Why China? and the struggle for answers
Only three months until I leave for China, which means it’s time for a countdown post. I was planning on sharing my preparation checklist, but then I decided that’s boring (I need to get a visa and some travel insurance and go to the travel clinic—what more do I need to write?). Then I read about how the American Dialect Association named “because” the word of the year for 2013, which made me SO excited—because word evolution! Basically, they’ve recognized the new way that people are using the word: with adjectives (because happy) and nouns (because travel), rather than with full and “proper” grammar. I love this, and once again we can thank the internet for changing the way we use language.
So what does this have to do with my trip? Well, for a large part of my life—and a lot recently—I’ve been answering the question “Why China?” And why always begs for the company of because. Of course I have answers, but none of them are quite right. They’re either flat (because I lived in Singapore when I was little and that got me interested in Chinese language and culture) or they’re essentializing (because it’s such a great, fascinating country) or they’re weak (because I really like it there). They’re all true—but not right.
I wish I could just say because China. I don’t really have a reason other than that.
I once took an interpersonal communications class, and we were taught to avoid why questions because they tend to put people on the defensive, since why? can sometimes carry a sense of judgement. In general, there’s nothing wrong with why—it expresses curiosity and interest, and it implies a willingness to hear the answer. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and in light of my struggles with why China? I’ve tried to change the types of questions I ask people when I start learning about their loves and desires, asking the more concrete questions introduced by where and when and what. Maybe some people don’t struggle with why as much as I do, but I like tangible and quantifiable questions more. I find that they elicit better information and, frankly, they’re easier to answer.
The first time I studied in China, my classmates and I were all relative beginners, and we still had the desire to understand the reasons behind grammar. We’d often ask our teacher to explain why something in Mandarin was the way that it was. And he would always say “there is no because.” So frustrating, and so true. It’s true for grammar, and it’s true for life, and it’s true for my relationship with China.