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October 2007 Archives

October 11, 2007

Beer or Wine: It's Not That Simple

The most fascinating clue into psychological differences between Americans and Chinese came to me over several glasses of beer. It wasn’t in a packed Chinese bar or club, which some expats have tried to convince me are actually the best places to learn Chinese language and culture. No, it occured to me back in Michigan as I sat down for a Guiness with Jiang, my conversation partner, on a Friday evening.

As we opened the bottles of Guiness (by far her favorite brand of beer), I asked what I thought would be a simple question:
“Do you like wine or beer more?” Silence. “How can you say? They’re just DIFFERENT,” she finally responded. “But you can just see how much you enjoy wine when you drink it and then compare that amount to how much you enjoy beer when you drink that. Just because they’re different doesn’t mean you can’t compare them,” I countered. But we were at an impasse. My question seemed to her impossibly irrelevant or overly simplistic.

My surprise at her refusal to answer made me feel that I had stumbled onto an important difference. At the time I was preparing for my second trip to China, so I resolved to get to the bottom of this question—to see whether this was a personal quirk belonging only to Jiang or whether this was in fact a larger trend.

After 4 months of pestering the Chinese populace about its preferences, I’m only more convinced that Jiang’s response was not a fluke. It seems that Americans are constantly evaluating the objects, experiences, places, and even people around them in terms of enjoyment so that we can maximize our pleasure. As an American, I can tell you that I usually like beer over wine. It seems natural that Americans, living in a consumeristic and individualistic culture, emphasize our own enjoyment by constantly comparing new objects, ideas, and experiences on the basis of how much pleasure we derive from them. An object is as valuable as it is pleasing to us.

Given my American upbringing, I wondered what could take the place of pleasure. The answer, it seems, is that in collectivistic China there are many other considerations that take precedence, such as the wants and desires of others. There is less individual choice in China, and there’s also much more consideration of group harmony. For example, instead of everyone ordering their individual favorite dish when eating at a restaurant, dishes are ordered as a group and shared communally. In this way, the individual’s desires are not of central importance.

Also, clearly stating a preference in a group could lead to a situation in which that preference is unmet, leaving everyone unsatisfied. If I declare that my absolute favorite is fish heads, it becomes the host’s duty to order fish heads. But if the restaurant doesn’t have fish heads, then the host is embarrassed and the guests are embarrassed. However, if our preferences are hidden, even to ourselves, then there is no group disappointment.

Because of this, I wonder to what extent the Chinese simply mask their true preferences in the interest of not offending other people or whether preferences just aren’t as central to the Chinese mind. Of course, Americans do the same; when cab drivers ask me what I think of China, I opt for the positives. But thinking of my conversation partner’s refusal to favor beer over wine, or my students’ hesitancy to come out with their favorite TV shows, I’m more convinced that the result of my 4-month investigation is that at bottom there’s a difference in the centrality of personal preference.

October 15, 2007

When Mr. Bean Hit Me on His Bike

Last Wednesday I left the apartment of the Korean family whose two young boys I tutor in English and walked the mostly empty streets within their gigantic apartment complex grounds to the shuttle bus stop. As I crossed the street, I looked to my left only to see a Chinese man barrelling toward me on his bike. We passed an awkward moment in the silent dance that sometimes happens when you’re about to bump into somebody: “I’ll go left. Oops! You’re going left too. In that case, I’ll go right. Oops! You’re now going right too.” Our dance ended when he crashed into me.

I was largely unhurt and still standing, but the man had fallen onto the pavement.I barely had time to ask him in Chinese whether or not he was OK before he scurried back onto his bike and pedalled away, without so much as a word in response. Now, several days later, the large bruise on my shin has gone away, but my nagging curiousity at his curious silence remains.

Having spent nearly 8 months in China, though, I really shouldn’t have been surprised at the man’s silence. Two weeks before my incident with silent Mr. Bean on a bike, I witnessed a similar silence after a car exiting a parking lot near my campus struck the back wheel of a man biking by. Stunned, the biker turned around toward the driver, who ignored the loud crashing sound of the impact and drove off.

Although the accidents might be extreme examples, I suspect these experiences aren’t particularly unique in China. There’s a curious silence that follow social faux pas in China, from situations as small as an accidental bump while getting on the subway or stepping on another’s shoe to situations as serious as traffic accidents.

