Speak to me…

As an ex-pat Australian, I have just moved to a non-English speaking country and am experiencing what I know many migrants to Australia experience. I have to say I completely underestimated how it would feel, despite being (as an anthropologist by trade) more than thoroughly aware of the cross-cultural/linguistic issues.

I am also, in the most part, immensely grateful for the kindness and empathy of the Chinese people, my new friends and colleagues. My experience here is mostly positive so I can be somewhat resistant to prejudice and I laugh it off.  But that’s not to say it doesn’t exist.

I want be clear here. This post is not about Australian or Chinese examples alone. Mono-lingual overtly nationalist thinking is the scourge of the modern world as far as I am concerned.   Once upon a time (and fairly recently in comparative human history) we all spoke (or had basic knowledge of) more than one language. We had to, in order to get things done and negotiate and trade with our neighbours.

What I am writing about is the tendency for people to claim a superior attitude when dealing with people who do not speak their language and how toxic that attitude can be, world-wide.

I may not speak much Mandarin but I am working at changing that as best I can. I speak enough to make basic purchases and greet and be pleasant use a translator on my phone. I can, after a few weeks (and like many other people can) get the general idea of a conversation enough now even though I may not be able to fully engage yet. I know when people are speaking about me harshly because I don’t speak their language.   I have also been refused service in some places (only three times in 6 weeks) – but the negatives are all things I have observed Australians doing to new migrants too. It’s not behaviour isolated to any one language or country.

I have worked in highly cross-cultural contexts for over 15 years now. I don’t mean an office where you have people from different nationalities – I mean in contexts where cross-cultural communication is the purpose of the work. So when I listen to Australians complain about “multiculturalism” or engaging in prejudicial conversations about “us and them” in regard to language I am always a bit perplexed.

Prejudice – comes from “pre” and “judge”. Surely we are grown up enough to know that to judge something we have very limited understanding of is very childlike behaviour? I can guess (but not predict fully) some things before I experience them, but last time I checked my crystal ball was all out of batteries.

It’s everywhere you go and sadly is one of humanities nastiest piece of baggage, but still some people like to lug it with them despite what it does to their souls and their interactions in the world.

I stand out here. Not just a little, but a lot.   There are about 500 – 1500 (it varies) foreigners in a city of 4.4 million here. I’m doing my best to be me and blend in as best I can. I am learning from my Chinese friends and colleagues and take their advice about how to best do this.

I regularly get stares, pointed at and spoken to in very odd ways. Some people shout at me and use very overt hand signals because they assume I am stupid as well as non-Mandarin speaking. This is much like I have seen Australians do to new migrants as much as many deny it happens – it very much does.  For some people I can’t learn Mandarin quickly enough and they make that known. Again, it’s reminiscent of some Australians I have encountered when they deal with non-English speakers.

Notably many of these people have never migrated or learned enough of another language to even remotely justify their arrogance – that is something that I have found universal about people who actively practice prejudicial behaviour.   However it’s not ignorance in many instances, it’s a choice and people use it as a way to gain tactical advantages in their lives rather than actively engage with “others”.   If that sounds judgemental I apologise, but there is a vast array of behavioural studies done on this – I’m not just being a bitch!

In the face of nice and not-so-nice behaviour towards me – I do my best to be pleasant and kind to all, and I often find that the barriers fall away when I encounter people more than a couple of times.

I have had some beautiful experiences here in the majority.   This confirms my belief that prejudicial behaviour is a choice not a given.

Now some of us humans just seem to want claim a mono-lingual superiority that does not and has not ever really existed. In fact we are poorer intellectually and socially for only having only one language – and the behaviour of “taking the piss out of” another language and culture is symptomatic of that.

There are over 6000 living languages in the world – time to “get over” the “they really should speak <name of language>” thinking. Let’s just, instead, acknowledge that people speak language.

