s just a crazy coincidence based on pronunciation and the way brains work.

What do you think? Do u speak another language and have had the same experience I had? Why do you think about it? Destiny, fate or just a coincidence? I’m interested in hearing what others have to say.

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1 Comment

Jack · July 26, 2013 at 9:17 am

“There are some people I can talk with easily, and others who even trying to make them understand the simplest thing is insanely impossible. And vice-versa. I wonder why? Why can one Chinese person understand me easily while another can’t at all? And why can I understand some and not others?”

You know, even for native Chinese, sometimes it is hard to understand each other… since there are so many dialects in China most of the Chinese speaks with certain type of accent. For example, for the life of me I couldn’t understand my primary school teacher from NE China because he had such a heavy accent. But I guess you knew that by now 😉

Also, I think why some people comprehend each other and “click” is to do with temperament, some are more patient, and understanding, some are not. It also has to do with the level of intelligence in some way, some are just better at comprehending others – not through the spoken language itself but through the non-verbal communication (facial expression, body languages). I think I have read somewhere that non-verbal communication is actually more important in communication in asian culture compare to the western (english) civilization where verbal communication is more important.

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