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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

学海无涯苦坐舟 (xuehai wuya ku zuo zhou): Navigating the Seas of Learning

China—the land of monks in yellow robes, spicy hot pot, and shopping plazas with glass elevators. It’d be difficult to find another country with a more extreme contrast between modernity and traditional life. This is especially so here in western China, where a stylish French hair salon is open for business less than a 45-minute drive from an ethnic minority village where patterned headdresses are the signature fashion. There are striking contrasts in terms of language as well—Putonghua, or standard Mandarin (literally “normal language”), serves as a lingua franca unifying over 200 different Chinese dialects. In fact, these dialects are so diverse that even within Yunnan province alone, many people would find it impossible to communicate with each other without the aid of Putonghua. And, as I’ve discovered, sometimes even Putonghua doesn’t suffice.

During the last couple weeks of September, I lived with a family of tea farmers in a quaint mountain village called Bangdong. Having studied only Putonghua in my three years of high school Mandarin classes, I was hoping I could rely on it to communicate with them. While my homestay family could understand my Putonghua, they couldn’t really speak it—mostly they would respond in their own Lincanghua dialect, which I found impenetrable. I eventually picked up a few little phrases, such as “to drink water,” which in Lincanghua is chì suì, as opposed to hē shuǐ in Putonghua. For the most part, however, I remained a quiet presence at family gatherings, as everyone spoke to each other in the local tongue.

The person I had the most trouble understanding was Ayi (literally “Auntie,” a polite but friendly form of address for the oldest woman in the house). Although she was one of the family members I spent the most time with, whether it was picking tea or helping with housework, I found her Lincanghua more difficult to understand than anyone else’s. One evening after dinner, however, Ayi took a seat beside me in the household’s tea drinking space. The right side of her face glittered with a layer of salt, a home remedy for her cold from the past few days. Hands gripped together tightly, she began speaking to me, in Lincanghua of course. My brain recognized fragments of her word stream: tomorrow, morning, leave, mom, not, here. Suddenly, a realization flashed over me, and I studied her face again, more closely this time. Her eyelids heavy and lips jutting out a tad, she had a pained expression, similar to when she’d seen her grandchildren stumble while playing. I finally understood, and responded in Putonghua.

“I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. You leave tomorrow morning?”

She nodded.

Although afterwards I never saw Ayi again, that interaction alone left a deep impression on me. I’d now come to appreciate the challenges with the local dialect that had so frustrated me previously. Unable to rely on language alone, I was forced to become more observant, to register even the most subtle elements of my experiences with Ayi. It was through piecing these details together that I was able to transcend the language barrier and establish an emotional connection with her. Now Lincanghua no longer seemed like an obstacle, but rather an entry point for developing relationships.

From the foothills of Bangdong to the skyscrapers of Kunming, I’ve continued my language-learning journey, and have had the privilege to meet a number of Chinese traveling on their own language voyages. The Ayi of my homestay family here in this bustling metropolis is an avid student of English. Not a day begins or ends without her playing English audio recordings in the living room, and not a meal goes by without a How do you say this in English? or a Do you have this in America?. In return, she’ll answer any questions I have about Mandarin. Through this hùxiāng xuéxí (“mutual learning”), as we like to call it, I’ve actually come to think about an increasing number of questions not just relating to Chinese, but also to things I’ve taken for granted in my own mother tongue. What, for example, is the difference between “little” and “small”? Why is it that so many Westerners say “bless you” to someone sneezing without even understanding the phrase’s origin?

One evening, Ayi invited me for a stroll around Green Lake (Cuìhú). As we walked and chatted in Putonghua, at one point she said that the stars in the sky looked like diamonds. She called the diamonds zhuànshi instead of zuànshí, the Putonghua word for diamonds. I asked her about this, and she responded, chuckling, “Oh, that was Kunminghua…I forgot the Putonghua word for it.” She then remarked that this was a great example of the Chinese proverb xuéhǎi wúyá kǔ zuò zhōu: “steering a boat in an endless sea of learning is no easy task.” She explained that it essentially means we’re all in charge of navigating our own journeys of learning, which last a lifetime.

I initially assumed that this “learning” referred to the new word in Kunminghua I’d just heard, but then it hit me—she was actually talking about herself. Indeed, this wasn’t the first time her Putonghua had sounded a little off that day. As minor as these linguistic differences may be, they provided her with new ways to ponder the utter vastness of Chinese. In parallel, I’ve gained unexpected insights into English, and even into my most basic assumptions of what it means to communicate, thanks to my experiences throughout China.

Language, I’ve discovered, is a multi-faceted mirror, reflecting both ourselves and the world around us. Amidst the challenges of living abroad, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the once-in-a-lifetime experiences and educational opportunities Bridge Year provides can be as relevant to the locals I befriend as they are to me. Yet that evening, as a cool breeze caressed my face on its way to the rippling expanse of Green Lake, I realized that this body of water is much bigger than I ever thought.