Opinion / Blog

Foreigners in China are often "illiterate"

By Chevalerie ( Updated: 2016-01-21 10:38

Foreigners in China are often

Russian students show collages featuring Chinese words at the No 1 Middle School in Heihe city in Northeast China's Heilongjiang province in April. [Qiu Qilong / for China Daily]

It is a difficult and grisly issue for many.

At times, the topic is rarely tackled, and sometimes treated as a taboo subject.

This is partly understandable on the grounds of its anthropological significance.

As things stand, apart from a few exceptions of specialists of china - native-born resident and talented students - most of the foreigners living in china are illiterate, myself included.

Of course, some are fluent in Chinese, others gabble some words but at the very end, a bunch of them are able to read and write easily the mandarin. According to a generally accepted definition illiterates are somewhat epithet that many deny or fail to acknowledge.

Regardless of whether they agree, this is a very tough situation.

According to a more cruel interpretation, an illiterate turns out to be someone having little or no formal education.

A less appreciative acknowledgement suggests that illiterates are marked by a sense of inferiority to an expected local standard. If this argument was pushed to its logical consequence, illiterates are ignorant, considered as marginalized people, and low educated.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines literacy as, "the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society".

Of course, few foreigners will recognize themselves in such category.

This situation is not unique to China. This is also the case in most of the Asian countries.

Having the privilege of living in china, many feel “incorrectly” to be part of the world's elite. In a way, they are. In many companies, the expatriates are often considered as the lucky ones. In an extremely competitive labor market, not everyone has the opportunity to stay a while in China.

Although most of them are illiterate individuals, they don’t blame themselves for such failure. Rather, they view themselves as successful. Tough, they should be humble. As Confucius said, “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance”.

It is the ultimate paradox that the wealthiest ones are often the less gifted.

The latter are mostly working for multi-national corporations with well-paying jobs, living in luxury apartments. As they usually stay in china for short periods - three to five years - they are highly stressed and under daily pressure, they don’t have the time to make the effort. Realizing the enormity of the task, most made a rather feeble attempt to learn the language.

Position of dependence

Thus, they live in a position of dependence at the mercy of translators. Everyday life, for every little thing, they require help or guidance.

Can they access to the Chinese culture and its inner thoughts?

Can they understand the local way of thinking?

Unable to read and write the mandarin, they are inevitably excluding themselves from the community, the mysteries hidden beneath the appearances.

The situation is becoming increasingly intolerable particularly when they live within a western married couple or even alone.

Others will find through a relationship with a local mate a suitable solution to deal with the problem. Normally those ones will have the tools to begin developing a better understanding of the mandarin. This is indeed generally the case, although not always. Some, due to a lack of courage or by ease of living, will remain illiterate. As elderly people, they still cling to their wives or girl friends to survive.

Of course, this distortion can be redressed by a passionate love. But, at the long run, this imbalance will increasingly squeeze the average couple. Over time, perceptions related to empathy decline. How long the state of grace will last? At the end, they will lock themselves up in their dreams before the sunsets.

What can be done to change things for the better?

This may be a good time to re-examine the reading and writing pedagogy by concentrating on needs of adults with learning disabilities and very little spare time.

Regardless of the solution, it would be useful to stimulate this debate and to highlight the need for change.

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