Matt Butler ’11 Writes Home from Beijing
I moved to China two months ago to start working for a Beijing-based tech startup, Yodo1. I biked to work on my first day, armed with a backpack, a laptop, and 10 years’ worth of China studies between my ears. I unpacked my things, set up my desk, and made a few introductions before being ushered into a product meeting with the company’s program development team. My colleagues are predominantly Chinese; naturally, all meetings are conducted entirely in Chinese. My coworkers squabbled back and forth, their words dripping in Beijing accents. I listened to the flow of the conversation, trying to grapple onto any non-tech jargon that I could use to establish some kind of context for the conversation. I was utterly lost. Sweat began beading under my eyes; I couldn’t find a comfortable place for my hands, moving them from my chin to my lap and back again. I wanted to look engaged, nodding when others nodded, knowing my red face betrayed the illusion of my understanding. I was certainly out of my comfort zone; however, I knew that I was not over my head.
I started studying Chinese ten years ago as a freshman at Waynflete. My first year at Waynflete also marked the inaugural year of Waynflete’s Chinese department. On my first day of class I sat next to Alex Hadiaris and Elias Peirce. Heather Courtice-Hart kicked off the class by introducing herself and the language entirely in Mandarin. She held no punches, speaking at what seemed like a million miles an hour on who-knows what topics. The three of us looked at one another like we’d stepped into the wrong classroom. It was a look of terror and regret. Was it too late to switch into Spanish? I didn’t know it at the time, but this baptism by fire would be the first of many such instances of skin-crawling confusion that would, from that point forward, become an almost daily feeling in my life. In my lifetime of study, this feeling has also proven to be one of the strongest motivators to learn that I have come to know.
One of the things that I have come to respect about studying Mandarin is that there is no benefit for being complacent or feigning understanding. I’ve come to learn that language is a subject that we must confront honestly, without fear of looking stupid. Over the course of my relationship with the Chinese language, I cannot begin to describe the number of times that I have felt so extremely inept. With Chinese, as is true with all things, it seems that the more you learn, the more you expose just how much you do not know. What I have found most valuable in my language study is to face this dis-knowledge not as a discouragement, but as an opportunity to learn. Over the course of my studies, I have filled the pages of my learning with thousands and thousands of characters, grammar patterns, and pronunciations. Ten years later, I feel I’ve only just started the prologue of this story. The prospect of filling this never-ending book of language acquisition is a fool’s pursuit, but my pursuit nonetheless. At the heart of this drive have always been these moments of confusion and discomfort; after ten years, this feeling has remained as poignant and frightening as my first day of Chinese class with Heather. This catalyst for curiosity is what makes us students of language and life. Learning of any kind is a process, and it is important to take pride in every step of the process unapologetically.
I still get lost in my product meetings. I can often be found in the corner of the conference room looking up words like “screenshot”, “server” or “user retention” on my phone’s Chinese dictionary. But when the conversation and eyes turn my way, I clear my throat, gather my thoughts and venture an answer. Waitresses, cab drivers, friends, teachers and co-workers will always appreciate an honest try. With each attempt it gets easier and easier, and eventually, it begins to feel comfortable. In this moment of comfort, it is important to find new ways to break the habit and become uncomfortable again. Every moment of comfort is a completed page; to become uncomfortable is to turn the page and continue writing your book of learning.
Waynflete, thank you for the wings to explore my passion, to address my ignorance honestly, and to venture into this world with the skills to become a global citizen.