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November 2008 Archives

November 1, 2008

Lesson in Essay

I’m ashamed to admit that one of my hobbies during my time at the University of Michigan was, after a long night working on an essay in the fishbowl (so named for its sunken computer floor, surrounded by glass, which makes those working below as watchable as fish in a fishbowl), to troll the abandoned papers in the printer trays for student works that I would find interesting. This mostly involved embarrassing attempts on fiction or poetry or laughably ignorant five-paragraph essays that would brighten my cold, dark walk home.

It turns out, I’m not alone in this hobby; a “left behind at the fishbowl” blog goes about the same entertainment in a way more heartless way than I.

In China, though, my university has no comparable large computer lab, nor do Chinese classes promote the sort of personal expression that can lead to such flagrant displays of ignorance. So I haven’t had any “left behind at the dragon bowl” experiences in China.

However, during my ancient Chinese class, one of my tongxue, classmates, asked me for help correcting an essay of hers. My English is probably good enough to pass a college English class in China, so I accepted the task.

I’m of the belief, like Freud, that nothing is an accident. Thus, when I look at the essay, I see a treasure trove of examples of oddities of grammar or ideas that are clues into the China I know. I don’t mean to ridicule the essay; I think the essay is both interesting and well-written for a young foreign-language student.

Some are grammatical errors that are revealing for their sources in the Chinese language. Others are grammatical sentences that are incomprehensible in English for lack of a Chinese cultural background. Still others are not errors so much as ineffective writing styles that I saw frequently with my students in Guangzhou.

I could teach a class in China on this essay alone. I reproduce it below without the student’s name, which I removed not because the essay’s poorly written, but because if my Chinese classmates are afraid to have their name called in class, I cannot imagine what being singled out like this would feel like. (Click on each picture for an enlarged view.)


A: Vagueness

The mandate of an oral English teacher is just about as unclear as the filling of the streetside dumplings sold near my hutong. So David, my fellow PiA teacher in Guangzhou, designed a series of classes with the goal of improving communication and thought barriers we saw often in our Chinese students and friends.

The melanine of the crop and target number one was vagueness. Nothing makes for more boring writing than vagueness. As much as David tried to encourage students to talk about specific people, places, and events in their lives, his students’ thoughts almost always fell back on safe, boring generalities.

I’m convinced that part of the reason for the vagueness is that Chinese communication hopes to avoid disagreement and the subsequent sullying of relationships that would come from disagreement. By contrast, “you think what you think; I’ll think what I think” is now as American as middle eastern conflicts.

As a result, describing someone as “kind” is as safe as tax cuts in a Chinese conversation or essay. Similarly, “Miss Liu told me something about her and my sister” is frustratingly vague.

B: The authority of the local

Information flow and sharing is weak in China, making things like figuring out bus routes or registering for classes into much more daunting tasks.

As a result, there’s a much more marked tendency to defer to the expertise of locals. Only Beijingers are supposed to know Beijing, so my classmate was so relieved to discover a Beijinger sitting next to her on the plane.


C: If you don’t speak Chinese, it may be hard to imagine how someone could come up with the sentence, “when we finished, it is already 6:00.”

The basis for this error lies in the fact that Chinese verbs are not conjugated and are often not required to show any marking of time. There are, of course, ways to indicate time, such as the character ‘了’ (le) meaning that the action has been completed or ‘会’ (huì), similar to ‘will.’ These characters express time, but they are often not required, although I often end up enforcing my English grammar in my Chinese text messages adding extra phrases like ‘当时’ (dāngshí) or ‘at that time.’

Chinglish sounds strange, but the Chinese of an English-speaker must seem horribly bogged down with superfluous grammatical baggage.

D: “What do you think I should buy?”

I used to think that the Chinese language didn’t have a word for ‘dote’ because I had suspected the thought of care and love infringing upon the freedom of a child wouldn’t register in China.

I was wrong. There is ‘溺爱’ (nì’aì) defined as “pamper; dote; spoil” by my new electronic dictionary.

