By Curwyn Mapaling
Naturally, when you attend a symposium or a conference in another country, you expect to learn, to share, to travel, and to explore. There’s so much to learn when entering a foreign country for the first time – everything is new, everything is interesting. I was recently selected to attend the Yenching Global Symposium (YGS)*, a global gathering of China specialists, policymakers, and innovation leaders. If China has taught me anything, it’s the importance of language in understanding others.
On a superficial level we all know that language is important to understand others. This notion isn’t new and has been written and spoken about for centuries in biblical, philosophical, and psychological texts. However, what I’m referring to here is a true intellectual and emotional awareness of the power that language bears in relation to understanding others. This reminds me of Stephen Covey’s fifth habit, “Seek first to understand then to be understood”.
During my few days in Beijing, I was conscious of how little I was able to understand others and be understood by them. I experienced this communication barrier specifically when interacting with non-English speaking Chinese residents. This was eye-opening and frustrating. It impacted everything from “straightforward” tasks like ordering fast food, to my ability to network other delegates. Buying food has never been such a distressing experience for me, from having to nonverbally select my meal on a menu, to not being able to convey that I had been given too much change. I am also still haunted by my own curiosity regarding some of the other local Chinese delegates’ narratives and academic interests as we were unable to break the barriers.
Like psychotherapy, language and communication in China is an extremely nuanced art that requires practice to gain understanding. Not forgetting the role of creativity in seeking understanding, not purely in the sense of being innovative but realising that we must possess new ideas to be influential. The Chinese are wonderfully creative inventors. I wondered why they had not yet found or invented a creative way to better understand their tourists, or find ways in which their tourists may be better understood by them.
All this made me wonder, “What is language and communication without understanding?” It turns out having good social skills are not sufficient to convey understanding among individuals. It took this experience for me to realise that language could possibly be the missing link between communication and understanding. When was the last time you struggled to understand someone, or better yet, when last have you struggled to be understood by someone? Life in the absence of English, the supposed universal language, was quite anxiety provoking and frustrating for me.
This wasn’t quite what I had envisioned I would be left with as my biggest realisation when I first heard the slogan for the YGS, “China meets the world, the world comes to China”. However, it was an important lesson learnt, especially when coming home to a country where we have 11 official languages. So, how are we negotiating and compensating to understand one another, given our linguistic diversity in South Africa?
*Young scholars and leading professionals from around the world were invited to apply for the Yenching Global Symposium, a global gathering of China specialists, policymakers, and innovation leaders hosted at Peking University in Beijing from March 24 to 26, 2016. This inaugural symposium, hosted by the Yenching Academy of Peking University, was a three-day event comprised of lectures, panel discussions, and interactive sessions on the reciprocal interactions between China and the world. Two hundred students and young professionals with a noted passion for China in their work and research shared their insights with today’s and tomorrow’s leaders.
Curwyn Mapaling is currently an intern clinical psychologist at Lentegeur Psychiatric Hospital and the department of psychiatry and mental health at the University of Cape Town. He is completing a master’s degree in clinical psychology and community counselling at Stellenbosch University as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar. He is one of the founding members of SAScholar and is passionate about improving education and community mental health in South Africa as a servant leader.