Everyone who studies Chinese as a foreign language—or any foreign language for that matter—intensively and long enough will be familiar with this phenomenon. Peter Hessler writes about it in his own books about his experiences in China. The idea is that when you learn another language and culture deeply enough, you take on an alternate identity when speaking that language and engaging with that culture.
I see this all the time with my Chinese friends and colleagues. While their core personality may be present in some ways at all times, they seem to take on a different character when speaking English than when speaking Chinese. It’s almost as if there are two different people inhabiting one body.
I feel the same way when I “inhabit” my Chinese speaking body. It’s an interesting phenomenon alright, almost like being possessed by the spirit of another person. It doesn’t happen instantly. There’s a transformative effect. You don’t just flip a switch and become the other person. Instead, you slip into the identity gradually as you communicate in greater and greater depth with others. I haven’t spent a great deal of time studying socio- or psycho linguistics so I’m not sure if there’s already a burgeoning literature on this phenomenon or not. The fact is, when I speak Chinese (or Japanese for that matter) at length with others, it’s almost like I become another person.
In his memoir Rivertown, Hessler writes about becoming “stupid Peter” or something to that effect. This was back in 1996 when he first lived in China in the town of Fuling along the Yangzi River in Sichuan Province, and he was just starting to learn the language and culture. The stupidity is a reference to his own limitations and consequent frustrations with communicating in Chinese back in those days (he eventually became quite proficient in the language, as his other books show). This is a wonderful book and I always recommend it to whomever wants to read about the experience of being a foreigner, especially an American, in China. The point is, he identifies early on that he is a different human being when speaking Chinese than when speaking English, referencing the obvious difference in linguistic abilities. But it goes deeper than that. When one learns a language, especially one as distant linguistically and culturally from one’s own native tongue, one’s personality inevitably takes on different dimensions.
In my own case, I started earlier than Peter, who had already graduated from Princeton by the time he threw himself into China, and so one might say that the Chinese aspect of my personality has had even more time to grow inside me and become a vital part of me (um, I'm not referencing that famous scene in Alien if that's what you're thinking). As I related in a previous entry, my own initiation into “becoming Chinese”—as I call it rather tongue-in-cheekishly in a TEDX talk I once gave—started back in 1987 when I began to learn Mandarin Chinese as a freshman at Dartmouth College. For some reason, I took to the language “like a fish to water” or 如鱼得水 ru yu de shui as the Chinese saying goes. By the time I finished a second year of Mandarin at the intensive language center known as the U Penn program in Taipei in the summer of 1988, I could already have brief and halting conversations with native speakers.
I spent the following fall in Taipei hanging out mostly with Taiwanese people and speaking Mandarin, and then I spent the winter of 1988-9 on the road in Mainland China doing the same with Mainland Chinese people. It was a trial-by-fire language education, during which my still rather impoverished Mandarin skills were challenged daily by real-life interactions and conversations with a wide range of folks all over China. I still have my tattered and dog-eared portable English-Chinese dictionary and my small notebooks where I kept meticulous notes of all the new vocabulary words, phrases, poems, and other cultural references that I sucked up greedily like a kitten following a dripping milk-can.
Since then, I’ve been a Chinese speaker, and over the years I have gravitated towards friends who are either Chinese themselves or who speak the language well. Not exclusively, mind you—I am not that narrowly elite in my social preferences and I actually do count some fine and upstanding non-Mandarin speakers among my friends.
After returning from China to Dartmouth in spring of 1989 (just missing out on all the “fun” leading to June 4) I continued to study Chinese in college. At that point, my language skills were beyond what the formal Chinese language classes had to offer us. Fortunately, Dartmouth had a plan for that: Every year they brought over a resident teacher from Beijing Normal University 北师大 or Beishida to live in the Asian Studies Center—in reality the Chinese Language House which it eventually became— where I also lived for most of the rest of my time at Dartmouth. So I was living together with other Chinese speakers, some native, and some like me CFL students, and with the teacher or 老师 laoshi from BNU.
Every evening, we cooked dinner on a rotating basis, and that’s how I learned to cook Chinese-style. The Chinese prof from Beishida would give us cooking lessons along with our native Chinese classmates, and we learned to make decent if rather simple dishes. If I did not cook food in Chinese style, I would be sure to get an earful from our resident laoshi. To this day, everything I cook is fundamentally in Chinese style, and even when I cook up a simple dish of scrambled eggs, I use the stir-frying methods I learned back at Dartmouth.
Anyhow (as you can see I tend to digress especially after a couple cups of java) I continued my studies of Chinese language with the professors from Beishida. In my junior year (1989-90), our resident laoshi was 桂梦春 Gui Mengchun, who had spent much of his time during the Cultural Revolution years memorizing hundreds of Tang Dynasty poems while doing hard labor in a rural northern farming community. He taught a special language course to a few of us, which I recall involved reading my first short story by Lu Xun among other things (a rite of passage for all Chinese language neophytes). We also studied a translation into Chinese of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and we wrote an essay in Chinese about that famous speech.
