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.

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