The “sorry” isn’t spoken perhaps because it’s just taken as a given; perhaps because it makes the offender lose face; or perhaps because it’s part of a larger phenomenon of emotions being surpressed below the surface of social interactions when in America they would be brought to the surface. My students themselves like to attribute most every social phenomenon in China to it’s large population, and perhaps in such a crowded country it’s so inevitable that you’ll bump into others on the bus that an apology just isn’t needed.

The awkward silence and the feigned ignorance bothered me at first in China, but I have since become so accustomed to the change that I feel little impulse to apologize after bumping others on the bus. I am even a bit worried that my silence will be taken for rudeness when I return to the US and forgoe the habit of minor “excuse me’s” and “sorry’s.” Come to think of it, it didn’t come to mind to apologize to the man who hit me on his bike. So, if you see a Mr. Bean character riding a bike in the Favorview Palace apartment complex in Guangzhou, please tell him I’m sorry if it was my fault.

October 23, 2007

Life, Life, or Life?

China, as a whole, is fond of mottos or ‘kouhao,’ as they’re known in Chinese. Peter Hessler writes in River Town of his initial excitement at being able to read the banners lining his town then turning into disappointment when he learned that in reality they were bland “serve the people, serve the country! Rah rah!” types of mottos.

Similarly, when I ask my Chinese friends to help me translate the mottos on red banners with gold characters that line the streets of Guangzhou, my friends are often surprised at my interest. “We just ignore that stuff. You get used to it after a while,” a research assistant told me when translating a framed motto on our train to Nanjing.

But while the mottos filling China are often bland and uninspiring, one of the mottos ringing our school’s track led me to an insight into the meaning of ‘life.’ Translated into English, the red characters, painted one per large, white wooden board, read: “Exercise one hour every day, and you will have a healthy life for life.” “Isn’t that redundant?” I asked my Chinese friend. “Not at all. Those meanings of life are completely different,” she said.

What in English was “life” and “for life,” the sign had two different words: “shenghuo,” meaning daily life and “beizi,” meaning life as a length of time. According to my Third Edition Oxford Chinese Dictionary and the students in my Tuesday 7th period, in addition to these two words, there are also ‘rensheng,’ (life in the abstract, philosophical sense), ‘shengwu,’ (life in the is-there-life-on-Mars sense) ‘shengming,’ ‘xingming,’ (meaning life as a whole, that cannot be divided), and ‘zhongshen’ and ‘yisheng’ (both meaning life as a period of time).

So whereas English often uses a single word, Chinese has at least 8 different words to express more finely the different senses of life. This seems to me a much more delicate and fine-tuned use of language than the English word ‘life.’ Of course, there are also concepts that English expresses more finely than Chinese. However, reflecting on these differences in general, it seems to me much more precise and useful to have a more detailed meanings for words.

Such can be the bane of language learners, though, as any Chinese learner has discovered when trying to learn the various names of family members. Chinese differentiates not only the age difference between brothers (gege for older and didi for younger) and sisters (jiejie for older and meimei for younger) but whether any given member of the extended family is from the father’s line or mother’s line. Thus, when listening to Chinese people describe their families, you must be aware of zumu (father’s mother) AND waizumu (mother’s mother), and so on.

The list of Chinese family names is staggering enough that I’ve given up trying to describe my family. However, maybe someday, when I least expect, I’ll be suddenly struck by the key to it all from the most unlikely of sources: a red motto banner hanging in Guangzhou, China. I’ll keep my eye out.

October 27, 2007

Can I Trouble You to Read This?

“How do you say ‘mafan’ in English,” my student asked me this week in class. I paused. The word I had become so used to using in my daily speech now left me dumbfounded when I tried to think of an equivalent word in English. There must be something here, I thought. When a word central to one language has no easy equivalent in a second language, chances are it’s indicative of a larger cultural difference.

My Third Edition Oxford Chinese Dictionary translates mafan as an adjective meaning ‘troublesome’ or ‘inconvenient’ or as a verb meaning to ‘trouble,’ ‘bother,’ or ‘put sb. to trouble.’ These are perhaps the best translations available, but they don’t seem to capture any natural English expressions. A phrase that is so central and common to Chinese seems awkward when thought of in English.

