Over a month ago, Jin Feng asked me if I could share some advice on a special kind of relationship between Chinese men and Western women — where language poses a problem.
I said “sure, I’ll do it.” But then faced a problem of my own. How could I write about this? After all, the closest I came to this happened in my relationship with Frank — but even then, I spoke decent enough Chinese that communication didn’t really get in the way.
So I decided to turn to Sara Jaaksola at Living a Dream in China, who you might call an “expert” in this — she and her Chinese boyfriend literally have trouble speaking the same language. Many thanks to Sara for stepping in to help out! Read on for her advice.
“How do you communicate with your Chinese boyfriend when your Chinese is not fluent?” I have been asked this question many times — by friends, acquaintances and now by Jocelyn. I want to share what it’s like to have language challenges in your relationship, and offer some tips that helped me and my boyfriend during our first year together.
Imagine for a while that you didn’t know how to say ‘to fall down’ and instead would have to demonstrate it. Imagine that you forgot how to say ‘remote control’ and have to say ‘the thing that you use to turn on the TV’ instead. Imagine yourself arguing or joking in a foreign language that you only know in an elementary level.
That’s my daily life. My Cantonese boyfriend and I have been together for over a year, and we are forced to use Mandarin to communicate with each other. Even though I have studied Chinese for a while, I’m still far from fluent.
In the beginning, it was very difficult because my Chinese was even worse than it is now. I was asking “Shenme? Shenme?” (“What? What?”) all the time. I wasn’t used to his southern accent either. When we started dating, I was never sure if he was saying hot (re) or hungry (e). My Mandarin has improved a lot since then, but I still have situations every day when I don’t find the correct word.
Then how can you make a relationship work when the daily communication is a challenge? Patience.
You have to be patient and explain things with the little vocabulary you have. He needs patience to speak slower and make an effort to understand your limited Chinese. During our time together, my boyfriend learned to use words I know to make understanding him a lot easier. You might say we developed our own language, where we use words in a grammatically incorrect way that still makes sense to us.
Other couples might choose to teach each other their languages, but we have decided to keep my Chinese studies out of our relationship. I don’t want a dictionary to come between us, and only check it if absolutely necessary. My boyfriend did learn a little Finnish. But, still, we are a girlfriend and a boyfriend — not a teacher and a student.
Speaking of studying — it’s something at least one of you must do. You don’t want to face the language difficulties for the rest of your relationship (which is hopefully for life). One of you has to “hit the books” in order to deepen your communication. By having a relationship with a Chinese man, I noticed I improved my spoken Chinese up to an elementary level. But I need to do more work to improve it further. It’s easy to continue using the odd words you learned in the beginning, but at some point you want to be able to talk fluently with him.
Maintaining a relationship with someone from a totally different culture isn’t always easy — especially if you have language difficulties. But with patience and love, you can overcome any difficulties. And later — when your Chinese is perfect — you two can laugh at those funny moments you had together when you gave him a newspaper (baozhi) when he was asking for a steamed bun (baozi).
A lifelong sinophile and student at Sun Yat-sen University, Sara Jaaksola shares her thoughts on studying Mandarin, dating Chinese men, Chinese culture and more at her blog, Living a Dream in China.
What do you think? What advice do you have on this?
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