We recently went on an excursion to the post office, to send off our absentee ballots for the upcoming presidential election in the U.S. The absentee balloting process was hard to understand even in English; if certain procedures are not followed exactly, the ballot is voided. Combined with our fledgling Chinese skills, our simple task of voting abroad became a production fraught with miscommunication and mounting frustration, as the post office neared closing time.
The experience culminated with a very amused employee exclaiming, "Ding dong!", to convey the concept of a doorbell. He meant to ask us if we needed our packages to be signed at the door upon delivery. Thankfully, we did not.
After a few months in Kinmen, we've come to realize that communication is not restricted to speaking and writing, but is a more common language of shared movements, expressions, and even sound effects. Our quest to communicate has been a journey to utilize the universal, which has not always been the easiest path. What is obvious to us might not be similarly obvious to someone who has never experienced American culture, or immersed themselves in a different language.
Take, for example, road signs. Though we had assumed them to be similar to those we were used to at home, we quickly discovered while preparing for our written scooter test that they were not. The concept of a road sign requires that its viewers be able to understand via common sense, we found it really only applied within a certain cultural context. It was a context to which we were fairly foreign.
Imagine a world in which you are reduced to questioning even your ability to read signs on the road. What do you do? How do you travel? In our case, the answer was not drastic: as with our language skills, we simply learned to interpret differently. Looking back now, the signs were not really hard to understand. When we drive, they make perfect sense to us in the context of driving in Kinmen.
Hook turns were a confusing concept, but having seen and performed the turn multiple times, it has become part of our intuition. On a Kinmen road, it makes perfect sense. Having immersed ourselves even in this small aspect of culture, we have absorbed a new set of unspoken and visual cues.
"Ding-dong!" and road signs, the parts of communication that exist outside of language, demonstrate that intuition can be learned and communication is about understanding the world before we can even speak. We were preoccupied with learning Mandarin when we first arrived, and even now we fall into that narrow perspective.
In reality, you need to comprehend and appreciate the community from which languages come and the shared understandings of communication between people. Before we perfect our Chinese as a language, we are trying to understand the people who speak it because we have found that the unspoken is the foundation for the simplest of connections.