Alien Tongues, Brilliant Minds

One year ago, during one of my tutorial classes, I met a classmate from China, J, who was on exchange in Singapore then. The professor split all of us up into small groups to discuss answers for the tutorial questions. J ended up in the same discussion group as me.

As soon as we settled into our groups, J began flipping through his stack of assigned readings which were filled with boundless highlights, underlines and scribbles. He also brought along two pieces of foolscap paper, in which the answers to the tutorial questions had already been written down neatly.

Peculiarly, even though he had evidently prepared for the questions, he did not speak much during our discussion at all. When he did, he always stumbled over his words, and we always end up finishing all his sentences, or worse, making up new sentences for him.

To be very honest, in a curious way, I had felt a inexplicable sense of superiority over him there and then. That was despite the fact that I knew I had come to class half as prepared as he was. I was leading the discussion; I was expressing (his) ideas to the group confidently; I was speaking fluently in English.

After the tutorial, we chatted a little, and I found out surprisingly that he came from Fudan University, the university that I was about to go for student exchange the following semester! We exchanged contacts excitedly, and headed off to our next classes.

Fast forward one semester later, I realised that not only was I in the same university as him, we were taking the same course too. That course required us to do a group project, and J was kind enough to approach me to join his project group, considering that I did not know anyone there, and that local students tend not to group with students on exchange for fear that they will slack off.

On my way to our first meeting, I remember being rather nervous. I had done some research prior to the meeting, and I wished I would come off as helpful during the meeting – just not some slacker on exchange basically.

Upon the arrival of other group mates, J enthusiastically introduced me to them as “the new singaporean exchanger in school”. As we started our meeting, there were two things that struck me immediately. First, J was clearly the unofficial leader of the group. He shared with us the outline of the project that he had in mind, and asked for our opinions. He was SO confident, so in control, so different from the person I had known in the classroom just one semester ago.

Second, amidst streams of Chinese sociology terminologies, I was clearly … lost. Sure, J made the effort to pause time to time to explain what the terms meant to me, but I felt a little more embarrassed than comforted because I felt that I was wasting my group mates’ time. I later tried to express my project ideas to them in choppy Singaporean Chinese, and was not the least surprised that none of my ideas were adopted eventually.

I left the meeting feeling extremely shi*ty about myself.

That module was my hardest module that semester in Fudan University. I spent a lot of time in class getting awed at just how brilliant my classmates were, and getting upset at just how inferior I was to them. I spent a week ploughing through Chinese articles for our project, and only managed to churn out a page or two out of our twelve page report.

In spite of all of that, I must say that this experience was such a humbling one. The stark contrast between the sense of superiority I had felt back home and the sense of inferiority I had felt in a foreign land taught me this – to never judge the mind of a person by his or her language (or the lack thereof).

In my Cultural Anthropology class, we learnt that language is an integral part of one’s cultural capital. It signifies your class and group membership. As a result, we often mistake one’s inadequacy in language for one’s stupidity (sorry for the lack of a better word), and one’s proficiency in language for one’s brilliance.

For example, in the case of foreign workers in Singapore, many would perceive them as less educated, or worse – less than human – simply because they engage in low-paying jobs and speak a language foreign to us. But upon befriending these workers, I realised that their views are much deeper and more profound than I can ever imagine. Some would speak of politics back home in Bangladesh and others would share about their pursuit of further studies in Singapore.

So, I don’t know if intelligence can be objectively measured, but I sure do know that the perception of one’s intelligence is relative, subjective, and perhaps even constructed. You can totally be a genius in one culture, and be an absolute idiot in another.

There is a time, a place, and most importantly, a culture for everyone to shine. And none of us have the right to judge anyone (or ourselves) just when and where that may be.

Advertisements

Farewell Letters

Friends would know what a fanatic I am for letters, especially farewell letters. But some goodbyes are harder than others. So here’s a song I’ve written, dedicated to every mate I’ve met in my 5 months in China.