But this word’s existence doesn’t change the fact that care for children’s every need outweighs the importance of children figuring out how to do things on their own. Add to this China’s tradition of removing any distraction from children (socialization, jobs) while they prepare for the do-or-die college entrance exam, and you get millions of children who struggle to fend for themselves.

E: “She regars me as her younger sister.”

My Chinese conversation partner back at the University of Michigan always used to use a mystifying English word I never understood, saying things like, “My senior told me that he …”

I stumbled through confusing conversation after confusing conversation until I decided to get to the bottom of “senior.” “Senior” was actually an attempt to translate the Chinese idea of ‘学哥’ (xuégē) into English.

Xuege,” is a Chinese term, like those for brothers and sisters, that conveys both gender and age difference. ‘Xue’ is short for ‘classmate’ and ‘ge’ is short for ‘older brother.’ Thus ‘xuege’ means something like, ‘an older male classmate who I am close with, like a brother.’

In “she regars me as her younger sister,” my classmate is trying to convey that, at that moment, Miss Liu formally declared my classmate as her 妹妹 (mèimei), meaning that Miss Liu agreed to help out my classmate and care for her.

In exchange for the help and care, Miss Liu most likely gets someone to flatter her, look up to her, and, naturally, someone who must accept any future tardiness on the side of Miss Liu.

Relationships in China have less of the free-market feel of American friendships, but rather tend to be boxed into different formal categories of relationships. Thus, my friends in China identify others more often as colleagues, classmates, xuege, or other defined relationship types rather than as just friends.

I also suspect that the “brother” and “sister” relationships—which confuse the heck out of foreigners like me, who actually think that the two “siblings” are related—neatly solve the problem of relationships with the opposite sex.

Friendships with the opposite sex are a particularly acute problem in China because, more so than in the US, a guy and a girl simply walking together on the street often implies that the two are dating and draws not only gossip but the ire of boyfriends and girlfriends. To get around the problem, two opposite-gender friends can simply declare themselves “brother” and “sister,” and the suspicion drops.


F: The inspirational ending

Everyone likes an inspirational ending; Hollywood movies almost always end with an uplifting message. But Chinese essays often fall prey to a custom of adding a conclusion of personal resolve and willingness to work hard to advance.

This strikes me—like what I’ve seen in Chinese social expression outlets like speech contests—as politically correct thinking, which in China is more like “I will try hard every day” rather than America’s “I’m not prejudiced” or the college admissions essay “participating in the swim team taught me the value of hard work.”

The problem is that this (like the swim team essay) is formulaic to point of being boring.

I’m certain that some of the problems (e.g., vagueness) that I’ve pointed out occur often in American students’ writing, although I think the Chinese education system results in more of it.

On the other hand, I would hope that the tense issue is not a large problem for American students. I’ll keep my eye on Left Behind at the Fishbowl.

November 6, 2008

Why Beijing is New York City

Beijing is a lot like Manhattan. The stinky tofu stand down the street and the skinny guys with monumental loads of cardboard boxes on their bikes are pretty far from the Manhattan experience, but otherwise Beijing is a lot like New York City if you think about it.

Beijing is China’s political center, but anyone who’s lived in Beijing will tell you it’s much closer to NYC than Washington D.C.

For one, Beijing creates a pride in those who can rightfully (or wrongfully) call themselves ‘beijingren,’ true Beijingers. In China, only Shanghai has such a reputation for zip code-based haughtiness.

Beijingers certainly have the right to wave around their hometown’s wealth of historical artifacts like the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, as well as its education, culture, and art scenes.

My cell phone is proof. Asked where I am, I can most often type an entire place name into my phone and the characters will come up automatically. For example, I live next to the Drum Tower, so typing ‘gu’ (drum) ‘lou’ (tower) brings up the pre-programmed combo, without making me type and find each character individually. Try that in your hometown.

However, Beijingers like to wave around other advantages of their hometown to which it does not actually have the right. Poking through these fallacies by explaining that other parts of China, like Guangzhou, are more modern and more fashionable than Beijing is a good way to make a Beijinger angry.

