Getting over the 'it's all Greek (or Chinese) to me' barrier

Yao Minji
Language is difficult to grasp and master. Two students discuss learning a foreign language and exploring a new culture and history.
Yao Minji

"To learn a language is to have one more window through which to view the world."

According to the Internet, it is a Chinese proverb about language learning, but Dai Yifan, a 20-year-old exchange student in Athens, disputes this.

Similarly, 21-year-old Stamatis Karasavvidis said "The limits of my language are the limits of my world" isn't Greek, though the Internet claims so.

According to Karasavvidis, 21, one adage that is unmistakably Greek is: "It is all too Chinese to me."

The Greek student, who is studying Chinese for two years, said that is a common expression among Greeks when they don't understand something.

Some say the Internet has made it much easier to understand other cultures, while others argue it has increased cultural stereotypes and misunderstandings. Either way, it is always challenging to understand a culture that is different from your own, especially ones as ancient and complex as China and Greece.

"We are two countries with rich histories and many similarities," Krasavvidis told Shanghai Daily. "We should both learn more about one another since learning is one thing we share in common – 'Γηράσκω ἀεὶ διδασκόμενος,' or 'Live to be old, learn to be old'."

Learning a language can undoubtedly be beneficial. Shanghai Daily spoke with Dai and Karasavvidis about the joys of language learning and the stereotypes they have worked to overcome.

Getting over the 'it's all Greek (or Chinese) to me' barrier
Ti Gong

Dai Yifan (fourth from right) poses with her language class teachers and classmates at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

Q: A bit of self-introduction, please. And if you have a Greek/Chinese name, what does it mean?

Dai: I am a junior student at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), majoring in the Greek language. I came to Athens in September 2021 on a one-year exchange program.

My Greek name is Ανθούλα (Anthoula), which means "little flower." It was given by my Greek teacher when I was in the first year. I really like it.

Karasavvidis: I'm a 21-year-old university student at the International Hellenic University (DIPAE). I come from Sidirokastro, a small town in the region of Serres in Central Macedonia province.

I've been studying Chinese for almost two years now at the Confucius Institute in Thessaloniki. My Chinese name is Ma Chao, and it was given by my teacher and I immediately loved it.

Because I was familiar with the history of China's Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280), I always had a deep appreciation for one of the era's heroes, Jin Ma Chao (handsome Ma Chao).

Getting over the 'it's all Greek (or Chinese) to me' barrier
Ti Gong

Stamatis Karasavvidis and his classmates wrote, composed, sang and recorded a song in Chinese.

Q: How did you decide to learn the languages? Were your family and friends surprised when they found out about your choice?

Dai: It's almost as if Greek chose me rather than the other way around! SISU was always my first choice for university, and I put down Greek as the first choice of my major before taking the college entrance exam. I succeeded.

Many friends and relatives were a little surprised, since it is not a common choice, in fact, among the least common ones. What amuses me is that they always keep asking me how to accurately pronounce the Greek alphabets we all learned in our math and physics classes. They want to check if their math or physics teachers got it right.

Karasavvidis: There are many reasons.

I always had a deep appreciation of the Chinese civilization from its ancient history to the present, everything about its art, music, philosophy, literature, economic and political system, and thought.

I learned about the Confucius Institute from a friend in Romania who also studies in a CI there. I immediately searched for it in Greece. Can you imagine my excitement when I found out that there was one that had just opened in Thessaloniki?

My relatives were not that surprised because pretty much everyone knew about my deep interest in China and its culture, as well as my love for languages in general.

Still, they were impressed by what I was going to try because most people think that Chinese is hard.

We even have a phrase, "it's all Chinese to me," when we don't understand something.

Getting over the 'it's all Greek (or Chinese) to me' barrier
Ti Gong

Karasavvidis at a seal-carving lesson at the Confucius Institute

Q: What was the biggest change in impressions about Greece and China before and after learning the language?

Dai: My impression of Greece was limited to its ancient history, such as Greek mythology and architecture, great Mediterranean cuisine and beautiful islands.

Now I have learned more about modern Greece and its people. How do they celebrate holidays? What is their lifestyle? So, learning the Greek language has been an ongoing process for me to break stereotypes and discover the multi-layered charm of the nation.