For my senior year, we had as our resident laoshi任玉华 Ren Yuhua, with whom I took an independent course in Chinese literature. For that course, I chose to read the novel 男人的一半是女人 nanren de yiban Shi nuren or Half of Man is Woman by Zhang Xianliang 张贤亮. I don’t believe I got very far, as the story took place in the countryside and I remember getting bogged down in so many new and unfamiliar vocabulary words (I still have my notebook full of new vocab from that book), but I did learn quite a few colloquialisms. And she was very patient with me as I lapped them up.
I also recall Gui Laoshi teaching us some 歇后语 Xie Hou yu which are stock phrases that are sort of riddles. The one I recall and use most is 狗掀门帘子——全凭嘴 gou xian men lianzi, quan ping zui, which means “when a dog wants to open the door, he relies entirely on his mouth”. I use this one often, especially since most Chinese folks I’ve met are not familiar with it and they love learning it for the first time from a foreigner.
One thing that came through early on from all these Chinese lessons was the rustic humor of Chinese culture. For a nation that was until very recently largely rural and which endured immense suffering and hardships over the centuries, barnyard humor was and still is an essential feature of Chinese culture (this is true of any culture of course, but especially true of China). I’ll just give you one example. In Chinese, a person who follows another person around slavishly—like my eight-year old daughter or our dog Peipei does to me when I’m home on the weekends—is called a 跟屁虫 gen pi chong, which basically means “follow butt worm”. I rest my case.
I also recall that my first Chinese language teacher, Professor Susan Blader or 白老师 Bai Laoshi as we call her, who is an expert in Chinese oral storytelling and folk-tale culture, brought a distinguished storyteller from Suzhou to visit Dartmouth for a spell. One night she invited our entire intro Chinese class to her home for dinner. The Suzhou storyteller, who was a chain smoker like most men his age, told us a ribald joke which involved a stupid mother feeding a baby at the wrong end. Bai Laoshi, who had to translate his story into English for us, was very embarrassed, but I think we all enjoyed the joke immensely.
Often people ask me about my rather unusual Chinese name, 费嘉炯 Fei Jiajiong. Quite a few Chinese people have commented on my name over the years, and some have recommended changing it. My wife is no exception, and she and her friends always hasten to remind me that my name sounds like “Mr. Poor Family” or in Chinese, 家穷. The word Jiong also sounds like the Chinese word for “embarrassed” or “ashamed” 囧 jiong so it’s a double negative. Others claim that my name sounds a bit too high-falutin’, and the suggestions for name changes have been endless. But I stubbornly hold on to the tradition of being Fei Jiajiong. When they recommend me to change the name, I just love telling them “no thanks.”
The reason I hold onto this name is that it was given me at the end of 1987 by Bai Laoshi in a sacred naming ceremony, which also took place in her home (it may have been the same event that involved the ribald Suzhou storytelling episode). Following the first week or so of our first intro Chinese course, she had already bestowed our 姓 Xing or family name upon each of us. I was given the surname 费 Fei for two reasons. First, it sounds like my English name Field. Second, during the first week of classes, I missed one class owing to swim practice (I was on the Dartmouth Men’s Swim Team freshman year) or perhaps due to a misunderstanding. In any case, she thought that I was wasting my time so she gave me this surname, which means to waste or use up in English.
Our given names, which consisted of two characters (most Chinese people have two characters though some have one) was given us during this event by Bai Laoshi at the end of the first term of intro Chinese. We were all given the common character, 嘉 Jia, which literally means “auspicious”. In Chinese culture, it is not unusual for members of a generation in a household to have one auspicious character that is the same for all—and sometimes, in more educated families, there is a practice of having each character be from a verse from a famous ancient Chinese poem and so on down the line.
My own special name character was 泂 jiong. Bai Laoshi chose that character because it has the water radical and I was a swimmer, and also it means great oceanic depth or something to that effect. This is a very rare character and most Chinese people are unfamiliar with it, and so it was rather impractical from the get-go. The other funny thing about this character is that it looks very similar to another character 洞 dong which means “hole” or “cave”. You can imagine the jokes that came out of a name that looked like “auspicious hole.”
So eventually I changed that character to 炯 jiong, which sounds exactly the same down to the tone (third tone), but which has the fire radical rather than the water radical. This character is associated with the phrase 炯炯有神 jiong jiong you shen which refers to one’s eyes being very bright and radiant or godlike or full of spirit. One other reason I chose this alternative character is because I was told that my personality was too watery and lacked fire, so I should put some fire in my name. Hence the change to 费嘉炯. I still have a chop (seal) from my earliest days in Taipei with my original name on it.
