“She works hard.” In our Australian context, this sentence can be very loaded. It might mean “She’s not the brightest spark, there really isn’t much going on up there, but she tries hard.” Or, “Sure, she does well and got a high distinction in Corporations Law, but she doesn’t really have a life.” Of course, sometimes “She works hard” isn’t a negative statement at all.
Here in China, I’ve never heard “She works hard” used in a context other than one filled with admiration, the implication being we should all be more like her. Not only that, but when asked what the biggest differences are between English and the Chinese language, I realised one of the biggest differences is the sheer amount of vocabulary in Chinese that relates to perseverance.
One of the most commonly used words isn’t even really translatable. “The ability to eat bitterness” is used in all sorts of contexts. “If you want to get into a good university in China, you have to be able to eat bitterness” (ie. you have to be able to study hard). “The aid workers who helped recover the bodies of those lost in the earthquake ate a lot of bitterness” (ie. the aid workers underwent a lot). “Those who fear eating bitterness will not achieve anything great” (ie. those who fear hardship will not achieve anything great).
Then there are about ten words for “diligent” in the Chinese dictionary – which overlap with the ability to “bear hardship”, which is also well represented in the dictionary. There’s also internet slang which is half English, half Chinese and ancient Chinese idioms about grinding iron pestles into needles, wise men who move mountains one stalk of grass at a time and filling up oceans with pebbles I’m sure we could all think of similar words and sayings in English but I don’t think we could think of nearly as many, nor would they be as standardised as the Chinese sayings. American kids might be familiar with “The Little Engine that Could” but are all Australian kids? When making this observation to my Chinese friends, they say it’s part of the “Chinese spirit” plus China’s still a developing country. Did American English or Australian English used to have widely known stories about filling up oceans with pebbles? As China develops, will they slowly loose these types of stories? My Chinese friends tell me stories about high school days where they sat at their desks from 6am-10pm, living in 16 people dorms, where the electricity would go out at 11pm, but where people would sneak into the bathrooms to continue studying since the lights stay on all night there. One of my friends told me her grandma taught her to sleep with thick, uneven cardboard under her back so that she would wake up early to fit in some extra study. I’ve heard stories about my friends memorising dictionaries and bringing needles to class to prick themselves as they fall asleep due to only sleeping 2 hours a night.
My 12 year old cousin looked at me incredulously when I was surprised he had homework over the winter holidays. “Of course, why wouldn’t I? I have 60 pages of revision questions”. Due to a national, standardised curriculum, almost all Chinese children in Year One read a children’s story about a boy, Kuang Heng, who loved to study, but whose family was so poor that they couldn’t afford electricity. So what happened? He chiselled a hole in the wall and used his neighbour’s light to study.
It really brings a whole new meaning to working hard.