Four years ago, when I was at home in China, getting ready to study abroad in the United States, my family and friends repeatedly advised me to befriend all kinds of people. “Step out of your comfort zone!” They urged. “Don’t get caught up in the Chinese students’ inner circle!” But then, there we were— occupying a table in the dining hall, forming study groups, eating out on weekends, and traveling together over the break. There was almost a natural affinity among us and I wondered why. I gradually noticed that this inner circle comprised of those who were using English as a functional language.
By “functional” I mean the fundamental use of the language to achieve a goal, such as buying a toothbrush, ordering a meal, or understanding the questions in an exam. In my first year, I struggled with even the functional use of English. I could only decline when my friends asked me out for a movie. “Why?” They asked. “Because I wouldn’t be able to understand!” I replied. They laughed so hard that I was bewildered. Isn’t that strange — A college student still relying on subtitles to understand most vernacular English? Language is an interactive tool, but at the same time, a subjective experience. How well was I supposed to understand a speaker? How much did they understand me? Would they judge my intelligence based on my flawed expressions? I had no way to know. As I talked, so many words were at the tip of my tongue. So I paused; I even saw what I intended to say written out in Chinese in front of eyes, but I was silent. My world was muffled, so I strived extra hard to sharpen my senses.
I used to be afraid of overhearing people speaking English due to the fear that it would confirm my inability to understand them. Gradually, I learned to open my ears to the outside world and acquire as much information as possible. I put down my earphones and tuned in to the people around me. Still, I would describe my experience of going outside of my dorm room in my first year as stepping onto a battlefield, since I was easily submerged in frustrations and embarrassments.
I also realized that a more severe obstacle to making friends in another linguistic environment is the expression of emotions. Words don’t just mean what they mean; they also carry loads of emotions. There are words to make jokes and puns, to form swear words and release anger, to trigger laughter and tears, to hurt, and to heal. I felt those words at the tip of my tongue but not in my heart. The distance between my tongue and my heart was the distance between me and others, whose emotions were revealed whenever they spoke.
Deciding to learn German is what saved me. In that classroom, I found something familiar—the deliberateness of sticking to grammatical rules due to an absence of intuition, the hardship of coming up with the right words, and the decoupling of thoughts and the medium that carries them. If I talked about struggling with words at the tip of the tongue, my German study pals were the ones who fully comprehended and empathized with me.
When studying abroad in Hamburg, the American students formed an inner circle, and I was part of it. This is why I smiled when one member of the Hamburg group asked, “why do Chinese students only hang out with each other?” It doesn’t have much to do with the nature of a particular culture or national character, as some may suggest. The familiarity and security within a group is what defines a comfort zone, where people naturally fall back.
This was the time when not only my German but also my English progressed considerably. Every word was a trial and every sentence that I uttered carried the risk of embarrassing myself. But at the same time, each attempt at communication was an endeavor beyond my comfort zone. It was this type of everyday struggle that humbled my friends and me, as well as empowered us. In Hamburg, we faced, fought, and embraced this linguistic challenge together.
Admittedly, language barriers don’t account for all the hardships of making friends in a foreign environment, but language is certainly one of the most significant factors, as it carries the signature of one’s culture, living environment, and family character. It defines insiders and outsiders, and it delineates everyone’s most basic comfort zone. In this context, stepping out of our comfort zone is not the end but the beginning. Just like weight training, knowing how many sets of a routine there are (i.e. when the discomfort will end) is essential, as no one can sustain in an uncomfortable environment forever. But the ultimate goal should be to expand our comfort zone through repetitive and continuous attempts.
What I gained in both English and German environments was not just the languages themselves but also confidence, persistence, resilience, and courage. I now have a greater appreciation for the struggles of living in a foreign environment and more understanding of the tendency for people to cluster together with their peers from the same cultural background. We are not simply wasting an opportunity to improve but seeking a temporary shelter between battles.
Now I know that time will bring the words at the tip of my tongue, one by one, down to the depth of my heart.
Tianhua Zhu ’18 is currently a Senior, majoring in both Government and Linguistics. Looking at the intersection between the two majors, she is interested in the politics of language and seeks to understand the language of politics. She participated in the Smith Program in Hamburg in Spring 2017 and took advantage of the great opportunity to travel around several countries in Europe. Originally coming from Shanghai, China, she would like to accumulate more international experiences and bring together distinct perspectives echoing through the East and the West.by