Here are three of the prejudicial thoughts I have observed in all countries I have been to in relation to new migrants and their language ability (and now I can speak with some authority on this as I have experienced it as well):

  1. If they can’t speak <name of language> they shouldn’t come here.   Yes, it would be ideal if people were fluent first, but this is a highly unrealistic expectation and people learn best when immersed in the new language. Sometimes their reasons for coming here may not require fluency, but skills other than fluency. There may not be time to be fluent first. But don’t assume they cannot understand you or that they don’t have a reasonable level of fluency. They will probably be able to understand most of what you are saying but may be nervous about replying. No manner of practice in their home country of the new language will prepare them for the reality and sometimes they will freeze or be nervous when speaking to you – so cut them some slack. They may have experienced being laughed at or even abused for having an accent or mispronouncing a word. In short, if you are an asshole they will respond by avoiding you or not speaking to you and the cycle of misunderstanding continues.
  2. They don’t respect us; they need to learn our language and not speak their own.   Yes they need to learn your language and they most probably are. But it’s not a fast process necessarily and believe it or not they may feel “lost” in your language world. It will be a daily struggle to even shop at first. They will have to speak their own language to manage a relative level of sanity and to be able to make decisions coherently. So unless you are going to hold their hand and translate everything with your own superior multi-lingual ability don’t expect them to. Again if the shoe was on the other foot and you were them, you would feel very differently.   Again, try not being an asshole about it and see how much more they speak to you in your language and how much quicker they learn.  Don’t criticise people for buying products they are familiar with from their home country, if you can’t be sure what you are eating – you wouldn’t eat it either, would you? Again it takes time and people will gradually use the products of the country they reside in now once they have experienced them. Show people and be proud of your culture rather than be a judgemental pain in the ass, after all, Vegemite is acquired taste! It’s not about disrespect, it’s about misunderstanding.
  3. If they can’t be bothered learning <naming of language> then I won’t help them. Wow! Again – read #1 and #2 above. Don’t speak about linguistically lazy behaviour and then practice it yourself. If you only speak one language don’t give me or anyone else this poor justification for nasty self-absorbed arrogance. Try not to be an asshole – it really does work wonders! Unless you carry the rare retro-active “I’m an asshole” gene and have a certificate to prove it – try something else for a change.

The world is a big place and if history has shown us anything, it’s that everything can change rapidly and we, as individuals, might not have much control over that. When Australians fear invasion so much they invade their own psyche with hatred and prejudice that only hurts themselves; a vicious cycle of provincial isolationism continues. The fact is the big island continent of Australia had 250 Indigenous languages and 650 dialects when the British clambered out onto its shores.   It had Muslim visitors and influences from Indonesia prior to that. It had had visitors from Portugal and Spain and other merchant and exploratory fleets.

No one and nowhere is really an island and when I think of the current rubbish going on in Australia in regard to multicultural thinking I have but one reply. Get over it and try being the friendly, welcoming country that we can all be proud of.

Countries and borders and national allegiances can shift, they are but human made. One day you just might find yourself in a foreign land just doing your best to do a good job at work, learn a new language and culture.  This may be something you have a choice in, it may not be.

I don’t know about you, but I would rather choose to help someone learn my language and culture than to belittle them for their culture and for not knowing mine.  We can’t possibly be expected to know what we do not know. We have to learn it.

Must we resort to belittling those learning our language and culture for the sake of our own fragile egos? I think not and I am a happier human being for it.   I’d rather learn from and respect other human culture than allege superiority.  My experiences in the world have been immensely richer since I made that choice.

Truth, Beauty, Love

“Love not me for comely grace”

LOVE not me for comely grace,

For my pleasing eye or face,

Nor for any outward part,

No, nor for my constant heart,—

For those may fail, or turn to ill,

So thou and I shall sever:

Keep therefore a true woman’s eye,

And love me still, but know not why—

So hast thou the same reason still

To doat upon me ever!

Attributed to an anonymous author, from Francis T. Palgrave, ed. (1824–1897). The Golden Treasury. 1875.

This poem sums up how I feel about “truth, beauty, love”. Culture shock has several stages and I have just been through the difficult bit (hopefully over now). But one of the things I have found that has impacted upon me emotionally is the prospect of being alone (in a romantic sense) here. Whilst I came here with no romantic expectations (in fact the opposite); I’ll admit to giving consideration to romantic loneliness more than I expected. I am rather determined to stay single. However the fact is that I can see myself here for several years and that point of view might change in that time. So it’s no lie that it has crossed my mind.

