Linguistically Significant

Today I completed my first piece of actual work at the office: I wrote a draft report on the progress of our malaria project.

Wait – did you catch that? Did you see how I made that sound so nice and SIMPLE? The reality is that one of my coworkers sat me down to explain the status of the project and show me the monitoring data on which my report would be based… and then I proceeded to torture her for the best part of 45 minutes trying to understand what she was talking about.

The problem turned out to be very simple: either somewhere in her explanation she forgot to mention the words “statistically significant” (in Chinese? anyone?), or I failed to hear them, but either way I just kept saying, “What do you mean these pieces of data are the same? They’re clearly not the same!” and she just kept saying, “They’re the same! There’s almost no difference!”

By way of explanation: most people in the office can speak some amount of English, but nobody does unless they have to – which is never, unless speaking to our boss since she doesn’t speak Chinese (that’s a whole other mysterious issue). I understand most of what is said to me and answer in Chinese – and then run away back to my desk to write down the words that were just said that I didn’t understand. It’s kind of exhausting.

I have a feeling this won’t make sense to you from afar, so I’ll lay off. But let me say this: I only wish all days could be as simple as not knowing the word for “camel” or “scissors”. The amount that I don’t know is staggering and pokes holes of panic and embarrassment in otherwise confident days.

While I was walking home tonight (hooray 10 minute commute!) I put my finger on why this bothers me so much: I’m not a tourist here. I’m trying to be professional and impressive! In English, I have a very specific set of ways that I attempt to convey professionalism, intelligence, maturity and general impressiveness – it took me a lot of effort cultivate this way of being and I like being able to deploy it effectively. In Chinese, I’m robbed of that.

When you’re ordering in a restaurant or buying a bus ticket or even having a chat with a curious stranger, that way of being doesn’t matter. If you’re American, you figure that if you’re just friendly and open people will respond well to you – I have found this to be generally true. But when you’re trying to impress people in the office, friendliness only gets you so far – eventually you have to understand what’s being asked of you and write the damn report.

So it took basically all day to understand and complete, but I wrote the report.

I have decided that, until my Chinese improves enough for me to be generally awesome, there are a couple things in my control that I can do to be impressive:

  • come to the office early and stay late
  • answer all communication quickly
  • look up words I don’t understand every day so that I don’t make the same mistakes twice

Was this boring for you guys? Sorry. It was a tough day. Tomorrow I’m going to write a post about Chinese people and how they love to share! It’ll be super fluffy – you’re gonna love it. I’m also going to write a post about how I tried to fix my broken internet by eating a bunch of coconut candy but how that didn’t have the intended effect. Actually that’s the end of that story.

P.S. Statistical significance = 统计学意义 (tǒng jì xué yì yì). Blech.

2 thoughts on “Linguistically Significant

  1. This sounds exhausting — but you will learn so much so fast! Why can’t I see the comments I post? I am in Mattituck for the weekend — friends/N arriving over the next few days. Making flashcards furiously. I have almost 1000 of them, literally. I am writing to you during a sunny moment here — one of the first I’ve seen this year — and while today has been stormy, the weekend is supposed to be nice. Fingers crossed! We’re going to “the club” for dinner tomorrow. I KNOW you’re jealous…Gus misses you…me too. xoxoxoxooxoxoxoxooxoxo

  2. Not to minimize the importance of language, but I think you probably convey so much poise, intelligence and capability in your presence and energy that you don’t fully appreciate but others do. The fact is, you are smart, you are full of professionalism – I don’t think not knowing the right words on your fourth day of work on your fifth day in China is going to send the message you’re a tourist.

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