I had the misfortune to cross my linguistics teacher when he was explaining why Beijing’s dialect of Chinese was chosen rightfully to be China’s national dialect (another point of pride).

“Beijing is a highly developed center of commerce. OK, perhaps Shanghai is more developed, but after that it’s Beijing,” my teacher said.

“Actually,” I contributed unsolicited, “Guangzhou is more developed than Beijing. Just look at the subway system.”

“Hmph, Guangzhou,” he said, spitting out the sounds ‘Guangzhou’ and dismissing my objection.

More importantly, Beijing, like New York City, is an isolated universe that produces people who think the nation revolves around them and who are sadly and willfully ignorant of anything in the country other than itself.

Foreigners are drawn to Beijing for its vibrancy and center-of-the-actionness, but the problem is that foreigners (like me) who live in Beijing tend not to get out past the 5th Ring Road, let alone Great Wall.

When I was living in Guangzhou, there simply was not as much exciting stuff to do, so I left often several weekends a month. I first realized that Beijing was actually New York City when I looked back at my first two months in Beijing and realized I hadn’t been outside the 6th Ring Road.

Finally, the Beijing ‘r’ accent has an informality and casual hilarity associated with it just like a classic New York Brooklyn accent. I’m not aware of any Washington D.C. accent, and the other metropolitan accents in China just don’t have the same ‘fugedaboudit’ feel of a Brooklyn cab driver.

Although I find the potty mouths of my Beijing taxi drivers amusing, I’ve resolved to do my best to see the world beyond my city-state of Beijing. Even street vendors peddling hot dogs wouldn’t be enough to convince me that Beijing is the center of the universe.

November 8, 2008

An Idiot's Guide to Making a Chinese Spelling Error (and spreading terror in the process)

“Chinese doesn’t have spelling errors,” people tell me. Fine. Spelling involves letters, and Chinese characters do not have letters.

Characters and alphabets certainly make for different systems, but most modern Chinese spelling errors are based on mistakes in sound representations, so I prefer “spelling.”

That said, what follows is everything you need to know to make a spelling error in Chinese.

Chatting about the American presidential candidates, a Chinese friend of mine said that McCain, despite his age, still fought hard in the election, so that “其实我听尊敬他的.” (qishi wo ting zunjing ta de, “actually, I quite respect him”)

The spelling error is in the character “听” (ting, to listen) which should be ‘挺’ (quite).

The most important law underlying Chinese spelling errors is that the sound of the mistyped character should be the same as the correct character.

This sort of mistake would never happen on pen and paper because the two characters look nothing alike and share no shred of common meaning. Instead, pen-and-paper mistakes look different.

Of course, when using pen and paper, Chinese people can and do miss a stroke, write a dash in the wrong direction, or write a completely different or non-existent character.

I inadvertently invented a new character when I helped my cousin Nikki post flyers searching for the owner of the homeless cat she had scooped up in the apartment building. I darkened the strokes, rolling my pen back and forth over each stroke to make it easier to read, and I wrote the following character after “Found: One small …”


I dotted all my i’s and crossed all my t’s (figuratively), taking care that one of my first real tests of Chinese handwriting in real life would end in success. In my concentration, I managed to bloop the most important character, ‘cat,’ blending it with the character for ‘hunt.’ And because of my one extra horizontal line, I spread the terrifying specter of some mysterious hunting cat loose in the building, frightening people across the 28 floors of the apartment complex.

I later learned that old women went around asking exactly what animal had been found in the apartment complex. My mistake was particularly scary because the left side of the character is an animal radical—which lets the reader know the character is an animal or has to do with animals—and is shared with characters for animals like lions and wolves.

But the sound-based spelling errors like my friend’s error about John McCain are easier to make, not requiring even basic drawing skills.

Chinese is full of homophones, a fact made worse by having a consistent romanization system that, unlike in the English words ‘where’ and ‘wear,’ has no way to orthographically differentiate homonyms.

