All posts by Tianhua Zhu

Words at the Tip of My Tongue

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.

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Embracing Imperfection

When I first arrived in Germany, I immediately noticed the overwhelming number of flower shops. Around the corner, on a quiet sideway, or even in a train station, I always could find stores full of colorful and vibrant blossoms. And locals loved to decorate their homes with various flowers — especially on their balconies, which greatly beautified the street view. Those little terrace gardens seemed integrated into the traditional style of homes not only in Germany but also in other European countries, such as France and Switzerland. Tourists love to take pictures of themselves standing in front of those traditional houses with little flower boxes by the windows.

Once I had lived there longer and observed my host mother spend a great amount of time working in her mini garden on the balcony, I realized that flowers are not just decorations but an integral part of the life of local residents. After all, gardening takes a lot of time and energy: those fragile plants cannot survive without constant attention. But there is another difficulty that I considered to be more troubling: No matter how much effort you put into prolonging the life of flowers, they still die pretty quickly. The sorrow of this inevitable loss, this sense of powerlessness when watching their transient lives end, had prevented me from using any flower to decorate my own home back in Shanghai. I used only greenery to fill the open spaces of my apartment, which, although still perishable, can at least last longer than evanescent flowers.

But then, while I was in Germany, I constantly came across florists on the street, and I found it hard to move my eyes away from the pure beauty and liveliness of these blooming flowers. I finally conceded and decided to buy a few to put in my dorm room. I chose some pink roses and white daisies at first, and I felt my room immediately brighten. Every time I opened the door, the sight of my flowers brought me joy. This was the beginning of a transition in my attitude toward not only flower decoration but also something beyond that.

Later on, I added some yellow carnations, and when tulips were in season, I brought in their various colors once in a while, and even decorated the Smith Center at the university with colorful tulips. Still, I did feel sad when the flowers began to fade and finally wither away, and I pondered the meaning of blooming—“If only they knew their tragic ending from the very beginning!” I said to myself. How can they embrace their destiny and still express joy so wholly and genuinely?

I couldn’t help but reflect about myself. I realized I had the tendency to not even start something if I thought I could not do it perfectly well. This may be an extreme version of my motto as a “pessimistic optimist,” but I did adopt this perfectionist-leaning belief, which often held me back from unpredictable novel attempts. When applied to language learning, my perfectionist mindset disturbs me, as I have to admit the fact that I may never reach the same fluency as the native speakers. No matter how hard I have tried, I will always speak with a certain deficiency. I will never reach “perfection.”

Studying in Germany and using a third language was yet another endeavor to force myself to step further out of my comfort zone and “destabilize” my life. I have always believed in the meaning of destabilizing one’s regular life, and this time, it proved worthwhile as I learned to embrace the eternal imperfection of life. That is, I was forced to express myself even in a broken way. Before being in Germany, I had always faltered when it came to speaking German, since I had less time to prepare and I feared making mistakes. “I’m not ready.” I always told myself, and failed to realize that I could never be ready unless I took the first step and started speaking more freely. In Germany I began to communicate with all kinds of people and to learn how to bear the embarrassment of making mistakes and the fear of exposing my weaknesses. I thought about the courage of my fragile yet stubborn flowers and entered the uncharted wilderness of a language that is foreign to me. Once, I was afraid that when I spoke up, people would think me rather dull if I could not convey my ideas clearly or made stupid grammatical mistakes. But if I waited until I got every gender and adjective ending in German perfectly correct before starting to speak, I would never be able to voice even one single sentence. Desire to communicate won out: I learned to cast aside my worries about others’ opinions of me and clumsily began to build my German one phrase after another.

I used to ask myself, why should I start something if I could never reach perfection? By the end of my stay in Germany, I finally realized that the premise of this introspective question was wrong — and my wilted flowers knew better than I did. The purpose was never to be perfect but to start, to bloom, to step into the turbulence of life, and to give the best that one can with the gift of life.

 

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.

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Changing Small Habits in Another Culture

When my language course at Goethe Institute in Germany first started, I felt bewildered by the fact that I could no longer easily bring my coffee to class because the cafe downstairs only provided coffee in porcelain cups that had to be  returned to the self-help desk — unless I crossed the street and went to the nearest Starbucks. And after school when I went to supermarkets, I realized plastic bags were not an option in most shops — not even for purchase. I had to bring one of my own, or spend on a relatively expensive cloth bag at the store. And I was surprised to see everyone actually  bring a cloth bag with them everywhere. Such an inconvenience! Why do they do that, I wondered ?

In my host family, I was asked to separate plastics from the other garbage, and to make sure that I switched off all the lights when leaving each room and shut off water when shampooing my hair or brushing my teeth. The wash machine and even the dishwasher were used only once a week when both were completely filled up. There was no dryer and the laundry could only be put up on racks to air-dry. The refrigerator was painfully small partly to save energy. At the university, most buildings had no air-conditioning and our teacher was required to open the windows to let the fresh — and freezing — air in every 60 minutes.

The feeling of inconvenience arose due to many small things, but for people living in Hamburg, where I was now spending a year, it is part of their daily life, and these are their habits — eco-friendly habits. The green movements starting in the early 1980s most likely contributed to the adoption of these habits. And the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 triggered an awareness that then further encouraged a  movement calling for an environmentally friendly style of life. Twenty years later,  an entire generation in Germany and many other places in the Europe have grown up with an awareness of how interconnected and fragile our environment is.

Good policies that provide incentives for energy conservation and innovation as well as more practical reasons like high electricity price can all help explain why Germany leads the world in energy efficiency. But it was still striking and also illuminating to witness and experience how big a role resource-conscious habits play in this country. There are many things that we can see: for example, how friendly this city is to cyclists with the orderly arranged bike lanes all over the town. And there are also many energy-saving attempts that are hidden from our eyes, such as low- or zero-energy buildings, energy-saving home appliances, and organic food supplies. What is most important is that everyone seems to seriously care about the energy usage, and energy conservation is an indispensable part in everyone’s daily life instead of an empty talk of some “elite environmentalists,” or worse, a “hoax” made up by competing nations.

The aggregation of common personal habits reflects values of a nation’s culture. “Grab a drink and run,” for example, is so common in the U.S. that many people walk around a city or a street with plastic cups and straws in their hands, although it is totally unnecessary to keep hydrated all along the way. A reusable water bottle can reduce so much waste. In Starbucks in Germany, ordering a drink “for here” means, by default, receiving your coffee in a china cup. Even baby steps toward the goal of ecological sustainability are worth praising, such as the Grab-and-Go 2.0 project at Smith. To be sure, there is still plenty of space for further progress and remedies, and the public education of environmental awareness must be coupled with right incentives and pragmatic considerations, in order to realize the desirable and far-reaching effect among people across different areas.

It is always easy to label oneself as environmentally friendly while it is not so simple to change the small habits rooted in one’s life. We adapt to the environment while the environment cultivates our habits. Habits and the continuous practice of them make lives easier and this is how the so-called comfort zone starts to build up. The exchange semester in Living in Germany forced drastic changes in my own comfort zone.  The habits that I was not even conscious of manifested themselves when discomfort caused by the loss of them began to disturb me. I suddenly understood that the grocery stores in the US that kindly double-stacked my plastic bags and the restaurants or cafeterias that offered disposable utensils were in fact indulging my  natural tendency to over-consume, to waste and to be blind to the near future of ultimate depletion.  It took a year living in Germany for me to observe the habits of people in another culture, to feel annoyed at the inconvenience of having to change my “comfortable” ways, and then to adopt new habits wholeheartedly.

 

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.

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