Monday, April 30, 2018

Communication Failure

Bank of China Tower,
designed by I.M. Pei
Yesterday I went to listen to an internationally-known speaker and author talk about leadership at a local church in Hong Kong. He spoke in English, but in an accent different from mine. He'd done a presentation the day before, which my youngest son and husband attended, and they came home singing his praises. I was looking forward to hearing what he had to say. But what he had to say, and I what I heard, were two different things.

During the hour-long talk, he kept saying a word which sounded very much like the F-word. He might have been saying "back up," "buck up," or perhaps "muck up," but the F-word, as I understand the definition, would not have been out of place contextually. He was talking about messing up, making mistakes. But considering the location where the event was being held, a place of worship, it would not have been appropriate.

Instead of learning about how to be a better leader, I spent the whole time blushing and distracted and wondering what word he was actually using. I even interrupted my husband's note taking to ask him if he was hearing the same thing. He came to the same conclusion, that it sounded like the F-word but was probably one of the other words above.

I guess I don't really need to tell you that my takeaway from the experience was different from what the speaker was hoping his point would be. What I learned was that although I can speak (or write) what I think are clear, succinct (or more typically- long-winded), easy to understand concepts or directions or ideas, the thing which matters is less what comes out of my mouth, and more what is processed in someone else's brain. Communication is complicated.

I know my last post was meant for laughs, and for a specific audience of people who speak and read English, likely American English. And I love to laugh, more than anything. There are challenges to living in a country where I don't speak the language, and my tool box for survival definitely contains a good-sized sense of humor (sometimes if you don't laugh, you end up crying). I have a few stories from Shanghai I still can't write about (frankly I can barely speak about them) because I can't find the humor yet. And when writing about cultural differences, I always attempt to make myself the butt of any joke, rather than the people whose culture I am a guest in. If I can't do that, then what seems like a funny story can end up coming across as mocking or bullying. After seven years of living in Asia, my sense of what's funny has definitely changed.

The legendary I.M. Pei
(pronounced PAY)
Example: My favorite architect is I. M. Pei, who created several notable buildings including the glass pyramid at the opening of the Louvre in Paris, the Bank of China Tower here in Hong Kong, and the Macao Science Center in Macau. This week he turned 101 years old. Last year, when he turned 100, I posted about it on Facebook. A few people commented on his name, making jokes about it, assuming that Pei sounds like Pee rather than Pay. And as the mother of two boys, I've heard my share of bodily fluid jokes, so I get that "I am pee" is funny. But because I know how to pronounce Pei, the jokes about his name didn't make me laugh (plus I deeply respect the man, his life story, and his amazing eyeglasses). However, they likely would have given me the giggles before I moved to Asia and flunked out of language school, just after learning the rules of pronunciation but not getting to any actual vocabulary.

And just to position myself squarely as the butt of a language joke, I will tell you that in Mandarin, the word for sugar and the word for soup are both tang. And if you have an American accent and don't know Mandarin, you would likely pronounce that TAY-ng, like the orange drink astronauts used to sip in space, the TA sounding like Taylor. But it actually sounds more like tong, what you'd use to get an ice cube if you're fancy. And to further complicate things, sugar is táng (where the vowel sound sort of sweeps up) and soup is tāng (where the vowel sound stays flat), and regardless of how much I practice or try to say it exactly as my native Mandarin-speaking friends say it, no matter how many times I asked for sugar in a restaurant for my steaming hot coffee, I was consistently served a bowl of soup, many minutes later when my coffee was then lukewarm and sadly unsweetened.


Now that's some sugar!
And just like me, scratching my head yesterday over why a man would drop F-bombs in a church building (when my rational, intelligent brain surely knew he couldn't possibly actually be saying the F-word), I'm sure there are several waitresses in Shanghai who tell the story of the crazy red-haired laowai who asked for soup with her coffee (when surely their rational, intelligent brains knew that Western foreigners like sweet things and that I probably wanted sugar but because whatever came out of my mouth was received as soup, that's what they brought me).

My workaround for the sugar-in-my-coffee situation was to keep a photo of the word sugar in Chinese on my phone to flash the server so I could drink my caffeine sufficiently sweetened. But what's the workaround for a life spent communicating to other humans when the possibilities for being misunderstood are so great? We can drink coffee without sugar and survive (barely!), but can relationships survive when we unknowingly insult someone because we don't yet possess all the facts, or even the right words?

Let me be completely honest right now: there are times when I'm absolutely paralyzed by the idea that I may insult someone through my ignorance. There are times, even as recently as last week, where I have to force myself to interact with people while truly petrified that when I open my mouth, I could be offending someone. Or worse, legitimately hurting their feelings. I know it's happened before. One time I said something very stupid from a place of deep ignorance about a particular faith to someone I love. Though it happened nearly a decade ago, I still cringe at the hurt I caused (I've been forgiven by the person, but find it hard to forgive myself). But I take comfort, and guidance, from a quote by the great American poet and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou. She said, "I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better."

And my experience tells me the only way I can know better, is to get out there and talk or write or simply interact with my fellow human beings, and to make huge mistakes and learn from them so I can indeed take that knowledge and do better.

We're in the countdown to our oldest child's last year with us before he'll head off to university (or who knows, he might live with us forever). It's the last year I'm willing to pay for 100% of his travel expenses when we visit other places as a family around the globe. We're making a list of destinations we want to travel with him, and to my great surprise, he has been putting up a big fight. He wants to just stay home. What's the point of travel? Can't we just stay in Hong Kong? Haven't we already seen enough stuff? Basic physics: objects - and boys - at rest, will stay at rest.

Last night I went round and round with my son. I pulled out the big guns... Travel is a masterclass in learning about other cultures, but also about ourselves! I never want to stay where I am today! I want to grow beyond this current me, even if I like this current me, because even though I don't know everything, I recognize there are things I don't yet know, and it's up to me to learn them! I want him to grow beyond his current him! To see that there is more to learn! To love learning what the great big classroom of this world has to teach!

The conversation ended with us not speaking at all... him in a huff, and me wondering where I've gone so wrong as a parent. But hours later, when I thought all hope was lost, he came back and said, "I see your point. Okay. We can talk about it some more."

Here's my hope: that despite the communication failures that will happen, we can still cover each other with love and grace. That I can even cover myself with that love and grace when I mess up.


In Chinese: Portal
In English: Stop Mouth
Comedy or wisdom?
Love and grace, and lots of laughter. So long as the joke is either on me or Google Translate.

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