Site hosted by Angelfire.com: Build your free website today!

Inherent Differences :
The Language of Relationships Between Chinese and English


    Ever since my arrival in Canada, I have always found great difficulty trying to communicate Eastern ideals and philosophies to people who are integrated into the Western culture. I used to believe it was my lack of vocabulary as extensive as the entire dictionary that hindered my ability to transmit my thoughts to my Western companions. However, as I acquired more diction in the English language and an understanding of their equivalence in Chinese, I discovered that my lack of command of the English language is not responsible for the failure in communication; the breakdown is simply the impossibility to translate the inherent differences of one set of cultural ideas to another using different languages. The Chinese culture and the North American culture developed on opposite sides of the globe. As a result, the two cultures differ greatly and the differences between their respective language, Chinese and English, are a reflection of these differences. The relationship between language and culture is demonstrated in the Inuit¡¯s many ways to say ¡®snow¡¯, since they spend their lives in an environment dominated by snow (Ricks 1990). A further illustration of people¡¯s recognition of this relationship is in an article from the New York Times (24 April, 1988), which states that Chinese people are overly discreet and modest by pointing out that the Chinese language does not even have word for ¡°yes¡± and ¡°no¡±. This is a misinterpretation; there may not be a definitive ¡°yes¡± or ¡°no¡± in Chinese, but as Amy Tan defends in her article The Language of Discretion (Ricks 1990, 31), the Chinese equivalent is specific to what is asked. This misinterpretation though shows the difficulty in trying to transplant a language, and its meanings, from one society to another.

    There are too many words in Chinese lacking an exact translation to discuss in one essay, but one topic that is very important to human communication that I find a lot of trouble clarifying is relationships. The connotative definitions of relationships are unique from culture to culture and the differences between the language that describes the Chinese definition of a relationship and the North American perspective reflect that uniqueness. Because language is an expression of society¡¯s beliefs and ideas, and this uniqueness exists in the language of relationships, the examination of this type of language between friends, between lovers, and between families in a society is important to understanding the values and ideologies of a specific culture. It is easy for friends to inquire How¡¯re you doing with so-and-so, or How¡¯s the relationship with this or that member of the opposite sex, or for adults to ask How¡¯s your mother or father and Are you making them proud. But when my Chinese background takes control and I feel the urge to express certain emotions, I find misinterpretation and confusion as common responses.

    There are a few key words describing the relationship between friends that people of Eastern descent find difficult to explain to disciples of Western culture. Mo qi (ĬÆõ) is a concept the Chinese use to describe the bond between friends in a relationship. The English equivalent most similar to these two words is chemistry, and yet it does not adequately describe everything that its Chinese counterpart encompasses. In English, chemistry between two people describes the bonding of a working relationship. People who work well together have chemistry and people who think alike have chemistry. But mo qi describes more than just people working together to complement each other. It also includes the casual relationship shared between friends, a concept of people having things in common with each other. Is it chemistry when two people enjoy similar ideologies? No! Two people can work well together and still dislike each other and one can still describe them as having chemistry. The distinction between this one simple concept and its English counterpart directs me to see relationship in a different manner than my Western friends.

    Another two words that describes the relationship between associates is yi qi (Áxšâ). The purpose of this concept is to define the behaviour between friends or business associates. Once again, the true meaning of these two words lie in somewhere between two different English concepts. Yi qi lies between principles and moral, and some people have even simplified it to moral principles. Yi qi is an unwritten code of conduct that includes that friends or associates should be fair and honest with each other, should always be there to help one another, and should not take advantage of one another. It is more specific than both principles and morals, and although people in present Chinese society may not always abide by this conduct, it is still something for which they strive and understand. It is easier to explain that someone is worth befriending because they have a lot of yi qi than it is to go through the English dictionary trying to define all that person¡¯s remarkable traits. However, I have difficulty trying to compliment my friends using this concept. They are unable to comprehend its meaning and accept such a simple phrase could encompass so many objectives.

    On a more intimate level, the language dominating romance is another subject that is difficult to explain when one tries to adapt Oriental philosophies to Western philosophies. The Chinese word yuan (¾‰) is most closely associated with ¡®destiny¡¯ or ¡®fate¡¯. The actual translation of this word has even been contested in McMaster¡¯s own Chinese Students¡¯ Association when the naming for the annual Chinese New Year¡¯s celebration came into question this year. Yuan is something in which traditional Chinese culture strongly believes. It describes the relationship between two people fated to occur. However, once again fate and destiny are both too broad to describe this idea and to say that yuan is a fated relation does not adequately provide the full meaning of the word. Yuan is also, used to describe friendship or family, although it is most often associated with love. It loses its meaning when people call it fate or destiny, but those are both the dominant denotation and connotation in present North American translations because of a lack of better words.

