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A Foreigner in Shanghai

November, 2017
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Once, a king believed he could defy God. To prove his might, Nimrod built the Tower of Babel, tall enough to reach the heavens. God, insulted by this challenge to his power, cast the plague of languages upon humanity. Thus did Nimrod’s recklessness cause division among us, forcing men to see their own brethren as foreigners. What a nimrod he was…

There are 6,909 living languages in the world today. Even excluding dialects and extinct languages, the potential for miscommunication is still an issue, especially within the context of international discussions regarding political events. Language barriers cause difficulty for leaders of respective nations to understand one another.

Those who face the challenge of language barriers on a most personal level, however, are third-culture individuals; neither one nor the other, their identities are the marriage of two cultures. Foreigner in Shanghai is a film project that I began to open a platform of discussion between internationally raised individuals and their grandparents. Having spent the majority of my childhood in Canada, I have had little interaction with Shanghainese, the daily dialect of my grandparents. Talking with them is almost as difficult as it is awkward, with silence speaking for the majority of the conversation.

foreigners-in-shanghai-1Excerpt from Foreigner in Shanghai:

All dialogue is in Chinese unless indicated otherwise. SHANXIN - 16, Canadian-born Chinese – quietly listens to GRANDMA - 80, Shanghainese – speak. She anxiously watches Grandma, a frail woman bent over with age,shuffle on the pavement.

Grandma: Nice weather today, isn’t it?

Shanxin nods.

Grandma: How’s your mother?

Shanxin (in English): Um…She…

Grandma: After she came back, it seems like all she can talk about is how polluted Shanghai is. But this is her home!

Shanxin nods again. Silence.

Grandma: Can you even understand Chinese?

Shanxin is affronted. She nods.


Raising awareness is the main purpose of my project. I seek to educate the public on the widespread impacts of globalization related through the personal words of individuals. But first, I sent out a survey to discover whether my experience was common. A total of 22 international school students were surveyed in regards to their experience with culture and language at home.

figure-1-copyAccording to Figure 1, the fluent language of all respondents can roughly be split into thirds – English, Mandarin/A Chinese Dialect, and Other Languages. In contrast, when prompted on the fluent languages of their grandparents, 71% of respondents stated that their grandparents knew only Mandarin or another Chinese dialect, as seen in Figure 2. Readily, the presence of a language barrier emerged. When asked about their knowledge of their grandparents’ life stories, the responses varied. Almost 41% of respondents indicated a lack of confidence that they knew their grandparents’ life stories, which may exhibit how third-culture kids have difficulty connecting with their family.

Seeing the results, I felt relieved there were individuals who could validate my experience. Although my experience may be on the extreme end of the spectrum, there exists a strained degree of understanding for most international school students and their families. Further experimentation can be conducted to compare the answers of international school students with local school students.

Moving forward to integrate my research and ideas into a singular narrative, I wrote a script. As an avid filmmaker, I enjoy sharing stories, but this was one of the first times my story was inspired by my own experience. In the script, a third-culture girl is forced to live with her Shanghainese grandma for the summer, and they must overcome the language barrier by admitting their love for one another. Shanxin, the main character, would be like me – awkward, pensive, and stubborn. After several edits and critique from my teachers and peers, I submitted the script to the Calcutta International Cult Film Festival and won the award for Best Short Script of the Month. I felt elated by the implications; my story was interesting to, even commended by, someone, somewhere around the world.

Then came the film production. I asked my sister and mother to act as the two characters in the film. It goes without saying that my mother was overjoyed to be chosen for the role of a woman forty years older than herself. Predictably, she and I bickered about everyday issues we bicker about, except with additional topics of contention such as the extremely significant problem of what lunch to buy for the film crew. We settled with my original choice, pizza, in the end.

figure-2-copyBut what surprised me was how we were able to be honest with each other on set. Timid in front of the camera, my mother’s persona juxtaposed with her loudness in real life. As the director, I jokingly encouraged her to act the way she would when scolding me for not coming to dinner immediately after she calls for me. Playing back the shots, she herself even felt surprised at how her behavior could be a little harsh.

Currently, the film is in the post-production stages, and slowly, my story seems to be stitching together as well. Every day, my grandparents age, and every day, I inch closer towards graduation. This is my senior year of high school, and time with family will soon be limited to Chinese New Year holidays and, perhaps, the occasional Christmas holidays. I cannot say that I have overcome my own ego and am now able communicate with my grandparents at ease, but am I a nimrod for attempting to address my difficulties?

People often discuss the benefits of being a third-culture individual, for it seems as if we only tell success stories. I am Canadian-born Chinese, and though I have travelled to more than ten countries and speak multiple languages, my emotions can easily be glazed over as an overly publicized minority experience. Ironically, the excessive discussion over third-culture kids has dulled our experiences. We all seem to spout the same hackneyed story of exclusion and self-acceptance, after all.

As an expression of my doubts and uncertainties, Foreigner in Shanghai reflects on the pressing issue of language barriers and illustrates the complications that third-culture individuals face. However, our stories speak to a greater global phenomenon; the third culture is expanding and becoming increasingly significant to everyday citizens. Modernization is directly correlated with globalization, as is the intermingling of cultures.

Being a third-culture individual means having the knowledge to be objectively critical of a situation. With an outside perspective on the societies that we interact with, we are distanced from the emotions attached to decisions being made. Simultaneously, our outside perspective also discredits our opinion. Locked in a state of knowledge with no capacity for change, we are only able to observe the passage of society around us.

Thus, the only stance we can take is the stance for ourselves. At the moment, language may bar us from being understood, but our experiences are more significant than the words we use to express them. Our complications deserve acknowledgement, and someday, celebration.

And the Lord said, “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.”

By Dannes Zhang,

Senior student at Shanghai American School,

Co-leader of the LittleStar Student Team


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