I’ve learned about how to be a good listener, an active listener, a couple times in my life. One of the most important things one learns is that you actually have to listen, to work at hearing what the other person is saying. You have pay attention to their words and emotions and body language. You need to not be deciding how to respond when they stop talking. You can’t be thinking about where you’ll go when the conversation is over, just smiling and nodding as you go along. Relatively simple things, but we don’t always do them so when someone does listen well, it can be a profound experience.
Right now, my listening skills in Chinese are more advanced than my speaking skills. So a friend might ask me a question about American culture, and I understand the question and know the answer, in English, but don’t have the words to put together a good answer in Chinese. Frustration. Or I tell the clerk that I want something that is in the (locked) “cupboard.” As we walk over there she asks what I want. I have to tell her I don’t know how to say in Chinese and point at it when we get over to the cupboard. Inadequacy. Or I understand the main ideas of a sermon, but if my teacher asks me about it on Monday I can’t really explain it back to her. Disappointing.
So I’m praying that my speaking skills will improve this semester and I won’t have quite so much of a gap between the skills and looking for more opportunities to practice speaking. At the same time, I think that during this period of learning, not just the Chinese language, but also Chinese culture and society, it is good that it is hard for me to speak.
My lack of language ability forces me to practice good listening skills. If I am going to understand as much as I can, I need to put all of my energy into listening. I can’t appear to listen but be preparing my response at the same time. I can’t try to listen and think about how fast I can get out of here. If I’m going to eavesdrop on conversations in a coffee shop, I have to put my full energy into listening. I can’t have the TV news on in the background while I make dinner and hope to have any idea what is going on in the world. When I am listening, I need to be listening 100%. Its mentally and physically exhausting, and I still don’t understand a lot of things.
Listening carefully and not being able to respond as fully as I’d like forces me to be a better listener, to actually put all my attention towards listening. And it stops me from responding quickly or speaking in clichés or trying to solve others problems or give them advice. A couple of weeks ago, I heard some of a new acquaintance’s story. Her life is quite difficult right now, both relationally and financially. I missed some of the complexity of the story, but someone else translated the main points for me (and confirmed what I did understand). I didn’t have anything wise (or otherwise) to say. I could only listen and hold this woman’s story in my heart. I could listen as the others involved in the conversation did respond. They did try to help her take steps towards solving her problems, and it seemed to be the helpful, “I have this connection that might be able to help you” sort of help.
Its humbling to be this useless. I receive so much grace from others as they help me to learn and put up with my mangled, halting sentences. And yet I think that it is good practice for living cross-culturally. I come from a “lets fix it right now” culture and family. As Americans our default mode is to think that we have the answers, that we can solve everyone’s problems. This isn’t a very good way to interact cross-culturally. So in these months where I can’t just spout out my opinions easily, I am also developing a way to think that listens carefully, lets others take the lead, and doesn’t try to solve every problem. I suspect that this will serve me well in years to come.