When Language Meets Culture

March 3, 2017
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“I didn’t know that you were so mean!” the 8-year-old suddenly turned around and yelled out with an angry voice. She was only at my chin, and had to lift her head up to look at me. Her knuckles turned white as she tried to hold her hands down at her thighs. Her cheeks burned red from either the blazing wind or the violent fire of rage pushing to escape from the lids of those dark blue eyes. I stood steps away from her, filled with confusion and surprise. My cheeks also burned, not from rage, but from embarrassment caused by all those pairs of accusing eyes on me. I was 10, and this was the day that I truly understood the power of culture to twist the meanings of language, and our understanding of others around us.

It was the late summer of 2011 when I first went to camp in America. Being the only Chinese at the camp and having only joined towards the end of the season, I was, as expected, left out. Waving goodbye to my mother, I sat down by the edge of the walls of the indoor-gym, trying my best to make myself unnoticed. “As we all know, it is this camp’s tradition to end the summer with a fair!”, said a blond middle-age woman with great enthusiasm as everyone quieted down, “and now it is time we shall start planning for it, aren’t you all excited?” On that cue, everyone, except me, who was confused and did not know what was going on, started cheering. “So, as always,” the tutor continued, “we’ll split you into groups, and the eldest member of the group will be the group leader. You will work together to create attractive booth and at the end of the fair we’ll compare and see which booth is the most attractive.” “ Also in case you have forgotten,” she reminded, “everyone will get 5 tickets, and you will use these tickets to play at the different booths. Now, if there are no more questions, let me split you in your groups so you can start planning.”

When, with some effort, we finally got down into our groups, I unfortunately found out that I was the oldest member of my group. This meant I was going to have to oversee a group of unfamiliar people, and organize an unfamiliar activity. Being extremely uncomfortable with the role, I tried to make this process go as fast as possible. I jumped straight into the topic about how to build our booth without even bothering to learn my group member’s names.

Soon, came the day of the fair, and it seemed like the whole camp was filled with the air of joy and energy. Kids hurried to set up their booth, and tutors moved around to keep the order and give help when necessary. I was probably the only one who felt like that I had a duty to fulfill, checking with the other kids in my group multiple times to make sure that they remembered their shift.

All things went well at first; the kids played and had fun, and we had received lots of tickets at our booth. However, things changed when this little blond girl from our group came and took some of the tickets that our booth earned, and decided to use them for herself. She did it like it was something natural, like it was her right to use those tickets: pulling them out of the paper bag and pushing them into her pocket, then walking directly away while being aware that I was watching her every move. The anger built up quick in my eyes. To my understanding of the tutor’s directions, we were competing to which group can build the most attractive booth. And since you must give a ticket to play at a certain both, the competition should be judged on how many tickets each booth had gain throughout the day. This eight-year-old girl had been playing while I was trying to attract people to our booth. How could she take our tickets without my consent! I thought that I was angry and had to the right to be. Still, I did keep my cool, and asked her politely to return the tickets. Also, to make sure that she would not take them again, I shoved all the tickets in my pocket, and then returned to work. Before I left, I took no more notice of the little girl’s emotions. Maybe if I had, things would have turned out differently.

Throughout the rest of the fair I received all kinds of wield looks that made me feel uneasy. However, I was not in a good mood and just wanted to go home; so, I put all that uneasiness to my own sensitivity. But the blond girl’s words woke me up. Only then did I began to realize that people were starting to go home. This was literally the end of camp! There was going to be no judging on which booth got the most tickets, and the whole thing about “compare and see which booth is the most attractive” was just the teacher’s encouragement to get the children to be creative and work on their booth! Therefore, the tickets were supposed to be used, and my act of putting all the tickets in my pocket seemed to the other kids like that I was keeping all the tickets for myself. What’s worse, me “politely asking” for the tickets from this little girl seemed just like an older girl bulling a younger one! What an embarrassment! As soon as I figured the situation out, I felt like that I was standing on a boiling sea of oil, and my only refuge was to get out of this place as soon as possible, and never look back again!

It was years later when I looked back at the event and think about what really landed me in such a messy situation. I realized that the answer was simple----arrogance, arrogance in my own understanding of language leading to the lack of communication. I didn’t ask what the teacher meant because I simply assumed that I understood the tutor’s instructions correctly. I did not consider the possibility that perhaps the same words would mean something totally different to a group of students with Chinese background than to a group of students with American background. The instinct of competition is deep buried inside the Chinese culture. It is in our blood to see who is better, and therefore we take the words “we’ll compare and see which booth is the most attractive” more seriously than most people. In fact, I understood it as the most important part of the fair. But Americans saw the phrase as a kind of encouragement, and the purpose of this fair, like all other fairs, was for fun.

Culture influences the way we see the world around us. It influences the way we understand the purpose of actions, people, and even words. From my embarrassing experience as a child, I realized that we should communicate more with others to assure that we understand situations clearly, especially with people from different cultures. It is impossible to know when your cultural common sense will cheat you.

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