The communication challenges for anyone traveling from China to the United States is a difficult one. Whether you are just arriving or you have been living and working in the U.S. for years, there is an awkwardness swirling around translations in our communication. There can be an occasional lack of understanding based on words, tone, and pronunciation even in the most stable of relationships. So, it comes as no surprise that this happens when Westerners and Chinese meet.
But once your eyes meet, whether you shake hands, kiss, or bow, you’ve taken your first step toward a greater level of communication. Mary, a translator to elderly Chinese people entering the Social Services system for the first time, says: “It’s definitely difficult. I find myself yelling to get my words across to them. Some start telling me what to do right away, and will not let me get a word in edgewise. Sometimes, there are other family members in the home – daughters and sons who are there to help – very difficult, but also very rewarding.”
As for me, asking myself that question was the easy part. According the U.S. Census Bureau, there are currently over 20.3 million Chinese Americans living in the United States. I’ve been listening to traditional Chinese Mandarin for at least 5 years and the only words that have sunk in are Dwa, dwa, ni hao, or wo xing. I haven’t really remembered any key words, nor do I pronounce them accurately every time. Is it because I didn’t speak Mandarin on a daily basis, or was I stuck on American English. What I learned was I neither had the patience nor the passion to find the true meaning behind the words. In other words – no heart.
How do you find the key to communicate effectively with others who primarily speak a different language? I walked away from the conversation yearning for more real understanding.
This year I was introduced to Mr. Chen, a man from Hebei Provence who wants to socialize with other cultures in America, and wants help in learning the English language. Yes, there is a language barrier. Let’s face it, this barrier is present whether you want to go out to dinner, to the movies, or video chat, even with a translator application. The correct pronunciation and tone is key. The Chinese language hails from antiquity. It is said to be semi-divine in nature. As diverse as it is divine, the Chinese language appears to be more complex than English. But that is also debatable. Here in America, English is the common thread that connects everything, and Americans tend to think that English is the common thread that connects all languages!
The frustration of using a translator app
On a recent business trip, Mr. Chen shared the following exchange on his app with his friend. “Hi, Good Morning.” She said: “I will be traveling back to Atlanta today, so I thought I would give you a call?” Chen: “Oh really, do you have a home?” Friend: “What?” Chen: “Oh, I mean do you have a home?” Friend: “No, I’m just a happy traveler with no home.” Chen: “No, no, no, no, so sorry. I mean, are you going home? Aaaahhh, it’s horrible, it’s my silly robot translator?”
This was how a typical conversation would transpire between Bo and his foreign-born friend while using a popular translator app. Some frustrations grew and it was difficult, but the friendship and willingness to learn from each other has contributed to clarifying and working on communicating well. The meaning behind the words and laughter between the two is motivation for learning to break through the language barrier and understand their hearts.
Written by Denise Darcel Woodford, and photos by Bo Chen.