The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thinking in 3 dimensions: Chinese concepts of time and space

Temple Market, Hong Kong, 2010

A little insight into the way that language forms the way we think, and vice versa. In my Chinese class on Tuesday night, after having to 'eat bitterness' to some extent about the hopelessness of my tones (Teacher Xu keeps saying "What? What on earth are you trying to say? Say it again. What? Again!" So humbling!) I found myself struggling with remembering the words for time concepts such as 'next year', 'last year', 'the day after tomorrow', 'three days from now' etc. Another perceptive student in the class pointed out that English, as a language read from left to right, is linear in thinking about time, whilst Chinese uses the prefixes for behind, in front of, above and below e.g 'the month below' is next month. This seemed to my tired brain to be deeply philosophical - our teacher agreed, "English simple, Chinese complex". Too complex, and so very, very hard to remember when questions are being fired at you in Chinese: "Luise, what makes a good teacher?". I was proud of myself for being able to come up with "A good teacher must like their students", and get the sentence out in Chinese. Our class seems at times to be moving in slow motion, as we try so hard to listen and grasp each other's halting Chinese sentences....sometimes I think you can hear the mechanical grinding noise of the gears in our brains! I am trying hard to be optimistic about the possibilities of one day being able to speak the language.....

I have continued to read older accounts of the travels of Western 'weiguoren' (foreigners, but more accurately 'barbarians') in China, most recently 'Iron and Silk' by Mark Salzman, an American who taught English in Changsha for two years in the 1980s. So interesting, and of course a very different China. However his description of his first sight of his new city sounded familiar to me in some respects, "He started the engine, held his palm against the horn and gave it a long blast to warm it up, then shot full speed into the crowded streets. He swerved and braked violently to avoid pedestrians who darted into the road without looking, swarms of bicyclists who rode in the middle of the street, trucks, jeeps and huge buses that careened as if driven by no time during this ordeal was our horn silent, nor was that of any other vehicle on the road, rendering them all essentially useless. I asked Comrade Hu why the driver held the horn down like that, and he answered, without a trace of irony in his voice, 'Traffic Safety'." Now that could describe any of my trips in taxis or hired cars through the frenzy of Beijing traffic nearly thirty years later!