It’s no secret that China, for western women, is a lonely place.   This article sums up the many I have read and the stories of other female ex-pats I have met.   For me, I have done the marriage and children and post-divorce flings and it’s all a bit dull anyway. So I am not in the category of this lady as she is much younger than me. I’m also okay with the issues that Nikki raises and it is written rather negatively about all men here – which are views that I will reject because of that negativity. But Nikki’s story has helped me make the decision to stay regardless of what might or might not happen in terms of male companionship. This is, in part, because I am not afraid to be alone and I enjoy being on my own, but also because I am in a different phase of my life now.

But what I really want to talk about is perceptions of beauty. 11080925_10153218863641810_1031841793036245657_nBecause Nikki’s experience here is going to be much different to mine for another reason; she’s blonde and represents the epitome of western beauty as far as Chinese thinking is concerned.

I have been told by many people here that the model of western beauty here is the Scarlett Johansen or Gwyneth Paltrow version. Tall, leggy, lean and blonde and blue-eyed. I’m short, athletic (read chunky), brunette and green-eyed.

10806315_10153178558151810_347125018375164162_nThat’s okay and its okay that I don’t meet that model. I have no confidence issues with my appearance (normal niggles like anyone) and I’m beyond being worried about what other people think of my appearance.

I have been told I am beautiful here more in four weeks than I have in many years. That I am largely unaffected or somewhat embarrassed by that is found unusual.  I am happy with who I am – I don’t need someone to tell me I’m beautiful.  I always say thank you – but I am quick to offer them the same compliment and I mean it – we are all beautiful.

But what has struck me is how beauty is defined here. Many young Chinese women have commented to me that they don’t think Chinese women are beautiful.

I think all people are beautiful. But also in terms of beauty “proper” for want of a better description – they are simply magnificent to my eyes, the diversity of human appearance is beauty.

I sometimes feel, in all honesty, like an ugly duckling here in some senses. But the feelings are fleeting and more related to the many looks and stares I get just by being different.  Doesn’t bother me per se, but it’s noticeable and coupled with recent changes in my emotions has felt unusual.  But  I am more surprised by the attitudes of the Chinese women I have met towards their own cultural self-image than how I am perceived.

What I want to say to every woman reading this is really quite simple.

“Beauty” (as defined as its outward manifestation and how it’s perceived), should be classified like an emotional state:

  • It is dependent on so many things other than any real measurable factor.
  • It will pass. I don’t mean that you will age and lose your beauty; I mean that depending on where you are, what the culture is and what the expectations are – you will be beautiful one moment and not the next.

So…honour your own integral internal and external beauty that is not dependent on the views of any given society, culture or context.

You are beautiful.

Tomb Sweeping and Memories of those we miss…

In a world filled with opinion and the range of information available to us now, how is it that we can still get each other so very wrong? This past week would have been my late father’s 92nd birthday.

This post is about the nature of memory; particularly how we remember those who have passed away. It’s also in honour of the Chinese festival Qingming from the 4 – 6th April; the tomb sweeping festival – where people make efforts to remember their ancestors.

Jack Brady was a WWII veteran from service in the northern parts of Australia (Darwin and FNQ) and Papua New Guinea. He also worked for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) throughout the Northern Territory in Australia. He was one of the last lighthouse mechanics in the Australian Lighthouse service – travelling to locations around Australia with remote lighthouses before they were fully automated in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Before an early retirement for health reasons he led a most interesting and somewhat adventurous life.


He had ischemic heart disease and was retired with a veteran’s pension plus his own superannuation when he was around 50 and went on to live on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland. He boated and fished and had numerous medical interventions before his death at 79 in 2002. He was an amazing man with a thirst for knowledge about the world and a huge interest in people. I am here in China for a few reasons, but a significant one is because of my father’s legacy and shared interest in Chinese culture.

