The day following my return from Hebei Province, my host father called and invited me to visit his home town in Jianxi Province. After sorting out the formalities, he ended the phone conversation with a note of mystery, “be prepared to see the blossoms,” he said. I was already exhausted from travel, so I did not think too hard on his words. The next day, we met up at the train station, my host family and I, and we proceeded to board the overnight train. In no time the rocking carriage lulled me off to sleep. A short seven hours later and I woke up to the “ooos and ahhhhs” of my host family. They pulled the carriage curtains open and my eyes met the flowered fields of Jiangxi Province.
My host father’s family could not have been more warm and welcoming. From the moment I stepped off the train, I met nothing but kindness. Verbal communication, however, was rather difficult.
In Jiangxi they speak a different dialect than the Standard Mandarin that I’ve been taught. For speakers of only English, this concept of mutually unintelligible dialects is hard to understand. First we must understand that language is not only a natural phenomenon. It is also governed by human thought and practice. In this sense, language can be a political instrument. This is the case for Chinese. The entire Chinese language encompasses a wide range of dialects (including Standard Mandarin) that may not necessarily be understood by all speakers. The classic example is the comparison between the Mandarin Chinese spoken in Beijing and the Cantonese Chinese spoken in Hong Kong. While both speakers are still considered to be speaking Chinese, a Mandarin speaker and a Cantonese speaker would be completely unable to have a conversation without a good amount of knowledge about the other’s dialect. Why, you may be asking, are two seemingly separate languages considered the same? This goes back to the idea of language as a political device. In the spirit of unifying a diverse population, the powers that be in China consolidated all these different dialects and called them all the Chinese Language.
In any case, prior knowledge of the linguistic phenomenon of dialects did very little to help me understand what the heck people were saying in Jiangxi. Fortunately, my host family was kind enough to translate Jiangxi dialect into Standard Mandarin when needed. However, the one who helped me the most was my host father’s 19 year old nephew. Since all schools are now required to teach in Standard Mandarin, he was the easiest to communicate with. In fact, he talked with the same rhythm and pace that I hear on the television and radio. The older the generations, however, were much harder to understand. That is because when they were growing up, Standard Mandarin was not the sole instruction in school, and they were taught by teachers whose first language was not Mandarin. As a result, often times the nephew would have to correct his mother’s pronunciation of a Mandarin word before I could understand what she was talking about. As for my host father’s parents, I never really got accustomed to their patterns of speaking, because they never fully mastered Mandarin.
Fortunately for me, a smile can be understood in any language.