Before I came to Greece to study for a year, I thought Greek people were "lazy but enthusiastic" because they don't like working. But then I discovered that many Greeks really love their work and even consider it a part of their life.

Many Greek restaurant and shop owners see all their customers as their friends, so you can always find Greeks chitchatting in front of a shop or restaurant, even if they have only just met.

I've also met a few Greeks who can speak a line or two in Chinese, which surprises me. For those Greeks who are really interested in Chinese culture, the depth of their knowledge and the level of their passion are equally fascinating.

Karasavvidis: One thing that I really understood after I started learning the language is how different Chinese dialects can be. The first time I saw a wordlist of Shanghai dialect, everything was lost to me, even if I knew the words in Mandarin.

Getting over the 'it's all Greek (or Chinese) to me' barrier
Ti Gong

Dai at the "Shipwreck Bay" in Zakynthos

Q: Is it a difficult language to learn? What is the most challenging part in learning the language?

Dai: Greek is very difficult, especially the grammar. Greek nouns use two numbers (singular and plural), three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), and then four cases (nominative, genitive, dative and accusative). Greek verbs can have a lot of variations and many special ones that were carried on from ancient Greek and just ought to be memorized.

What is really fun is chatting with classmates in my language class at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. I have classmates from France, Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and a few others. We chat about our own cultures in the Greek language, which serves as a bridge for us to learn more about each other's culture.

Karasavvidis: First and foremost, I'd like to mention that there is no such thing as a "difficult language."

It all depends on your mother tongue and whether or not the language you are learning is similar.

Having Greek as my mother tongue, Chinese can admittedly be quite a difficult challenge, both to get a basic grasp of it and also to master it. It is a language entirely different from Greek in its core, its writing system, pronunciation, grammar, idioms and everything.

For most people, the tones can be extremely hard when learning Chinese. I find the grammar part most difficult, especially the syntax, as it is extremely different from all other languages that I'm already familiar with.

Funny enough, in the first days of learning, grammar was what I considered to be the simplest part of the language. Instead, I was the simple one, and naive.

Q: There is an increased partnership between China and Greece in recent years. Has that reflected in your own life? Is there more news about Greece and China? Do your classmates and friends pay more attention to the nation?

Dai: My Chinese friends are definitely paying more attention to everything Greek, and my Greek friends, likewise, mostly about culture, tourism and trade. For example, many Chinese friends know more about beautiful Greek cities and islands now than Athens or Santorini.

Greek yogurt skincare products are getting popular in China. And my Greek friends are very interested in Chinese e-commerce sites and street food.

Karasavvidis: Due to COVID-19, there has been an increase in the local news coverage of China and the Chinese measures of combating it became a matter of debate among the Greeks, with many agreeing and supporting the measures that China took, while others consider the measure "too harsh."

Unfortunately, due to the influence of fake news in Greece, there are many misconceptions among many Greeks about China. But then, fortunately, there are many different views about China here. Some see it as a big country with a long history far away, while some are not able to see it correctly, and still many others admire and support its civilization and the socialist system.

The vast majority of Greek people, with all these different views, see the Chinese people as friends!

E-trade and the technology sector are things that definitely put China in the minds of the Greeks. Ordering directly from China on the Internet has become extremely popular. Many people also see China as a country with very strong job potential and the Chinese language as an important part of their CV.

Getting over the 'it's all Greek (or Chinese) to me' barrier
Ti Gong

Thessaloniki, the city where Karasavvidis has been studying Chinese for almost two years

Q: One Greece/China-related thing that you really want to do?

Dai: I really want to promote Greek cuisine in China. It's fresh and healthy with unique Mediterranean features, very suitable for the Chinese eating habit. It's a pity we don't have many Greek restaurants yet. I'm confident that many people will fall in love with authentic Greek food!

Karasavvidis: I have not visited China yet, so I really want to study and stay in China for some years.

China has been promoting stability and has been establishing international ties founded on mutual respect and mutual growth in countries that have been suffering from neo-colonialism and imperialism.

The way the Chinese people struggled throughout the "century of humiliation" and emerged victorious, building socialism with Chinese characteristics in their country, for me, is a shining example for all the world.

So, to return to the subject of the question, what is one China-related thing I really want to do? Study the brave and significant road the Chinese communists successfully took and strive for a better future!

Special Reports