Recently, as I was coming home from an airport run, the taxi driver and I were chatting. The initial conversation topic was my Chinese ability. The poor guy was so flabbergasted by my ability to actually talk to him that he could hardly keep the car on the road. Once he settled down and we’d run through the obligatory "You’re Chinese is good"–"No, it’s terrible" formalities, he of course wanted to know how long I’d been living in Beijing. 7 years I told him. From there, the conversation went something like this:
TD: Is your family here?
TD: Is your family in America then?
TD: Did you go visit them over the Spring Festival holiday?
Me: No, I went to Thailand on vacation…..
….whereupon he became very quiet, and it was at that point that I realized that even though we were exchanging seemingly mutually intelligible words back and forth, we weren’t really involved in the same conversation at all. You see, for him "family" meant one thing, and one thing only–my husband and children. The fact that I was there and they weren’t was not a troublesome issue to him, since it’s not uncommon in Chinese culture for spouses to live apart for various reasons (usually work or education related), but he was a bit shocked that I hadn’t at least gone home to visit them over the holidays. What I’m sure never occurred to him was that I’m not married and don’t have any children, and that I was interpreting the word "family" more broadly.
So there we were, chatting away, using the same language, but not even coming close to communicating.