When we first landed in China 8 years ago, I could barely say “hello” and “goodbye.” Y’all, I hadn’t even taken the time to learn my simple numbers! I quickly learned them well enough to get by. But, oh, looking back on the videos of me teaching my one-year-old how to count makes me cringe! My tones (Chinese has 5 of them) and pronunciation were awful! After two years of floundering, we went to language school, which helped immensely.
Along the way, I learned some words and phrases that constantly run through my head, even now as we’re on furlough, not near a single Chinese person. Thankfully, I’ve caught myself before spitting out one of these words that obviously fits perfectly in the conversation, unbeknownst to whomever is listening. Here are some of my favorites:
Guānxì 关系 – relationships; connections
The English definition isn’t even close to reaching the depth of this word. Guānxì is needed in Chinese society. If you don’t have it, you won’t move up in your career, can’t get anything done medically in a timely or affordable fashion, and you have no “inner circle” of friends and family. This one is tricky as a believer because we obviously don’t want to take advantage of people, but realize that their culture is built on who you know, and everyone is expected to use it. It also carries weight when someone shows up at my house with a lavish, unexpected gift. The proper thing to do is deny it profusely at least 3 times to not be too greedy, then accept it, then expect something to be asked of me. It works the other way as well. If I want to ask someone to do a favor for me (big or small), I’d better have a gift—at least some fruit—in hand to show my appreciation and to “pay” them back.
Máfan 麻烦 – troublesome; inconvenient
This word is used daily! I make the 45-minute, every-other-week-trek into town to go to the grocery store and they’re out of ground beef AND chicken breasts…the main reason I go there. Máfan. I set off to retrieve a package I’ve ordered online, only to find out they’ve moved the pick-up location again. For the 5th time this year. Máfan. I hop into the shower after maybe a day too long of not taking one (mama of littles here!), and there’s no water. For days. Máfan. Feel free to adopt this word; I’m sure you have just as many troubles as me, if not more!
Jìhuà gēn bù shàng biànhuà 计划跟不上变化 – Plans can’t keep up with changes
This is a common saying that we learned upon arrival. It helped set expectations (read: expectations to be blown up at any moment!) then, and continues to do so. Before we left last month, a family invited us to a kids’ excursion in the woods/mountains near us. It sounded intriguing, so we agreed. The original time to meet was 8:30am. A smidge early for our late-rising family, but we’d make it work. Two days before the event, my friend texted and said the time moved to 8:15. No biggie.The night before, it changed to 8:00, then again to 7:50. Ok, my toddler is never awake by then, but we’ll make it happen. We were up and out the door by 7:50! Whew, a miracle! I rushed out to my friend’s car to find her on the phone with another mutual friend…whom she had just woken up with said phone call. Time was being pushed back already. We met up with the other families and started the journey no earlier than 9:00. In the scheme of things, not too bad (there are much worse stories!), but plans never seem to keep up with changes. And yet, they just roll with it. No one gets upset. It just is what it is!
There are a few Chinese characters that beautifully represent an aspect of the Bible that I just can’t not share…
Chuán 船 – boat
This may look like scribbles to some of you. Me, too! Ha! Kidding. Sort of. But stick with me. There are 3 parts to this character. The image on the left half means “vessel,” top right is a version of “eight,” and bottom right means “mouth.” Think through that…eight mouths/people in a boat. Noah and the ark! Amazing, right??
Yì 義 – righteousness
This one is tougher to see if you don’t know what you’re looking for, so you’ll just have to trust me. There are 2 main parts to this character. The top third, squished up there, means “lamb.” The bottom two-thirds means “me.” The Lamb on top of me makes me righteous. Whoa!
These characters, and many like it, prove that ancient Chinese people understood at least some of the stories of the Bible well. When we talk to our local non-believing friends, they are truly amazed that their own ancestors may have known the Truth. Just one more example to show them Christianity isn’t a Western religion, which the majority of them believe.
Languages are truly fascinating. God had good reason to create them at the Tower of Babel, and I’m so glad He did. I still have a long way to go, but I hope I can begin to fully appreciate languages for the unique perspectives they bring to the local culture. As we learned through language school, you truly can’t begin to comprehend a culture without learning the heart language first. So keep on studying! Jiāyóu 加油! Go get ’em! Keep going! You can do it! (Literally: add oil!)
What can’t-do-without words do you use often in your native or host country language?
I’ve been making this jam for years. I like the sweetness of the berries melding with the tartness of the vinegar, and no pectin or ingredients I don’t normally have are needed. A great way to use up berries that are about to go bad or when they’re in full-season and on sale!
Does anyone else struggle with buying produce in the US (or your passport country)? It’s my #1 reverse culture shock issue. It’s expensive AND not fresh! Take me back!!
The smaller you chop, the more jam-like it’ll be. I don’t mind the sweet chunks, though.
It cooks down pretty quick. Easy peasy!
One pound of berries made 3 medium jars of jam. Yum!
This sweet, tangy jam is great on toast, biscuits, whatever suits your fancy!
Strawberry Balsamic Jam
Ready in: 45 minutes
Makes: 3 medium jars
Slightly adapted from: Pastry Affair
Strawberry Balsamic Jam
1 pound (16 ounces) fresh or frozen strawberries, diced
2-3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2+ tablespoons balsamic vinegar (to taste)
In a saucepan over medium heat, bring strawberries, sugar, and balsamic vinegar to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until strawberries have thickened into a jam. Add more vinegar if desired.
To store, keep chilled in the refrigerator. Enjoy!