‘Mafan ni’ or, loosely, ‘I’m inconveniencing you’ can follow follow a request made of another, but it sounds awkward when translated into English. Take, for example, when I ask the lady in the copy room to copy materials for my class: “I want 150 copies of this sheet. I’m really inconveniencing you.” It sounds less awkward to translate mafan when it preceeds a request, such as in this buffed-up translation: “Can I trouble you to to ask, ‘Where is the bus stop?’” But in either case, instead of sounding like a native English speaker, it sounds more like a Chinese student translating directly from Chinese.

‘Mafan’ has the curious ability, also, to pop up untranslated in an otherwise English sentence during conversations with other foreigners living in China. An average conversation might include, “Yeah, it’d be nicer to get out of campus more, but it’s so mafan to take the subway and get back in time for class.” From this I suspect that ‘mafan’ simply carries a different meaning or connotation than its supposed English equivalents, and thus often gets thrown into an otherwise entirely English sentence.

The reason these translations don’t seem to capture the feeling of the word, I think, is because ‘mafan’ is much more commonly used in social situations that do not require it in the United States. I believe ‘mafan’ exists to balance out an interdependent society in which people are expected to often rely on each other, as opposed to American society where we often try to go everything alone, the help of others be damned.

In an interdependent society, this common reliance must be balanced against the recognition of appreciation for the help of others as well as the constant reminder of the inconvenience our reliance may cause others. An interdependent society out of control would be crushed under the weight of endless favors done for the sake of others. Yet a successful interdependent society encourages helpful interdependence, but tempers it with a reminder that one person’s favor can be another person’s mafan.

October 29, 2007

My Standing Date with Confucius

Every Monday at 12 PM I meet with a graduate from neighboring South China Normal University to practice his English pronunciation and, following that, discourse in Chinese about Chinese society. Now a middle school teacher of Chinese literature, my friend’s degree in Chinese classics has endowed him with a fascinating grasp of both past and present China.

After my roommate and my first meeting with this man, we were inspired enough by both our friend’s lengthy discourse on the modern heritage of Confucius’s thought and our friend’s confusing Chinese name that we’ve now deemed our friend Kongzi, or Confucius. Ever since I have had a standing date every Monday afternoon with Confucius at the back gate of South China Normal University to practice English and discourse on Chinese society.

At today’s meeting, it was obvious that Confucius had come prepared as he launched into an almost fiery discourse about foreigner’s obsession with Chinese history. Much like I would imagine of the real Confucius, our Confucius’s English was not up to par with his Chinese, so, loosely translated into English, his discourse went as follows:

“When I meet foreigners travelling in China, all they ever want to talk to me about is Ancient Chinese culture: the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall, the old queue hairstyle. Most Chinese people are very proud of our ancient culture. But, at the same time, we feel that foreigners are looking down on modern Chinese society because they’re ignoring all of our progress. This old stuff is not China anymore,” he said. I looked around at the students exiting the nearby 7-11 wearing Nike shoes and talking on their cell phones.

Confucius continued: “No foreigner ever wants to talk about the progress of modern society, the economic and social progress. They act like China hasn’t made any progress in the last several centuries, but we have!”

I was blindsided by Confucius’s viewpoint, yet I could see his reasoning. He kept saying that this was the view of most Chinese people, and his discourse had the rapidity and emotional tone of a true conviction; so I was excited to get the opportunity to hear a Chinese friend give such a candid opening into his thinking, and I waved away his few attempts to apologize for being impolite. Most Chinese would not be so open with their viewpoints, especially viewpoints critical of foreigners, and I was thrilled to get a peak into the Chinese mind.

I had always thought that an emphasis on ancient Chinese culture was a positive thing, but I suddenly saw the feeling of being slighted that our Confucius felt. In the American press, much fuss is made of the future of China, but the past century of Chinese history is largely seen as lacking much progress.

As Confucius continued, he revealed more and more about the value system of his peers: “Many of my friends like the West, but they most admire the United States. Sure, Europe has history, has culture; but the United States has such an advanced economy. My friends want to go to America to live, not Europe. They go for the economy,” Confucius said.

