It probably goes without saying that one of my biggest problems living in China is communication. I have proven to be a remarkably inept student of Chinese and after a year and a half of living here am still barely past the "hello/goodbye/thank you" stage. (Given my pronunciation, some would say I'm not even that advanced!)
Oddly, for day to day survival, it hasn't seemed to matter.
For shopping, pointing and holding up fingers suffices and in the supermarket not even that much is required. For eating out I choose restaurants with picture menus or English translations. I have a card with my one essential phrase - "I am allergic to mushrooms" - printed on it. Other day to day needs have been met with similar strategies and if anything more complicated arises I call one of my English speaking colleagues and hand over the phone for them to speak to whoever necessary.
That kind of communication may be unsatisfactory, and is certainly a damning criticism of my level of commitment to learning Chinese, but it works.
What doesn't work has become apparent this week when, thanks to circumstances, I have been the only native English speaker in the city. All four of the other teachers are currently elsewhere. I have found it a rather lonely time. On the face of it, it shouldn't be. I know plenty of Chinese who have a high level of English competence. A few of them are approaching native speaker level. They may grasp for the occasional word here and there or lack a particular idiom but the speed, tone and accuracy of their speech is excellent. The problem isn't linguistic – it's cultural.
Our cultural backgrounds, the experiences and knowledge that form the backdrop to our lives and inform everything we do or say, are just too different to hold the kind of rambling, free-form, trivial conversation that I could have with any stranger in the pub in England (or to a slightly lesser extent America).
All my normal topics of pub conversation are useless. What is the use of my discussing my favourite rock bands with someone whose knowledge of western music begins with Justin Bieber and ends with Lady Gaga – the only two artists I can reliably expect most of my students, never mind the adults, to have heard of?
Television? Well I know one Chinese guy who is a big fan of both Desperate Housewives and Little Britain but as I have never seen either and he has never seen anything else, that's not much use. No one else I know watches any western television apart from my eight year old student who likes Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry. I have a large poster of a Dalek on my wall but who, over here, has ever even heard of Doctor Who? As for any of my other favourite series forget it. There is only one English TV channel and that shows almost exclusively social and political programs. The entertainment channels are all home-grown Chinese fare.
It's similar with films. One student asks me about ten times a week if I have seen the latest Resident Evil movie – apparently forgetting each time that I have already told him that I haven't. There is one cinema which shows one English film at a time, changing it about every four weeks. Always the latest blockbuster – Skyfall opens next week. But few here go to the cinema – it's very expensive – and almost no one has heard of any of my favourite films.
I can't, not that I would normally, even discuss sport. With a few notable exceptions where the names of sports stars (and almost nothing else) are known, few here know even as much as me (and I think we can agree that my knowledge is about as weak is it's possible to find in England) about western sport.
Now, of course it works the other way round too. They can tell me about Chinese music, TV, films and sport until the end of the world has come and gone but I know nothing that I can contribute to a conversation. The difference is that they can always find someone else to talk to. I can't.
So, I'm surviving – functional needs are being met – albeit in a rather basic way. Social needs are something else. I know there's something missing when I find myself thinking that even a conversation about football would be welcome.