A week of elections?

By the end of this week, two of the world’s largest and most powerful countries will have held events addressing who holds power at the top (I’m reluctant to compare them both as elections). It’s just by coincidence, of course, that the US presidential election and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 18th National Congress have fallen in the same week, and I’m not going to launch into the democracy vs. [insert whatever China is here] argument here; it’s been done so widely already. There are already plenty of viewpoints around what the rest of the world thinks about China, but what I have heard to be some Chinese people’s view on the rest of the world reflects something else which is relevant in this week’s events.

I regularly email friends I met in China, and in one recent email I asked one of them what opinion she held on the CCP reshuffle, Xi Jinping [the expected new President], and what effect any change would have upon her.

The first thing she answered with talked about the British situation, and in particular the Labour Party and Ed Miliband:

He is pretty young and close to workers. I think that kind of represents that Britain is still caught in economic stagnation. People feel unsafe because of unemployment, inflation and global competition so they would like a party to support the welfare system and charge tax from big corporations as well as rich people.

Next up was her opinion on other world governments:

Americans vote in the morning and know who is president in the afternoon; North Koreans know who their ruler will be since they are the children [of the current leader]; Japanese vote all the time yet still don’t know who the ministers are

Then, finally, comes her opinion on her own country:

As a Chinese, we basically don’t have many political rights. We can’t choose anything. Yes, we vote our representatives, but we know nothing about him and that representative says yes to nearly all the motions. I don’t watch CCTV [the state broadcaster] so I know little about him. In my mind he is another second-generation Communist who was born into power. In daily life young people rarely talk about politics – we just make fun of it in our own way. You cannot express your opinion openly and seriously, otherwise you are in danger of, in extreme cases, being imprisoned. At last, the most important thing in politics is that we free our minds, eyes, ears and mouth. We should have the right to have different ideas, and can’t let the party tell us what to believe.

The last bit, on Chinese politics, is what we hear about a lot already and is not a huge surprise – people’s awareness of their lack of participation, and a latent yet suppressed desire to change that. However what I find most interesting is the very fact that she first talks about foreign politics (many would say this is just way of finding freedom to express opinion). I really don’t know if it’s true that Japanese people don’t know who ministers are, but the fact that young, educated people in China seem increasingly aware of foreign issues just reflects how, with globalisation in full swing, it is now possible for opinion not to be centred on the whole Communist thing. All the anti-foreign rhetoric once used to enforce state loyalty is no longer water-tight. After all, who would have thought that she knew nothing about her own leader yet enthusiastically talks about Ed Miliband, a leader of the opposition in a faraway country?

“Are you fluent in Chinese yet?”

Every time I hear this question is a facepalm moment. It’s so difficult to answer because it’s always subject to how you define “fluent” and so “fluency” isn’t a yes-no sort of question. Therefore I always respond with an awkward “Urmm, well, maybe, depends what you mean…”.

I suppose I should first say how I view my level of Chinese at the moment. If there’s an idea that I want to communicate, I can do it using a fairly good range of words, although there will be times that I’m struggling to find a specialised word. For example, if I wanted to find a plumber, and didn’t know the word for ‘plumber’, I would ask if anyone knew “someone who could fix the water pipes in my house”. It communicates the idea nicely, and gets the job done, but is kind of cheating. Therefore I’d probably say that I’m confident, and I’m an expert corner-cutter, although my range of extended vocabulary probably isn’t actually that good. (‘Plumber’ is shuĭguăn’gōng 水管工, so now I know, and looking at the characters, it makes total sense: “water” + “pipe” + “work”).

This isn’t something I think is unique to Chinese. Whatever language you learn, I think that “fluency” is anything you want it to be. It might be the ability to speak simply to get a point across, to attain confidence in speaking and listening like a native, to read and understand complicated texts, or to be able to write essays or articles with native-style flair. I would say that Chinese in particular makes it hard for a foreigner to achieve this final one, since it has an insane amount of idioms and so-called “four-character expressions”, all littered with subtle nuances and historical references. It’s virtually impossible that I’ll ever be “fluent” if it’s this last definition that you mean.

I would imagine that most language learners would agree that it is a long and sometimes arduous road through tedious vocab drills and grammar exercises to finally attain some degree of confidence. Living in a totally immersive situation, like I did in China, however, creates some deceptive illusion that you can skip the ‘studying’ step, and just let it ‘all soak in’. Maybe if I were three years old, couldn’t speak any other language and didn’t live in a flat of English-speaking housemates, it could possibly have worked. Living in the country shouldn’t be seen as some magical key to fluency, and I slightly regret that I didn’t take to the whole experience more diligently.

For the moment, though, if I’m asked the “fluency” question again, I suppose I’ll have to settle for simply responding “sort of”.