Thus, typing Chinese characters is a hunt-and-peck adventure. First, you type the pinyin, for example, ‘ji’ and up comes a steep list of characters that match the pronunciation: 级季饥记己给…

To complete the spelling error, all you have to do is select the wrong one, as my friend did. Often times the computer can anticipate which character should come next, but the system is not perfect, and errors are common.

Chinese, like English, also has its share of common errors resulting from grammatical traps. Where English has ‘you’re’ and ‘your’ and ‘its’ and ‘it’s,’ Chinese has three grammatical particles all pronounced ‘de’ (‘的,’ ‘of,’ ‘地,’ ‘what comes before me is hereby an adjective,’ and ‘得,’ ‘the preceding verb is to such an extent that:’) and two words ‘必需’ and ‘必须’ that both mean ‘need,’ but, for no good reason, one can be used with verbs and the other with adverbs. These easily lead to confusion and errors from the abound.

So now everyone’s equipped to make all the Chinese spelling errors their heart desires, just be careful not to terrorize an apartment complex in the process.

November 9, 2008

Discourses on Western Naming Practices at the Local Bank

Back in August 1985, Papa and Mama Talhelm unwittingly signed newborn Thomas Arthur Croxford Talhelm to a doom of never-ending trouble in China.

My name, with its two middle names, is a mouthful by US standards, but in China the eight syllables and 27 letters of my name are as rare as cheese.

The vast majority of Chinese names are 2-3 syllables long (one syllable per character), as with my Chinese name, Tan Tao (谈滔). Family names are mostly one syllable and names are one or two syllables.

Once in a blue moon there will be a person with a two-character last name, which would put the upper limit at four characters and four syllables.

My 8 syllables—twice the upper limit—causes problem for me every time I order plane tickets, register for things, and go to the bank. My name is simply too long for forms and computer systems, which leads to a confused discussion of which names are necessary and what the possible consequences of omitting two names might be.

I could solve this easily by simply omitting my middle names, as I do in the US, but this frightens Chinese employees even more than seeing all four names. As soon as I had implemented this strategy, I found that I was forced to fill out forms from scratch with my full name.

So I can’t omit my middle names because I have to fill out the forms again, and I can’t use my whole name because it’s too long for computer systems, so I’m forced to discourse across China on Western naming practices every time I want to travel or conduct business, as when I signed up for a bank account last week.

To add to the trouble, name order in China is the opposite of the US. In China, family names come first and your own name comes second. Thus, in my name, Tan Tao, “Tan” is my family name and “Tao” is my own name.

It doesn’t help that English uses the confusing term “last name” to refer to family names. In China, last names are first names, and first names are last names.

During my trip to the bank, I had to point to each name in my passport and explain with copious repetition, “This is my family name, this is my family name! That’s my name. Right, and that’s my middle name. Middle name.”

The end result is that my parents’ original decision to give me four names wound up making my China life a bit more troublesome. Only passing albinism to me could they have led me to more interesting conversations in my China life.

November 12, 2008

A Flavorful New Home

“I want to live somewhere that has flavor,” I was used to telling my Chinese friends.

I suspect that my Chinese friends don’t quite understand this sentiment, mostly because I choose the word ‘flavor,’ since there may not be a true equivalent in Chinese for ‘character.’ I’ve settled on the slightly confusing term of ‘wèidào’ (味道)or ‘flavor.’

My discontent with living in the flavorless car park that was the Tianhe district of my school in Guangzhou simmered for long enough that when I came to Beijing with the freedom to choose where to live, I resolved to find a place with character.

After staying with my cousin Nikki for almost a month, I’ve finally settled down in a home in a hutong with some of Beijing’s poorest residents, must of whom have lived here their entire lives.

In my quest for flavor, I ended up in an ancient courtyard in a side room next to the south-facing room where the momma and poppa would live if we were a traditional Beijing family. Instead of walking past a guard and exercise room to go up the twenty-plus floors of my apartment complex, I walk up and over the threshold of the hutong past the traditional red doors, down a dark alley passing cabbage-lined roofs and underwear hung out to dry to get home.

