Learning Chinese & Culture Stress: the importance of playing mind games with yourself

Some days you feel like you’re a horrible student, and other days you feel great about your studies. Often this has very little to do with your actual progress in the language and more to do with peripheral factors, like what kind of conversation partners you choose, or how you’re handling the culture stress. Being able to monitor your level of culture stress is an important skill. So is knowing how to choose conversation partners.

Choose Encouraging Language Practice Experiences
Martin Symonds, who wrote our textbooks, covered the coffee table with a big piece of paper and drew a map of the area surrounding our school. Then he got our group of language students to mark down where there were the right kind of people to practice on. Fruit sellers, flower merchants, shoe repairmen, and fake DVD hawkers all got marked on the map. By “right kind” of people, he meant people who leave you feeling good about your Chinese, and who (ideally):

  • speak to you at a level just slightly above your current level;
  • won’t use English;
  • will let you set the conversation agenda re: topic, grammar, and vocabulary;
  • can be talked to for a set amount of time (trying to make conversation when you’ve run out of things to say can be discouraging).

Martin suggested paying people if you can’t find people to do this for free, and that when you pay them, you can make them help you repeat the same stuff over and over until you get it (but that you should be a decent human being and limit such sessions to 15-30 minutes). Martin emphasized the importance to language learners of deliberately choosing language practice experiences that leave you encouraged, rather than discouraged, and that’s when I began to realize that my language progress self-assessment was pretty arbitrary.

Discouraged about your progress? The real difference between “good days” and “bad days”
For example, Monday this week I felt terrible about my Chinese. My teacher gave me this long lecture on how to improve my learning, which in Chinese-style means criticizing all the things you’re doing wrong and appealing to a lot of negative motivators – not the P.C., self-esteem building, sappy fluff they used to give us elementary school in Vancouver. Jessica was once brought to tears when her teacher tried to “encourage” her Chinese-style, which means pointing out your shortcomings and saying how you’re not good enough or studying enough and you need to work harder (never mind that Jessica’s progressing faster than most of the students in the school; she’ll be an entire book ahead of me by the time we’re done). This kind of typical Chinese criticism is supposed to show that they care about you and want you to do well (it’s also how parents show love to their children and wives to their husbands). In my case on Monday my teacher was tired of me asking too many tangential questions in class and playing with the grammar too much; she wants me to basically just shut up unless prompted and stick closer to the textbook grammar examples. After her monologue about my language learning shortcomings, we reviewed a bunch of old vocab, most of which I couldn’t remember because I rarely if ever have need to discuss international trading. Anyway, I walked out of class feeling pretty bad, like I ought to punish myself with eight solid hours of repeating textbook mp3s to myself in solitary confinement.

But then, inexplicably, Tuesday to Friday were fantastic language days. Thursday I spent six solid hours in Chinese conversation, two in class, two with students from the foreign language university who have to log hours practicing teaching Chinese to foreigners, and two hours interviewing my next magazine column victim. It made me feel like I was progressing so much, and it was really enjoyable. On Wednesday even the Old Boys Club, with their fast and mushy Tianjin accents and thick-skinned humour couldn’t make me feel bad, even though they started obsessing (again) about how much our school fees are (I still haven’t told them), couldn’t understand why I avoided telling them, and called me names (like “stupid egg”; 笨蛋), which they probably thought I couldn’t understand. But it didn’t matter, because I was feeling good. Instead of being really annoying and making me feel bad about my inability to finesse that kind of conversation like I’d want to in English, it was funny and made a good story to laugh about with friends. But if this had happened Monday afternoon, I would’ve felt even more guilty.

The point is that our moods, which are impacted by many things other than our language performance, often determine how we feel about our language progress, regardless of how praiseworthy our progress may be.

Monitor Your Culture Stress
When I find myself on my bike yelling at traffic in English, that’s usually a sign I need to chill out for a bit. Between the English and the noise the drivers can’t hear me, and it lets off a little steam. Only once or twice was I so annoyed/culture-stressed that I said something in Chinese without thinking (“What are you doing?!“) to a vehicle, and all they were doing was being a Chinese driver (note: it’s OK to be a Chinese driver in China). Other times we might take the long way around to avoid passing certain people who we’d otherwise have to stop and chat with. Sometimes you can be inexplicably tired. When we find ourselves doing or feeling these kinds of things, it can mean we need a short break, or we need to sleep, and/or we need to get more comfortable with Chinese culture. But when you’re feeling this way, chances are you aren’t going to feel great about your Chinese. So it’s important to ask, “Do I feel bad about my Chinese because my Chinese shouldn’t be this bad after a year and half, or just because I’m culture stressed and in a bad mood?”

The Culture Bubble
The only real “cure” for culture stress is to continue learning about and engaging the culture. The more comfortable you become in the culture, the less stressful it is. Taking short breaks from the culture by retreating into your “cultural bubble” – like by hanging out for an evening with just foreigner friends or immersing yourself in foreign entertainment media – is OK and occasionally necessary, in small, occasional doses. Unfortunately, many (perhaps most?) foreigners in China live the opposite way: they live in their foreign cultural bubble and make occasional forays into Chinese culture. Living in the foreign culture bubble is unavoidable when you’re new and have no language skills, but it takes consistent intentional effort and choices to, over time, move out of your own cultural bubble and start living in the culture of your host country.

For people who hope to not just live on the Mainland longterm but actually live in China, dealing intentionally and consistently with the “cultural bubble” is a must. (We gave this same sermon to ‘Shine Far,’ who’s preparing to enter a PhD program in the States.)