“Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
China is a mystery protected by some of the best secret keepers in the world. The Chinese people have been mistreated by their own leaders for millennia and by foreign powers for centuries and often come across rather guarded, and rightfully so. In a city where we have seen only one other foreigner, and with our spoken Chinese at a level somewhere between infant and toddler, it is easy to feel alone and different. Everywhere we go we are met with stares. Cars slow down or stop directly in front of us as we try to cross the street or while we are waiting at the bus stop. We have been the cause of at least one near accident.
Isolated sideshows in the most populous nation in the world.
It is now more than ever that I begin to realize all of the things that I take for granted at home: anonymity, for one, and grocery shopping with a car. In the mornings I miss good coffee and in the hot afternoons and cooling evenings I long for a beer that has had some thought put into it. However, over the last few weeks I began noticing a frustration in me whenever I was out that I could not name. Less a craving and more a deficiency, like being in a room with too many people and suddenly noticing how forced your breathing is or how suddenly essential a few extra feet around you becomes. It was at the same time frustrating and depressing—that point in your thinking when you’ve reasoned yourself into non-existence and realize you’ve forgotten to leave the breadcrumb trail back out.
Then last night I had a dream. The stranger a dream is, and the longer it is, the more I question my diet and whether or not staying up until four in the morning to watch the World Cup is really necessary. The closer it is to reality, and the duller it is, the more I question what I am (or am not) filling my brain with. This fell under the latter category. In my dream I was sitting in a room that was (in true dream fashion) both the fireplace room at Papa Joe’s where I used to work and Dawson Taylor, the coffee shop I frequented back home. Subtract all of the non sequitur nuances and remove the chiaroscuro fisheye lens of dreams. I simply sat and listened. I not only heard, but processed conversations around me—a healthy dream-mix of nonsense and inane banter. Someone gave a speech. Someone else cried. The lasting impression, though, was the sound of it all, the familiar expressions and cadences, the rise and fall, the seamless transition from sound waves to meaning.
It wasn’t until I began writing today that I remembered the dream and the feeling of it. I was content. And not just that—I was inspired. In all of the new experiences here, all of the small victories and the comedy of it all, I have felt more exhaustion than inspiration. Then a dream barely worth remembering, much less mentioning, comes along and I feel suddenly recharged, the deficiency gone, or at least staved off for a while.
Though I miss them, I don’t know if I really took coffee or beer for granted as much as the availability of such things. There were days when they were simply the means to an end, but I have never had much difficulty taking pleasure in small things, tangible things. But language, understanding and being understood, or simply sitting in the middle of a dozen different conversations and getting some strange buzz off of it or letting it roll over and break on me like waves, this I miss, this I had unknowingly devalued.
Language not only allows us to interact with the world, but determines what form that interaction takes. As Henry Michaux says in his poem-essay, Ideograms in China: “Every language is a parallel universe.” It erringly describes our world, but is also a world of its own. Chinese is a mystery. Learning and decoding it is an adventure. English is familiar. It is home. It is the small town and the open road. But it also is an adventure, for every small town has its secrets and a road is never the same twice. As I knew would happen, now outside of America, I can appreciate it again. Without the luxury of understanding in my day to day, I have come to see more clearly the inadequacy of language but also the beauty of it, and the beauty in English, a language so different from Chinese, with such wonderful variation in its word length and sounds, and above all, a language the strength of which lies in its flaws, making it that much more malleable, like so much putty in the hand.