Being stranded in the Shanghai airport for five hours, knowing that I will miss my connecting flight in Chicago, thus delaying my return home, and my husband’s return to work, is not really a laughing matter. But I am laughing because I just saw a sign that was translated to say, “DONATE TO THE SHANGHAI WORKERS’ FUND TO ASSIST THE DIFFICULT.” And because I am laughing, I am not becoming difficult though I would really like to.
Historically, there was a lot of resistance to teaching outsiders Mandarin in China. It was thought that westerners could not learn it or should not be allowed to learn it. As I make my own attempts at learning the language I certainly wonder whether it’s a losing proposition. Each trip I’ve made to China I’ve learned a few words and phrases. Being highly motivated in the coffee area, I can successfully order a cup of coffee with milk and sugar. Generally, I’m probably about like an 18 month old with a bit of a speech delay. I’m getting to where I can ask a few questions but I have no idea what people are saying when they answer! As I listen to conversations, I catch a word here and there but certainly not the overall drift of the conversation.
And then there is reading. I find Chinese characters so beautiful and intriguing. But from what I’ve read, you must know 1000 of them to be considered literate at the most basic level. I can reliably recognize about 4.
Thankfully, my Chinese colleagues have been studying English since they were young. Now all Chinese youngsters begin studying English in school when they are 3 and they continue to study it all the way through school. Many take additional classes outside of school to strengthen their skills. My friends began studying later but are quite good in their speaking and reading ability. Being with them as we try to bridge a language divide always makes me a little ashamed that they should have to work so hard in their country as I sit there confident that someone will speak to me in my native tongue.
But I suppose there has always been a lingua franca and now it is English. Because of that, I was able to make new friends from all over the world as I attended my first international conference. On the first night of the conference (and every subsequent evening), I found myself at a dinner table with social work professors from China, Germany, Australia, the UK, Ethiopia, and even Bangladesh. The conference was a on the small side and our Chinese hosts had scheduled things so that we did almost everything as a group. It would’ve been impossible to wander through paper sessions, go off on your own for lunch or dinner, and never meet anyone new. The days were long and there were moments when I didn’t think I could be social for another second. But on the whole, it was engaging and thought-provoking. As I talked with people I learned that social workers in Germany led the way in harm reduction techniques for IV drug abusers advocating for needle exchanges when no other profession was on board. I learned about the crisis of higher education in Africa. A colleague from Australia was joining our group after two weeks of humanitarian work in Lebanon. And in the midst of these serious conversations there was a lot of good will and laughter. This morning as I left, my new friend from Bangladesh gave me a book of his poetry. Each poem is written in English and Arabic – another language I will never master. But perhaps it doesn’t matter. Maybe what matters is that we find things to laugh about even in the midst of difficult situations and go from there.