I may just have found too much flavor, since it is entirely possible that a blind person with a heightened sense of smell could find my place quicker than someone capable of vision.

A pair of eyes don’t go very far in finding the dark, recessed entrance to my hutong home. It is so hidden that I couldn’t even find it the second time I tried to visit.

With that in mind, here are instructions on finding my home by nose.

  1. Starting at the drum tower, walk south, passing the smells of noodles, kebabs, and málàtāng until you reach the smell of sewage. Prepare to turn left.

  2. At the smell of stinky tofu turn left. Be careful not to confuse the stinky feet funk of stinky tofu with the food-and-human-waste-funk of sewage.

  3. Continue forward past the baked sweet potato stand. Do not be lured in by the heat emanating from inside.

  4. At the spice-till-your-nose-runs smell of the (麻, ‘numb’) (辣, ‘spicy’) tāng (汤, ‘soup’) stand, turn left. Take care when crossing the raised threshold to the hutong—the elderly residents prone to getting stranded on the threshold for lack of mobility are an added obstacle.

  5. Take a left down the alley toward the direction with the greater concentration of the smells of Chinese cooking. The alley is small and the hovels on either side are smaller, meaning that what’s cooking in the kitchens is within hand’s grasp. At the end of this alley is the courtyard where my home is located.

Finding my home involves flavors that are both nose-pleasing and nose-turning, from my neighbor’s home cooking to the old invalid Mr. Qin whose inability to walk to the nearby public toilet adds to the scents of the neighborhood.

My life in a traditional hutong is not always easy, nor is my presence expected—everytime I emerge from the hutong carrying a bag of household garbage for the trash collector I elicit double takes worthy of Yao Ming. But my hutong is alive with my life and the lives of my neighbors on in a full display unheard of in the anonymity of modern apartment complexes. The rhthyms of life still beat here, most recently with huge collections of cabbage appearing in the small alley and on rooftops in a collective effort to stock up on vegetables for the winter.

In the end, I may even be adding to the wèidào of the neighborhood (if not its gentrification) assuming I’m living up to the stereotype of westerners smelling like dairy products. Come to think of it, that’s one flavor I could live without.

November 14, 2008

Farting and My New Favorite Ancient Chinese Passage

Crudeness and Ancient Culture, Part 1

“Thy mother is swine” is not a phrase I expected to come across when I decided to study ancient Chinese. Living in America, my impression of East Asian culture was one of timidity and nervousness to offend. After all, my Japanese roommate at the University of Michigan went so far as to claim that Japanese had no way to say “fart” as a part of his attempt to avoid teaching me such a dirty word.

Even more than modern culture, ancient Chinese is full of modest expressions like “my small-person viewpoint” and “thy just gentleman,” making ancient Chinese as unlikely a source of potty-mouth filth as a Mormon Sunday school.

Thus, it’s easy to imagine my surprise when I read in my ancient Chinese book from the Warring States Record (战国策):


Roughly: “Zounds! Thy mother is a slave girl!”

It turns out that even ancient Chinese has its share curses and unpleasantries. This insult is even funnier in Chinese because the shout is one that you would never hear today, “Chì jiē”; because the “your” in “your mother” is now a grammatical particle (通假字?) that could never be used today as ‘you,’ giving it an overformal, ancient feel; and because the modal particle, the character that expresses the mood of the sentence, ‘’ (也) is only used in ancient and formal Chinese, adding to the formal flavor.

The insult is also surprisingly consistent with modern Chinese, where references to mothers still constitute some of the worst insults. In fact, simply saying ‘mother’s’ (妈的) without reference to exactly whose mother or anything about her is roughly equivalent to ‘damn!’

English curse words, like Chinese curse words, also like to make claims on others’ mothers, but one major difference in Chinese and English swearing lies in fart references.

