Monday, February 8, 2016

The Learning Mind Stays The Fittest!

Children are wonderful! Their minds are so flexible, effortlessly learning and expanding in order to make as much sense of the confusing world around them as possible. Of course, as a species our survival dictated that our young learn as much and as quickly as possible to adapt to a dangerous world and live to pass on such skill to their own offspring. But on a social level, it is no less miraculous how kids represent the best and purest expression of what makes us so uniquely human!

I was thinking this today because I recall a specific trend in my writing workshops of a long time ago. See, I have this tendency when I write to not force feed the reader too much information. Perhaps I rely on this trick too much, but I've always found it more interesting to have my readers derive meaning from the context of a situation rather than to have to spell everything out. But this tendency has gotten me in trouble more often than not. Whether due to laziness or to this persistent need among workshoppers to find something--anything!--wrong with a particular story, I find that a lot of people like to be *told* rather than to *infer* the meaning a particular scene, passage, or even word.

Case in point: I wrote this story once that used quite a few Chinese phrases in it. I speak Chinese, and my fellow students in my workshop knew that I spoke Chinese. And in one particular scene in this fictional short piece I wrote in college, my Chinese character used the term "yang guizi" while berating a bunch of white guys bullying her. Wouldn't you know it, quite a few people in my class had an issue with my use of the term.

Now, for those who don't know what the term means, I'll spell it out right here unlike in that story. Yang guizi is a strongly derogatory term used by Mandarin speakers to insult or express displeasure at foreigners, and predominantly "white" foreigners at that. The term means "foreign devil." It really translates to "foreign ghost" -- but in Chinese culture, ghosts are far less passive and more insidious (i.e., demonic) than Western ghosts. Then of course there is the case of equating the white skin of Caucasians to that of ghosts as well, and the phrase becomes even more apt. So if you are reading this and you are what most of the world considers "white," ... now you know what it means if you ever hear this phrase while in a setting with lots of Chinese people. I jest, of course. It's considered quite rude, and most Chinese people would not care to use it lest they portray themselves as uncouth. But among less scrupulous individuals . . . . ?

Anyway, in this story my Chinese protagonist uses the term in a completely unconscious act of reflex against her attackers. And, no, I didn't have my narrative voice break through in that moment to explain for non-Chinese readers what it meant. I figured my character's anger, the exclamation mark at the end, and the ensuing circumstances of her current predicament in being bullied for being Chinese, would provide the adequate context needed to understand the spirit of her epithet if not the literal translation.

But what so many at my workshop said to me in their admonishment was: Hey, nimrod, why don't you explain what this girl is saying so that the rest of us can understand?! I'm paraphrasing, of course, but I think you get the gist. And to which I replied, more or less:

Oh really? You mean to tell me you couldn't figure it out for yourselves? Or are you just using purposeful ignorance in the place of true criticism? Because I really couldn't tell.

See no . . . monkey???

But this brings me back to my opening remarks. It has me pondering this recent realization: That somewhere during the transition from childhood to adult, some of us lose this ability to simply accept one's ignorance on certain matters, and therefore forget to exercise the ability to infer meaning from the context surrounding a confusing or inexplicable occurrence.

In other words: kids know they don't know everything, and so they actively seek enlightenment in other ways. Mostly by asking a billion questions a day, sure. But at least they demonstrate a questing, ever-learning mind. Adults, on the other hand, seem to operate on the assumption that they should know EVERYTHING by now ... and therefore do not have the patience to seek out for themselves the meaning of something new or foreign to their sphere of specialty knowledge.

I recently read a bedtime story to some cute and precocious grade schoolers I know. And although the book had some words or phrases that may have been a little too complex for their age range, they didn't interrupt me every few seconds wanting specifically to know the meaning of these things. I could see that they had accepted what they didn't know, and used the context of how the confusing words were being used with which to inform themselves instead. Nifty trick, hey!

More of us adults need to keep our minds learning like kids do so effortlessly. When you do, you accept that not everything is going to make sense. You accept that sometimes you may have to do a little more work in order to understand an experience outside of your comfort zone. Or, if dealing with a culture foreign to your own, to not flash your privilege and assume it is the *other's* responsibility to educate you.

So, the lesson here is: keep learning, kiddos! (A phrase my Mandarin professor used to say to us all the time in class. No, seriously.)


  1. I totally agree with you. There is nothing more satisfying (to me at least) than to see and feel the awe and wonder of a child's excitement or view of his or her world.

  2. Yeah, their little lives make the world (and the future) seem not so sucky, doesn't it? :)


Popular On This Blog