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Learning Language to Hate a Culture

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 [...]

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 88 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 3411 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Rochester, New York

12 comments… add one

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  • Steve-O November 3, 2010, 9:17 pm

    Haha…very true…

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com November 4, 2010, 12:05 pm

      You are probably a real good example haha. I bet you can speak Japanese pretty well at this point. Man, I would really like to go back to Japan. Hmm . . . my wife IS a teacher. Do you think that she could get a job with a family?

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  • Andy Graham November 4, 2010, 12:58 am

    All cultures are generally petty, I have problems talking with Americans about “buying stuff.” There are small nuggets of genious ineach specific person. Travelers are extremely positive people, this stops us from becoming petty like the locals. An illerate person in a primitive country can talk about his new cell phone for weeks. In the USA the people never stop complaining about the President, Fox or the weather.

    Acceptance that life is petty is the art.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com November 4, 2010, 12:04 pm

      Very true, socially, it is my impression that most people really need things to talk about at all times everywhere in the world. When they run out of quality talk, they talk garbage, create problems, do anything to stave off boredom and stimulate themselves haha.

      I suppose this is part of the fun of being human.

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  • headventure November 4, 2010, 1:47 am

    its interesting that you mention
    the risk of becoming integrated …
    isnt the risk rather in becoming aware
    that integration is almost impossible ?

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com November 4, 2010, 11:56 am

      Integration as in becoming part of a community of people. Ultimately, to see a place for what it is is a good perspective.

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  • Bob November 5, 2010, 4:18 pm

    Yep, can be really disappointing to realize most places are no better in many ways than those you left.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com November 5, 2010, 4:35 pm

      Oh, so true. Travel often makes you realize that your culture is not so bad after all.

      But there is still, and always will be, a whole world out there.

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  • Dave from The Longest Way Home November 6, 2010, 6:01 am

    Very true. Unravel the code, and you’ll see a mirror.

    And, it’s been going on for thousands of years. It’s the unknown that makes life great. If we all spoke the same, we’d either be living in Gattica, or have evolved to some new challenges.

    At the moment it’s the former.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com November 6, 2010, 11:33 am

      Good direction: the stimulation of being in a new culture where you don’t understand what is being said or going on simply feels good. But as soon as you get through the first-step layers, you get into the meat of the culture, which, at this level, are all pretty much the same (give or take tendencies to shift to the left or the right of a middle line).

      Right on, the moment is forever, we need to enjoy these travels before we all speak the same tongue and have unraveled ourselves to the point of petty in fighting haha.

      Thanks,

      Wade

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  • anarcho punk November 22, 2010, 3:31 pm

    i read this and I wanted to know what it is that you were hearing that you didn’t like. you should quote some of the horrid conversations which you overheard. that would make this article even funner. abrazo del america del sur

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com November 24, 2010, 2:46 pm

      What people say when they yell at you, what they say when they gossip and bicker with each other, the racism, the innuendo, the lack of insight, provocations that you can no longer ignore now that you know what they mean, and the additional role that you need to play when you can become a linguistic part of a place.

      It is sometimes fancy to take away a floating impression of a place within which you can’t understand what is beings said. These places tend to seem a whole lot better than what they are, as you are placed on an insignificant pedestal on the outside — you are completely inconsequent. But when you dive through the layers of a place, when you can fully understand what is going around you, places loose their fancy appearance and become real. And the real is always a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Though knowing this, understanding can start to bud.

      Was your take on Latin America different before you could speak Spanish fluently?

      Truly miss you.

      Walk Slow,

      Wade

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