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Learning Language to Hate a Culture

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I once really loved China. I liked the people, the places, being in that crazy culture. When I first showed up I could hardly speak two words of Chinese, but, as I spent a big part of the mid 2000s in Asia based mostly in and around China, I found myself increasingly able to communicate in Chinese Mandarin. I studied with a shot of vehemence because I strongly wanted to communicate with the people around me. Ignorant of a communicable language, I could only view China from the outside. I wanted in.

So I studied hard, often well over eight hours a day. And I learned. I learned so much, in fact, that by my third incident of travel through China I was beginning to communicate quite decently.

Wade in China

Then I stopped with a start: I realized that the more I studied Chinese, the more the blinders were coming off. I was beginning to see through the shroud of romance that I had previously cloaked the country and culture in from my linguistically ignorant travels, and I was beginning to understand what people were saying.

I grew very close to learning a language to hate a culture.

This is common, and I laugh each time I hear a story of a traveler entering into a culture they think they love, learning the language, and then realizing that they don’t really like what people are saying around them — that they don’t really like the culture anymore.

Vagabond Journey blogger, Emery, at The Reader Travels Vagabond Edition, published the following account of her brother coming to learn Spanish with his wife’s family in Spain:

My brother’s first assignment in the Air Force was Spain. Fresh out of high school and ready to party, the only words he knew were, “Mas cerveza.” But he met a pretty girl, and he married her.  Her family was so vibrant, warm and welcoming. Years later, after he learned the language, he returned to find out all that energetic talk in her familial home was a lot of bickering and nastiness. Ah, how ignorance is truly bliss. -Language and Love

Seeing places for what they are is sometimes dangerous for the traveler. It is easy to lose yourself in the romance of a culture whose ways and language you really cannot understand. Far off places and far off cultures often seem mystical, wholesome, and romantic from the outside, but when you step into them with two feet — when you learn the language — you risk becoming integrated, you risk seeing a people for what they are: real.

All cultures are the same shit.

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Filed under: Culture and Society, Intercultural Conflict, Language

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3054 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Cincinnati, Ohio, USAMap