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A Talking Monkey

A common question among the foreign community in China is “do you speak Chinese?” Generally, my answer is “yes” – though I am by no means the most fluent foreigner I know, I can do pretty much anything I need to do here in my personal and professional life in Chinese: I can get around, get into trouble and (usually) get out.  But there is a metaphysical qualification to my linguistic abilities in that, when I speak Chinese, I am not sure that I am really “me” — or even human.  For those non-Philosophy majors (i.e. those with a real job) who have forgotten what “metaphysics” means, allow me to explain.

Speaking Chinese friends and co-workers, I am neither funny nor witty, though I like to think I am (maybe mistakenly) in my native language. I am certainly interesting, in the same sense that monkeys are amusing when taught to use simple sign language. I can talk, but it is not communication, it is desperation. Some people say I am “bright” because I can pick up the language or “clever” because I can mimic an accent. Yet I don’t consider those attributes “human” … because communication has nothing to do with fluency and everything to do with culture.

In China, to be human is to use the Chinese language and to use it properly. Anthropologists have discovered rudimentary Chinese characters scratched into turtle shells and cattle bones many thousands of years old. To be Chinese is to be attached to this history by some unseen umbilical cord which feeds you and keeps you alive. To really speak Chinese, one must incorporate that history.

The idiom and its linguistic cousins is shunned in the English language — as a high school English teacher said to us, “avoid clichés like the plague!” However, in Chinese, to speak the language properly, one must correctly use cheng-yu (成语), idiomatic parts of speech passed down over millennia that define what it means to be Chinese. In China, you are “human”, not because you sound human, but because you are able to link yourself with the rest of humanity (i.e., the Chinese).

When you speak or write in Chinese, your audience is much broader than the receiver(s) of your immediate message. The Chinese ancestors hover about your conversations and they are disappointed when you miss an opportunity to refer to a present situation in light of the past, for it is the past that is their primary concern. These forbears still communicate with the modern generation and they are strict teachers, ready to rap you on the knuckles with the ruler of historical linguistics should you neglect their lessons.

One can think of communication, not as a process of passing a “message” from sender to receiver, but rather as a way of sharing meaning. A conversation can be a “sacred ceremony” wherein meaning is shared and reality is created, altered, and negotiated. According to this perspective, my primary purpose for communicating is not to get someone to do something (although that may also happen), but it is to tie myself to that person, to share something beyond the words of the liturgy and to the spirit of the relationship. To be able to take part in that ceremony, one must be a “believer” in a linguistic sense. In Chinese, the meaning, history and feel of the words must reside in your soul, not in a dictionary.

So yes, I guess I “speak Chinese” but not as a believer. In Chinese, I am a heathen, like noted atheist Madeline Murray O’Hare reciting the Common Book of Prayer—you know what the words mean, but you are not quite sure what she means.  I like to speak and write in English because when I do so I feel something lift off of me, a great linguistic burden placed there by the whim of natural geography and about 10,000 years of human history.  I am no longer a talking monkey—I am suddenly human again.