And here we had stumbled onto the paradox of our differences. These Americans came to China because they were drawn by the sense of history, by a deep culture that is lacking in a relatively recent American nation. Americans are drawn by a sense of a 5,000 year culture and history just not available on our continent.

At the same time, however, Confucius’s Chinese friends are drawn to a continent of blind economic progress, held up as a paragon of economic modernity. American social critics have noted that blind economic progress has left American culture untethered to community and culture, and as a result, Americans may search elsewhere. Yet this same cause of blind economic progress is exactly what draws those from a culture-rich nation to America.

This same strange conflict of goals from those wanting to get out of a country and those wanting to get in was explained nicely by a friend of mine who spent 3 years teaching in Japan. She noticed that foreign teachers coming to Japan often wanted to date a traditional, obedient Japanese woman—one that matched the traditional stereotype held of Japan in the West.

At the same time, Japanese women who wanted to date foreign colleagues often saw foreign men as a way to escape the suffocating traditional gender roles of Japanese society that forbid married women to have independent careers. In the West, these women thought, men are used to relationships that are more free and equal. In the end, according to my friend, these relationships most often crashed and burned, a result of this mixed matching of travellers and would-be emigres.

As our conversation wound to a close and Confucius walked me back to the gate of my school, I forgot to mention an English expression for this very situation: “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Many Chinese seemed to admire the economic modernity in America and many Americans admired the rich culture and history of China. When I see Confucius for our standing date next Monday at noon, near the back gate of South China Normal University, I’ll remember to tell him.

Why China Doesn't Have Amish People

Last week I tried to explain to a Chinese friend of mine why I hadn’t bought a cell phone until halfway through my senior year of college. I tried to explain that a cell phone is not always a positive force in my life. I tried to explain that I often felt compelled to answer my phone or respond to text messages when I’d rather be doing other things. Finally, I tried to explain that once you buy a cell phone, you’re become almost addicted to constant communication with other people, which starts to take over time that you had previously spent doing more rewarding activities.

“In the end,” I said, “there’s probably some value in being a little bit harder to reach.” My friend just looked at me with a blank expression. I wasn’t getting through to her, but at that moment I had caught onto a culture difference more telling about Americans than Chinese.

In the United States, technology is often seen as an intrusion into our lives. But other societies simply don’t have the same conception of having a real life and an imagined, technology-free life. Try think of the awkwardness of trying to explain that in reality we have two lives: our lives as they are naturally and the mess that gets created when technology intrudes and gums everything up. It’s actually quite an odd picture to create if you’re not used to thinking in these terms, and I believe that Chinese people don’t conceive of themselves as simultaneously having both an ideal, technology-free life and an actual, techonology-spoiled life.

Unlike China, America has a troubled relationship with technology. America is a country where pockets of Amish shun many forms of modern conveniences and where Emerson and Thoreau once called upon men to leave the binding ties of society and technology in order to live a more ideal life. Our heritage of New England transcendtalism is an idea that emphasizes the need to escape society and technology that still resonates today with many Americans, whether they’ve read Walden or not.

Yet China doesn’t have a tradition of Walden and Thoreau. As natural as the opposition to technology is to how I think of my life, it’s my suspicion that this buried contempt for technology or modern society doesn’t exist in China.

My students complained when I played The Beatles for them because “it was too old.” Perhaps in a nation that struggled to modernize while nations like South Korea and Japan modernized more quickly has left little room for time to cultivate a distaste for technology. In its place is a love for things that are new and modern.

Additionally, perhaps the cell phone is seen with less suspicion in Chinese society because it provides ample opportunities to check up and make sure others are OK, a practice I’ve found much more common in China than in the US. Perhaps it also represents the Chinese proclivity for being social and the happiness gained from being enmeshed with a large group of friends—a form of being social that I was often wary of in the United States.

In the end, though, I think there’s a deeper difference in attitude toward technology in general. The anti-technology Luddite movement to destroy technology that was making textile jobs obsolete was a British phenomenon, but I could imagine the history books saying it happened in the United States. I couldn’t, however, imagine the same in Guangzhou. In any case, I, the modern American, will still bring my clunky black CD player to play music for my students so that I can play them out-of-date Beatles songs, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll someday learn to enjoy, even though “its too old.”