    Throughout all these words that hinders the ability to adequately describe the Chinese perspective between associations, the one relationship that is most important to Chinese culture is the one between family members. The Chinese are known for their respect of their elders and a large part of an entire Chinese philosophy, Confucism, is even based on this idea. Central to this respect is in the concept of xiao-shun (Тí˜), an idea that I cannot, but have always wanted to, explain to people of Western culture. Xiao-shun is an idea that dominates Chinese culture. Upon asking a fellow Oriental what a translation for these two words may be, his instinctive reaction was ¡°obedience¡±. Obedience is a good attempt at trying to convey the idea, but it is still lacking in the complete notion of the words. Xiao-shun defines the entire relationship a child should have for the parents. It means obedience, it means respect, it means taking care of your parents. I have since learned that the direct translation for this concept is ¡®filial piety¡¯, found in the dictionary along the lines of love and duty one ought to give to one¡¯s parents. I almost laughed at the ineptitude of this definition. In Chinese, filial piety is an integral part of the Chinese culture. From youth until maturity, the Chinese people are bombarded with tales of filial piety. Chinese fairy tales and folk tales, classics, and even modern Chinese equivalent of soap operas on television speak of people who are exceptionally filial pious. For a society where parents are expected to live with their children until they die these two words must become, and have become, intrinsic to the people. How can the simplistic and abstract ¡®love¡¯ and ¡®duty¡¯ fully describe everything filial piety is suppose to represent? Filial piety are two words that are not used or very well known to the majority of the North American population. Most of the people in my Writing class have not even heard of the words. Xiao-shun completely loses its meaning when it is translated to filial piety because the meaning behind filial piety does not exist in Western culture.

    So what is the significance of all of this? Certainly it can be established that certain words between different cultures cannot be translated, and therefore certain ideas cannot cross the barrier between people of different cultures who have not been exposed to the philosophies of the other culture. But what good is this knowledge? One of the reasons behind stereotypes and misunderstandings people impose upon each other is because people cannot comprehend the ideas associated with the meanings found in translations. To illustrate this point, consider modern mainland Chinese, who are often criticized by people in the Western for their preference for male children during China¡¯s present period of one-child policy. Mainland Chinese are condemned for disposing newborn female infants in hopes that the next one will be male. However, people take up this stance without understanding the reasons behind the actions of the Chinese. This is exactly the lack of understanding of Chinese culture that causes the difficulty in trying to explain the Oriental philosophy to Western people. One of the reasons Chinese prefer male children is because when a female child enters the holy bonds of matrimony, they also lose their family name. To people whose family name have been passed down for up to thousands of years, the loss of their name borders on the unthinkable. However, an examination of the language also gives instant insight and may even clarify the Chinese stance on these issues. As examined previously, filial piety is intrinsic to the Chinese culture because tradition has always stated that children are to take care of their parents in their old age. One must also realize that this is traditionally with the male child, who is the one earning a living. Therefore Chinese people have a traditionally preference for a male child not because of the need to pass down their name, but because they also must consider their own well being after retirement. If people of Western culture understand the concept of filial piety perhaps it would be easier for them to accept Chinese male preference, even if they cannot condone the act of disposing female infants. And perhaps if people of Western culture understand all the other Chinese words that have not been adequately translated, they can better accept the other actions and methods Chinese people employ.

    People are quick to stereotype and classify foreigners in their ignorance of the other cultures. Words reflect thought, because words are used to convey thought. I have often heard that Chinese people are passive people because the Chinese language is a passive language. I strongly disagree with this statement. If Chinese people are indeed weak and timid, discreet and modest I wonder how they are able to compete in international politics. I question how the much ¡°stronger¡± and ¡°dominant¡± American English speaking population can resist from taking advantage of the ¡°smaller¡± and ¡°submissive¡± Chinese people? I heard in class someone quoting a source, which stated that the development of language invariably leads to the formation of slang. As a speaker of Mandarin, the official Chinese dialect, I can attest that Mandarin does not have any slang. What can give a language more formality and credibility than that? Ask any Chinese who cares enough to discuss the weakness of the language. Amy Tan (Ricks 1990) certainly does not think the Chinese language is weak. She states that ¡°It is only to those on the outside that the language seems cryptic, the behavior inscrutable.¡± Neither does Anita Wong, who responded to the stereotype of Chinese being shy, weak, and submissive with ¡°What lies¡­the Chinese way is not a reversal of the Canadian or Western way (Wong 1994).¡±

    I have been enriched by the cultural ideologies of both the North Americans and the Chinese and this is something I am unable to pass on to Canadians. For people to make judgments of others they must first understand the other culture. And to truly understand a culture simple translations are inadequate. People must experience a language to understand the inherent meanings associated with the language and this cannot be accomplished with simple illustrations and explanations using an alternative language.