Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Don't get rid of Chinese characters!

... but do get rid of learning to write all of them, especially by rote!

I came across this article by Victor Mair twice this week, once when checking the context for a Volokh Conspiracy post which my father sent to me, and then again when it was posted in a WeChat group for alumni of my college in Asia. In both cases, Mair's post was being used to postulate that Chinese characters may be outmoded, an argument spelled out by Geoffrey Pullum here.

I disagree with this conclusion. Speaking as a second language learner of Chinese, I never bothered to learn the writing of the characters. I agree that starting from Pinyin and learning to read first is optimal, and could almost certainly be employed to decrease the amount of drudgery for first-language learners of acquiring the written language. However, I personally would hate to see people not learning characters at all, since I find them beautiful and fascinating; they were and continue to be the largest source of my interest in learning Chinese in the first place.

The Chinese equivalent of "antidisestablishmentarianism"

Racism and the foreign experience in China

Last night1 was another night of involuntarily being made to play the foreigner. At a "cross-cultural New Year's" party, I was the only non-Chinese person. The hostess went out of her way to talk to me in English, and if I was talking to my friend Eric in English, told other people that he was 'translating' for me. A few people at the party remembered my name, but generally I was referred to 外国人 wàiguórén - foreigner, or literally, "person from an outside country".

It's incredibly psychologically damaging to be made an outsider - regardless of the intent. I have no doubt that the hostess was not intending to be at all offensive. She probably assumed I was in on the joke. Perhaps if I were of a different temperament I might have been. But the effect for me was to make me feel like I was under a constant spotlight as the outsider.

Living abroad has proved the distinction between intelligence and wisdom, in that I've come to understand many things that my intelligence could not lead me to grasp a few years before. Racism is one of them. I'm pretty sure that the white Americans who complain about reverse racism - I used to be one of them - are wrong. Because it's impossible to understand what it feels like to be in the minority when you're in the majority.