Shanghai: Language as a Party Trick

Matthew Gibson
Learning a language is one thing — but immersing yourself in that culture teaches you a lot more than just words.

In the past, whenever I interacted with individuals who struggled to communicate in English, I had the subconscious sense that they were lesser than I. I never treated someone who could not speak English any differently, but I cannot deny that I have always doubted how much those people understood.

It once seemed that mastery of language has always been my strongest indicator of intelligence. As grew older, lived in different places and studied another language, I learned that there is no validity in my assessment. I cannot say why I thought this way, but I am working diligently to overcome this personal bias.

I was thrilled when I started learning Mandarin Chinese at NYU. However, I will be the first to admit that my excitement came from the prospect of being different. The rarity of Caucasian-Americans who are able to speak Chinese made it enticing, and I relished explaining to people that I was learning the language. Often, I would be asked, “Say something in Chinese!” and I would proudly respond with something very basic, lacking proper pronunciation or use of any tones whatsoever. For me, speaking Chinese was a party trick. I was a hypocrite. I considered myself very clever to choose such an intricate language, yet I was so quick to overlook those who were learning my own.

Over time, as I learned more about the language, people, culture and traditions of China, my respect grew. I began to become uncomfortable telling people that I was learning Chinese, and if asked to demonstrate my knowledge of the language, I would decline. What I have realized is that all languages are sophisticated and complicated. How well you know them has no reflection on your ability or worth. More than a billion people have learned Mandarin Chinese natively, and many of them also speak other Chinese dialects or other languages including English — widely believed to be one of the most difficult languages to learn. I began to ask myself why I thought I was special because I decided to study Mandarin.

In Shanghai, I feel proud and confident in my study of Mandarin, because it is a way of showing respect to my new community. Despite four days of classes, two quizzes and a test each week, I love learning Mandarin. My excitement for Mandarin no longer stems from being unique, but instead from the opportunity to meet and engage with an incredible number of people. Each day while traveling in Shanghai, I am excited by the use of local language because it is an exciting first step to engaging with my new community.

I exclusively practice my Mandarin with native speakers. I am often told that my Mandarin is very good, and while I am flattered, I know that it is not true and I wonder why native speakers delight in telling me so. A close friend of mine, who regularly tolerates my bumbling Mandarin, explained that Chinese people themselves know how difficult the language can be to learn and are excited when other people want to learn it as well. I am reminded that I, too, should exercise patience and understanding as others try to do what has always simply come naturally to me.

Email Matthew Gibson at [email protected]



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