How we remember our loved ones when they are no longer here and sometimes how there are many, apparently different, but not irreconcilable views:

  1. My father’s words. There is so much more that I understand now about my conversations with my father that I did not understand years ago. What is sad is that he is no longer here with us to be able to ring him up and say “hey Dad, remember this? You were so right!” One of those conversations was about the Chinese people he remembered working with and growing up around in Melbourne in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He was fascinated by Chinese culture and really wanted to come here. One of the things was that he, himself, loved being in his pyjamas and he used to say that Chinese people liked to wear them out. He used to joke with me that he belonged in China because there were days he didn’t want to get out of them. I used to laugh at him and think this was a stereotype. I was wrong. Daily I see people out in the street in their pyjamas and it’s just acceptable. Not in huge numbers but it’s noticeable. I am not about to say what this means, it just is how it is.
  2. Ideas about who said what. This relates a little bit to the above. My childhood was filled with crises about my father’s health. My mother and I have come to an understanding that we have very different views about the years between when my father retired and when he died. My mother firmly believes he was happy to retire and did not miss working life at all. My memories are that he missed the lighthouse service and his work out in remote areas of Australia. I think the reality is that it’s both. I also think that he told me information that he knew he could tell me and not upset me and vice versa to my mother. I think that there were days he hated being ill and retired, despite getting to travel and fish and do things in people’s workshops for fun and to keep his skills up. I think there were days he did not miss working and lighthouses and engineering workshops at all. I think our lives are a mix of emotions and feelings and that most definitely all of us will have regrets and moments we are extremely proud of. I do know one thing; he wanted me to follow my adventurous spirit that I inherited from him and do interesting things in the world like I currently am. I shall walk the Great Wall in his honour.
  3. “If only we knew then what we know now” in regard to heart disease research or “everything old is new again”. Medical science doesn’t have all the answers, but a good attitude, diet and exercise are paramount; regardless of what we think we do or do not know. The experts are not god, we are the masters of our own lives if we choose to be. My father lived to an age not expected given his heart condition. When I was born in 1970 he 47 and had a massive coronary when I was just ten days old. My mother struggled with the reality that she could lose the man she loved. She is twenty years his junior and doted on him completely.   She still to this day says how angry she is for him “leaving” her (she is referring to his death).  They stood by each other and had what most people refer to as a “fairy-tale” marriage.  But it was far from a fairy-tale, but a genuine story about how love  heals.   He was put through hell by medical science, often in the name of his health, seemingly life-saving, but a lot of it unnecessary, painful and intrusive. Again my mother and I agree to disagree on some of this – but she and I agree that the understandings about heart disease then and now were very different. For example they told heart attack survivors to not exercise; now we know getting back to exercise is very important and would have prevented a lot of surgical interventions that my father endured. I feel that if we had known that; he would have been prevented a large amount of pain and discomfort caused by severe medical interventions.  Mum feels “you do whatever it takes”. My view on “whatever it takes” is exercise and diet first and foremost; Mum sees it a bit differently, but we are both right. Again I think it’s about perspective.

11129711_10153216834156810_975965424_nMy Mum just wanted Dad to stay present  as priority and I wanted him to be in less pain as a priority – but we both fought hard for both to be achieved through to his death. It was me that invoked the living will for Dad to be able to go home and die (at his request). He entrusted me with this because he knew Mum would not be able to let go and that was the nature of their relationship.  But both my mother and I had different, but still complimentary roles in his life.

Western medical science is now giving huge weight to exercise and diet in regard to the treatment of heart disease, a value that they didn’t attribute in 1970. The balance is that Dad, in my opinion, only exceeded the expectations for his longevity because of his desire to stay alive as long as possible.

My Dad’s fighting spirit, compassion for others and longevity despite chronic illness are amongst my strongest memories of him. Medical science had a part in that, but he astounded Doctors over and over; the reason for that was his attitude.   On that my mother and I most certainly agree. The irony is that in China, heart disease is nowhere as prolific as it is in western culture – and people are much more physically active and tend to have better diets.  That this prevents and assists heart health is considered old knowledge not new.

Everything old is new again, no one is ever truly gone to us, they live on – in our memories, our thoughts and our actions.