Also, first collab with a friend whose ukulele cover of一期一会 ( Ichigo Ichie, or “one opportunity, one encounter”) laid the seed of inspiration for this song 

上海 | 无锡 | 张家界 | 北京 | 桂林 | 南京 | 四川 | 云南

I predict that I’ll be back in China v v soon. 😥

Lyrics: 

Days fluttered by
Sprinkled with a taste of blue
Spring came on by
And it left without a clue

We jumped at every opportunity to
See the world as it is
Its beauty and the not-so-pretty scenes
Fill us all with endless glee

But as quick as the wither of the flowers,
Our time for the ground has arrived
So we packed our bags up for our very last ride

I’d send my goodbyes in a letter to you,
In a letter to you, my friend
And I’d send my goodbyes in a letter to you,
In a letter to you, my friend

Words flickered on
Empty pages of the book
They can’t seem to bear
The weight of ink-soaked memories

(pre chorus)

(chorus)

Ooooh

Years will pass and we’ll meet again
Years will pass and we’ll meet again

Treat People as Humans, not Specimens

Today, I decided to head to Shanghai’s People’s Park (人民公园) for a fieldwork for my Marriage and Family module. People’s Park is renowned for its marriage market, where distressed parents put up qualities of their unwed children, in hopes of finding their children suitable partners for marriage. I couldn’t decide on a topic for my final paper, so I thought I’d find some inspiration there.

With my DSLR slung on my neck, and a notebook and a pen in my bag, I was ready to hit the busy crowd of People’s Park. Upon arrival, a swarm of sociologically interesting sights and scenes overwhelmed me – the sheer number of elderly “promoting” their children, their conversations with one another, the umbrellas with the children’s qualifications and the parents’ expectations of their partners attached to them and more. I began snapping away. Ah, an old lady looking for a partner for her child even when she’s wheel chair bound? Take the photo quick. It’d make an interesting photograph (with a story that is).

“小妹!(Miss!), ” someone called out to me. I turned behind, slightly surprised to find an old lady who asked me, “你拍这些照是干什么的?你是记者吗? (Why are you taking these photos? Are you a journalist?)” I thought she looked kind of hostile, probably because she thought I was another journalist, trying to dig some news about unique Chinese traditions, and taking street photos of these elderly without permission. I immediately diffused the tension with an awkward smile, explaining that I’m an exchange student from Singapore who’s just here out of curiosity. To my relief, she let her guards down, and even started chatting with me about her situation, why she was worried that her daughter would not find a partner, the imbalanced gender ratio in China and more. Later, this conversation led to the next, as I spoke to her friend next to her as well.

Not bad, I thought, this fieldwork research was progressing better than I had expected. I had felt rather jittery before coming here, because nothing scares me more than having to approach strangers, and attempting to make conversations that are hopefully sociologically valuable. But there I was, having found someone who resembled the “Doc” in a sociology classic, Street Corner Society. For the benefit of non-sociology readers, this means having found someone who is willing and able to help you infiltrate into a group that you are studying. This is perhaps one of the most crucial steps for a sociologist during fieldwork – to become an insider instead of an outsider.

2 interviewees down. I reviewed the information I received again, and figured that while the old lady and her friend provided me useful details, their circumstances were too similar. I need variety in this sample. So thereafter, I took another stroll around People’s Park. Then, I saw an old man who is advertising for his daughter and son, which was rare since most people in their generation only had one child due to the one child policy. I saw elderly advertising for their children who are studying or working overseas. I also saw a 40 year-old lady advertising for herself, plausibly the only one in the marriage market thus far.

Good. Let me talk to all 3 then. That’ll make the number of interviewees 5. Whole numbers sound good to me anyway. So, having tasted a few successes with my previous “interviewees”, I approached the lady advertising for herself next, with more confidence than I had initially.

“你好勇敢哦。你是我在这里看到的,第一个为自己找伴侣的。(You’re so brave. You are the first person I’ve seen here, who is finding a partner for yourself.)”

She let out an awkward smile.

I started to worry a little. She reacted to my comment, but did not say anything after that. How should I continue this conversation?

“你在这里多久了?(How long have you been here?)”I asked. I considered it quite a basic question to ask, since I had asked the same question to the old lady and her friend before, and this question opened them up to sharing just how worried they are about their children, because they had tried so long but to no avail.

“有一段时间了。(It has been some time.)” This answer left me dissatisfied. ‘Some time’ is too vague. For the research to be more significant, more specific answers are needed.

I knew for a fact that the conversation was going nowhere. She was not open in sharing more information. Was it because she did not trust me, considering that I was just a random stranger? At this point of time, I panicked. It’s a bad habit of mine to slur my words when I feel that I have lost control in a conversation, and especially when I feel that the other party distrusts me or does not feel comfortable around me.

