Language and Respect

beijing-20170104-6Sarah Gunther

The language barrier in China had me dizzy and feeling out-of-place.

It began on my flight from Boston to Beijing, speaking with a flight attendant on Hainan Airlines, and asking for her to throw out the trash. After my request, she smiled and nodded her head as if to agree and then disappeared. OK…I thought to myself, she must be grabbing a trash bag…I wouldn’t want to touch a passenger’s garbage either, but when she returned, she was handing me a cup of hot water. Hot water? How did that translate into garbage? Had I lifted up my cup, to show her it was trash and she has mistaken it for a request for water? I tried again…”Gaarbaggeee” i said slowly, mimicking throwing the trash in a bin and trying to make the shape of a square with my fingers…both unhelpful. She smiled uncomfortably and frantically looked for a fellow flight attendant. They exchanged words, and she again tried to hand me the hot water. I felt frustrated. Had I gotten myself into a mess where I only know three or four basic words in Chinese language-and none of them garbage.

Nevertheless, she eventually took the trash and I took the cup of water. It was a feeling I had never experienced – a complete inability to communicate.

Although there was a lack in communication, the people of China were always very respectful and greatly appreciated when I tried to speak their language. A stark difference can often be seen in America, where people quickly get frustrated if you do not speak English.  This surprises me… In New York, specifically the metropolitan areas, there is a great deal of diversity.  I seem to hear three or four different languages being spoken just walking down the street.  In China, there is not much diversity in languages spoken, however the agitation I’ve witnessed in Americans was rarely present in the Chinese locals.  This forced me to ask myself, were they patient because I am American?

I never experienced frustration from the part of a local – at least not that I could recognize or understand – as everyone was very patient and understanding. I think that Americans could take a note of the respect that Chinese citizens show to foreigners and tourists.


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