It is exhilarating to move to a new country and communicate with people so different from ourselves. Whether through Chinese you have learned or English you have taught, the sense of accomplishment can be deep and genuine.

Yet at times language defies us. Instead of being a beautiful bridge you and your friends are crossing, complete with cartoon birds singing around your heads … one side or the other says something unintentionally annoying.  Like really annoying. Like I want to scratch your eyes out and I hate those singing birds, annoying.

Chinese students

Often the problem lies having vastly different understandings of a word.  Because familiar words are used, we all nod and think we are communicating. If we could see what was really going on in each other’s heads, we’d be shocked how far apart our conversation actually is.

As foreigners in China, the impetus is on us to learn the Chinese understandings of words. As we do, we can communicate more effectively and help them understand how we see or use a word. For those intersecting with the educational parts of China, here are five words I’ve found that have led to the misunderstandings between Chinese and Westerners.

1. Classmate—has a much stronger sense in Chinese than in English. During my high school experience, I easily had several hundred classmates during my four years. More often my sense of identity was found in a club or group I was a part of. Not so the Chinese, starting in Elementary school, they are assigned classmates that will remain for elementary school, new ones for junior middle school, senior middle school, and university. By the end of their educational experience they can probably still name all of their classmates. I can barely remember someone from each grade.

2. Test—the history with the test system is vast and mighty. In general, in China you live and die by the test. So when either you or your Chinese friend make a comment about a test and the other one knowing nods in reply, just be aware you are not talking about the same thing. They cannot fathom a system where one or two tests don’t determine your final score. And we cannot fathom deep in our being, a system that does.

3. Homework­—which leads me to homework. For the most part, homework does not exist in China in the way it does in the west. So when we talk about all of the homework we had to do in school, we might as well be saying, “OH my word, I had so many gum drops and lollipops to eat.” We tend to sound ridiculous when we go on and on about homework.

4. Entrance Exam—in China the vast majority of effort goes into getting INTO a school. Getting in is the hard part and once you have accomplished this feat, you are virtually guaranteed you will graduate. Not so in the West. When the Chinese hear about how “easy” it is to get into college and advanced degrees in the West, they don’t realize that getting out, aka graduating, isn’t a given. Once you get in, the work is just beginning! Compare Chinese graduation rates to western ones and you’ll see what I mean.

5. Cheating (or as I’ve come to call it, helping) – as part of the group, how can a student not help a classmate? The classmate that they will spend the next X numbers of years with in class and be linked together for life? (See #1) How can they be seen as so selfish as to not help someone in need? Knowing that when they are in need, they will be helped?  It’s not cheating if you’re helping, right? The pressure associated with cheating/helping is truly beyond the grasp of the average foreigner who only spends a few years in China.

I have barely scratched the surface on these complex social constructs. If there is interest, each one can be expanded on in future posts.

Bottom line, it is a worthwhile reminder for each of us working across cultures (and that would involve everyone who gets up in the morning) to stop and do a quick double check every so often on the meanings behind the words we’re using. If I had understood the value in not assuming meaning, I would have spared myself some internal screaming and eye scratching over the years.

Whoever, wherever you are, there are words/concepts that don’t translate smoothly. What have you found hard to translate?

Photo credit: Jonathan Wu

This first appeared on China Source

Leave A Comment

  1. LeAnne December 4, 2013 at 12:58 pm - Reply

    Ooh, I learned the difference between the word “test” to me and to my students the hard way. I dislike having only two grades in a class (70% – final, 30% – midterm), so I tend to skip the midterm and give three “tests” spread out worth 10% each. That way one bad day doesn’t derail a grade. I learned, though, when I announced we were having a “test” the next week, everyone would get much more nervous than I anticipated. These were not big, difficult exams. I learned quickly to call them “quizzes” instead. That word “test” – whew!

    Cheating is a place I draw the line, though. I may look back in fifteen years and call my current self ridiculous, but I set my expectations on the first day. I do give them MY definition of cheating and explain why the best I can without insulting THEIR definition of “helping.”

    Isn’t it funny to sit their nodding along with someone thinking you’re having the same conversation just to realize you are SOOOO not?

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      Amy December 4, 2013 at 1:27 pm - Reply

      Hehehe … my head gets their definition but my heart still monitors tests from my Western heart. I understand it so much better, but I still don’t tolerate it quite as much as i might have portrayed :)

      I’ve been working with some Chinese students here in the States and it’s been interesting watching them adjust to a new system. Can I say that I felt a little pride in the US educational system when the gals said the tests were harder than than expected?

  2. David Rupert December 4, 2013 at 7:09 pm - Reply

    What an education! I had no idea that some words just didnt carry over.
    I wonder how many others there are…All limited by culture.

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      Amy December 4, 2013 at 7:58 pm - Reply

      I know! I’m working on another list :) … and I would imagine there is list after list. I love how well we can communicate across cultures/groups and yet, there will always be some limitations, eh?

  3. Kristi December 4, 2013 at 7:20 pm - Reply

    I was thinking that “rural/country” may be another term that doesn’t mean the same thing in China as it does in the U.S. I lived in rural PA, but what rural China looks and feels like is worlds away from what I knew in Wayne County.

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      Amy December 4, 2013 at 8:00 pm - Reply

      rural/ country is a good one! Now you’ve got the wheels turning :)

    • emily thomas December 5, 2013 at 8:25 pm - Reply

      That is so true! Rural in China means RURAL! It speaks volumes about a person. In the States it just might mean you like less street lights on at night so you moved a couple miles outside town.

  4. MB December 4, 2013 at 10:52 pm - Reply

    These are really helpful examples for the individualism/collectivism unit im teaching!

  5. Sarah December 4, 2013 at 10:59 pm - Reply

    I’m thinking of the word “banquet”…. Haha…and also the word “open”—as in, “We think Americans are so open”…lol

  6. Morielle December 5, 2013 at 12:26 am - Reply

    To name the obvious: face (perhaps the closest we have is reputation or respect….but that doesn’t nearly cover it).

    But now you mention it, there are a lot of words I can’t use with a non-Christian American friend without us thinking of completely different things (e.g. sin, pray, grace, love…..etc.etc.)

  7. Shelly December 5, 2013 at 6:10 am - Reply

    Your post reminded me of a quote I used in a workshop this summer about mentoring. When I say the classroom atmosphere is encouraging, what does that really mean? And does the mentee “get it” as I “mean it”? “The word in language is half someone else’s … [It] is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily … It is populated—overpopulated—with the intentions of others.” (M.M.Bakhtin)

    Does “we” as in “we Chinese” fit this thread? It seems to me that Americans, at least this one, wouldn’t make such a sweeping statement about an entire population they belong to without various qualifying statements or exceptions. And if “we Americans” do make a sweeping comment about ourselves, we don’t usually preface such statements with “we.” Rather, “Americans are…but can also be…unless they are from this part of the country, then they might be…”

    Oh, how about “being on time” for a party. To Americans it could mean arriving anywhere between the stated start time and 15-20 minutes later. Who wants to be first? But to the Chinese person even 15 minutes early is “on time” to help the party host with whatever is needed yet.

    A few more: “playground” and “play” and “maybe”.

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