Before coming to China, I had zero skills in Mandarin.
Z. E. R. O.
In New Zealand I was still riding the high from purchasing plane tickets, packing, and all round “adventure time!” I “knew” from the history books English was a powerful language worldwide, and the school I would be working at was very famous in the city for language development, so I thought, “hey this is neat, communication will be pretty stress-less, English is everywhere!”
In the first month I had three major breakdowns, all of them including language barriers.
Now I’ll stop here before you think ‘oh god I haven’t learnt anything either’ and say this post is not meant to dissuade you from moving and working in a non-English speaking country. Rather I want to tell you the most valuable word I keep close at hand (head?) whenever things start to feel out of control or above my understanding.
(Hands up, who thought the word was going to be ‘change’?)
To adjust is to adapt or become used to a new situation.
Now for two short lists.
1. Things I quickly found different between China and New Zealand –
How being polite really works.
The amount of oil that is actually necessary for a human body.
The definition of hygiene.
Life in every sense I had come to know.
2. Things I needed to adjust –
Once I adjusted my mindset, and consciously set my course to the land of ‘Culture Shock’, life became a whole new world again, as I started to train my brain to become bilingual. It was exciting to finally understand what the taxi drivers were asking me. It was exciting to learn that ‘careful’ translates to ‘small heart’ (which I find adorable). It was exciting to receive praise from my wonderful friend Lisa (a veteran in Mandarin, and someone who will be featuring a lot in posts to come) when I could figure out something obscure like ‘self help bank’ is ATM.
The adjustments will stretch further than the language. You realise that you don’t travel to experience what you know dressed up in faces you don’t. You travel to experience what you don’t know, dressed in the faces you’ve never seen. Now, you don’t have to let go of every ‘home ideology’ and change completely, but you will have to give up some areas of what ‘normality’ means to you. Yes, it will be difficult, possibly the most difficult adjustment you could ever put yourself through. But after releasing some of the ‘old’ the ‘new’ becomes addictive. You actively seek out adjustments. China is no longer to me a scary, backwards, disaster of turmoil and toil. It is an ancient wonderland, whose power is intoxicating and wondrous and unknown to many.
So I ask you, if you embark on any quest such as this, to always
Be not afraid of adjusting.
And don’t you dare close your eyes to any of it.
Sidenote – there is a wonderful website Memrise worth its weight in Internets. A rare goldmine of language wealth, those who are aching for language skills should start here. Dedicate half an hour a day every day and you will be unstoppable.