To this day, my wife Mengxi never tires of joking about my Chinese name, though with the English name of Mency she is standing on very shaky ground. For that matter, given all the strange and wonderful yet thoroughly un-English names that Chinese people love to give themselves (a boy named Sky? a girl named Grape? not uncommon), I will stand my ground. Another good reason to keep this name is that it is very unique. If anybody out there is also named 费嘉炯, I’d love to hear from them, but so far I’ve yet to meet another.
Now, the reason I’m dwelling on my Chinese name is two-fold. First, I wanted to re-emphasize the humor inherent in Chinese language and culture. Second, names are important identifiers, and when people call me Fei Jiajiong it means something different than calling me Andrew Field. Think about it for a minute. Think about all the Chinese folks you know who have English names. Now think about calling them only by their original Chinese names (and remember: always surname first!). It’s almost like you’re addressing a different person.
Of course this is universal, not just a Chinese-English phenom. If you were to call me by my grandfather’s original name, Feldman, you’d probably have a whole different set of connotations and expectations surrounding my Jewish heritage, which is submerged in the English-sounding name Field. That was part of the gentrification process that my granddad Samuel Feldman aka Stanley Field underwent as did my grandmother Fanny Stillman aka Joyce Field in the 1930s-40s along with countless other immigrants who came to America whether escaping pogroms in the Ukraine (as my own family did) or elsewhere and had part of their old-world identity irrevocably erased in the process. Think of all those Italians we know and love. Tony Bennett, anyone? Dean Martin? Or film stars like Cary Grant and Marylin Monroe. Or how about those deliberate erasures? What would it be like for the world if the man who won the Nobel Prize this year was Robert Zimmerman and not Bob Dylan? So when you are introduced to Peter for the first time instead of Jianguo, you are going to have a different first impression of the man.
Getting back to the topic at hand: What do I mean when I say that my personality and character are different when I’m speaking Chinese and interacting in a Chinese language environment? For one thing, and this is completely a self-observation, I feel that I’m funnier in Chinese. Maybe it’s that rustic humor that pervades the Chinese language, but I love making ample use of 成语 Chengyu and even 歇后语 Xie Hou yu when speaking Chinese, and I also like to mix them up at times and invent new ones as puns—not that all Chinese appreciate this of course, but it’s fun to try and get a laugh out of people. It’s fundamentally an odd thing for people in China to encounter a blond-haired blue-eyed Chinese speaker in the first place, and so they are already primed for laughter. Basically anything that comes out of the mouth of this big-nosed, white-browed foreigner is bound to be funny at some level. And there’s nothing better than a cross-cultural cross-linguistic conversation that ends in a few belly laughs. I also think I’m far better at flirting in Chinese than in English. All those years spent doing research in bars and clubs in Shanghai and Beijing may have contributed to that skill I suppose.
Of course, when you’re speaking a different language in a different cultural environment, you are surrounded by and embedded in a different network of cultural references, so your personality is bound to change in some ways, even if your core being is the same as always. When I’m speaking to friends in America for instance, I’m going to naturally fall back to cultural references that most Americans can understand. The last thing I’d do is throw in a Chengyu or Xie Hou yu even translated into English into the mix. They just wouldn’t get it.
Similarly, any idiomatic phrase in English that you try to translate into Chinese is inevitably going to fall flat (and oh how hard we try!). But it goes far beyond that. It’s almost like you are occupying a different universe of references, which is why I liken going deep into China (or Japan or any other non-European country for that matter) to interplanetary exploration. Perhaps Star Trek and all those other sci-fi shows, novels, and films featuring bizarre alien civilizations are really just metaphors for the experience of intercontinental voyaging, as some would argue.
Getting back to the original question posed by Dr. Daniel Bell that prompted all of these personal memories and musings and the subject of my previous entry: Can one really become Chinese by dint of studying the language, history, philosophy, and culture intensively as well as living in China for a while? Well, to be fair to Dr. Bell, China is emerging as a major world power and it might make sense for some sort of naturalization process to be considered for the glorious future of the nation. I can imagine China someday setting up a national exam for people who wish to become Chinese. This would involve some extensive essay writing on special topics like “Why did Confucius cross the road?” And “What did Zhuangzi say to Mengzi when his mother died?” It’d also involve putting the test-taker in different mock social scenarios and monitoring their behavior and attitude, with copious amounts of baijiu involved, and finally there’d be a special cultural challenge such as “write a poem in the style of Du Fu mocking the style of Tao Qian imitating the style of Qu Yuan.” Or maybe just “Tell us your favorite Xie Hou Yu and explain why you like it so much.”