“其实,其实我是个学生。因为好奇,才来这里看看的…… 嗯,我是读社会学的。所以对婚姻与家庭比较感兴趣。(Actually, actually, I’m a student. I’m here only out of curiosity… Erm, I study sociology, so I’m rather interested in issues of marriage and family,)” I explained, as if to justify the slew of questions that might have seemed strange to her.

She simply nodded her head. I immediately knew that I was fighting a losing battle here. Should I let the conversation end? But she’s the only person advertising for herself at People’s Park here. Since it is so rare, I have to put this in my findings. I just have to. How many weeks, days, or months has she been here? Has she tried finding a marriage partner through dating apps instead? Aren’t the chances of finding a marriage partner here much smaller? Why is she still here then? Why is it her but not her parents who are here? I still have so many questions left unanswered. I can’t just stop the conversation here.

I decided to try again, “你想要来这里是你自己的意思吗?还是父母要你来的?你的父母会担心 –?(Did you come here on your own accord? Or were you pressurised by your parents? Are your parents worried – ?)”

She cut me off – not rudely – and said, “你能不能不要问了呀,你问了我心里很难受。(Do you mind if you stopped asking me questions? It is making me feel very upset.)

That was clearly the last straw for her. I halted, expressed my apologies hastily, and walked away.

I couldn’t quite remember where I headed to after that, except that I ended up finding on a rock in the middle of nowhere in the park, and sat there sobbing uncontrollably for god knows how long.

‘WTF were you thinking?’ I asked myself again and again. A pang of guilt hit me real hard, because I suddenly realised how hurtful my questions must have been to her for her to let out such a begging request. What’s worse was that I had not even realised it prior to her stopping me.

It had to take this much for me to start empathising with her. Now, imagine for a moment that you’re unmarried at the age of 40. That’s notwithstanding the fact that you are a female in a culture where women are expected to wed before the age of 30. Here you are at People’s Park, having mustered all your courage to find a partner for yourself. Most people here are desperate parents, and you stick out like a sore thumb. Streams of people walk by, evaluating you from your job, your educational qualifications, your hukou status to your height, your weight, your face… basically everything. You don’t quite like that, but you do it anyway not just because you “have time to spare” but because you buy in the idea that time is running out for you as a woman. Single children are often unhappy when their parents advertise for them. You are different though. You don’t mind it that much. In fact, you choose to find a partner by yourself. Because the one thing that you want more than anything else is to be – happy. The thing is, you have been doing this every week for weeks and months now and still, nothing much has changed.

One day, out of the blue, a wide-eyed student approaches you, and commends you for being brave. Should you take that as compliment or mockery? She asks you, “How long have you been here?” Should you tell her you have been here for months and still nobody wants you? She tells you that she’s a sociology major. So she’s speaking to you now because…? Because you’re not ‘normal’ like everyone else in society? How should you feel about that? She asks you why you are here. Is that even a question? If you were happily married like most women of your age, is there a need to be here at all? And the worst of them all – she asks persistently, with an irksome oblivion of the luxury of time she has as a lady right in the dawn of her youth. How small must you have seemed to her?

I imagined how hurt I would have felt had I been in her shoes, and these thoughts crushed me. It might sound a tad too dramatic, but it is close to, or I can say, downright unethical to exploit someone’s pain just for the sake of “research”, not to mention in such an insensitive and crude way. The whole time, I was so caught up with fulfilling my interviewee count and quenching my thirst for answers to “important” questions, that I overlooked the most important but taken for granted fact that here in front of me is a living breathing being with a personal history unbeknownst to anyone but herself.

When I eventually calmed myself down, I tried making up to her the only way I knew how to, which was to write. I took out a piece of paper, wrote her a letter expressing my sincerest apologies, and had just enough courage to hand it to her. I had always known spoken language to be my nemesis, but I had wished then that my written language could heal in someway or another.

Never embarrass your respondent; your respondent is your priority; talk through sensitive topics empathetically so that your respondent will be open to sharing more, my teachers say. Yet, no amount of lessons can prepare anyone for the real deal. I won’t deny that today made me seriously doubt if I can ever do qualitative research work or journalism or just about anything that requires me to speak to people a lot in the future. That to me is quite very tragic because as much as I desire to connect with people and understand the intricacies that come with them, I unfortunately lack the means to do so. I’m not new to this realisation that has gnawed at me for years and years now, but that’s a topic for another day. Conversing with grace, and above all, tenderness, is an art that I might very well never master, but I’d gladly take today’s encounter as a lesson anyway.