Chinese cursing often revolves around farting, as in the phrases ‘guǎn nǐ pì shì’ (管你屁事, ‘Go handle your fart affairs’ or ‘Go to hell’) or, less severe, ‘fàng pì ba nǐ’ (放屁吧你, ‘You’re farting!’ or ‘Nonsense!’). I can think of no equivalent fart references in English.

In studying ancient Chinese, I’ve learned a lot of new grammar and vocabulary, but it’s been most interesting to discover that even ancient Chinese culture has potty mouths. I still raise my eyebrows at statements as timid as “I disagree with you, sire,” exclaiming to my tutor, “He’s so direct!!”

I have yet to stumble across any curse words emanating from Confucius or Mencius’s mouths, nor do I expect to, but this time around I’ll make sure to keep an open mind.

November 16, 2008

My New Favorite Chinese Character

Crudeness and Ancient Culture, Part 2

I remember distinctly a certain friend of a friend who had decided to study Chinese because it would be easy: they’re all pictures, so it should be easy to learn!

The error of naivety in that thought is pretty obvious; there are few or perhaps no Chinese characters that look enough like what they represent as to be obvious. Among some of the candidates for characters that actually do resemble what they represent are ‘火’ for ‘fire,’ ‘川’ for ‘river,’ and ‘口’ for ‘mouth.’

There are more that resemble the objects only after someone tells you what it’s supposed to be and after you agree to squint a little bit. I think ‘牛’ for ‘cow’ fits the bill, as does ‘目’ for ‘eye.’ Anyone seeing these characters for the first time would surely be at a loss as to their meaning, but if you know what they’re supposed to represent, then you can sort of see it.

If your goal is to study Chinese characters that actually resemble objects, then your only option is to study jiǎgǔwén (甲骨文), literally “turtle shell characters” or some of the oldest characters known, that were carved into turtle shells and used in divination rites.

A look at jiǎgǔwén characters reveals (1) that jiǎgǔwén characters actually kind of look like what they’re supposed to represent and (2) that jiǎgǔwén characters are surprisingly filthy.

When I was shown the character below by my ancient Chinese tutor, I was as surprised as when I read an ancient Chinese insult on another’s mother.


The character on the left (1) is the jiǎgǔwén character for ‘shit,’ now written as shown on the right (3) (屎).

This character blows me away. It’s so clearly a person relieving himself or herself depicted in the most direct, crude way possible. Over time, the dots under the person’s rear end morphed into the character for ‘rice’ (米), whereas the person turned into ‘尸’ which means ‘corpse’ and in other characters represents a person, although it looks nothing like a person.

‘屎’ is a great example because its changes are representative of the changes to a lot of characters:

  1. First, it moved from resembling quite closely its original meaning to looking little or nothing like what it represents.

  2. A piece of the character was consolidated and standardized into another character, with the dots representing excrement changing into one of a select number of characters. This is a large reason for why characters often no longer resemble what they represent. Chinese is not like an open easel, instead there is only a limited number of acceptable strokes as shapes. Probably because the dots representing excrement didn’t show up in other characters, whereas the character for ‘rice’ came up more often.

  3. Finally, a piece represents the sound of the character, although I suspect in this case it was only incidental. That is, the “尸” is pronounced ‘shi,’ just as “屎.” Chinese characters often contain phonetic elements like this to help with pronunciation. In this case, though, the phonetic element also has to do with the meaning, and its origin was most likely not due to its use as a phonetic element.

Any discussion of awesome ancient characters would not be complete without the number one to shi’s number two, pee:


This character “尿” again proves that jiǎgǔwén characters do actually look like what they represent. And that they don’t shy away from filth.

November 26, 2008

Turning Chinese

Psychology studies showed that the few short months American students spent studying abroad in Asia were enough to turn their results on standard cultural cognition tests to look more like East Asians. Even more amazingly, my advisor Yuri Miyamoto at the University of Michigan showed that simply showing subjects unlabeled pictures of Japanese or American cities was enough to make Americans think more like Japanese and Japanese think more like Americans.

So if a matter of weeks or even two minutes is enough to change the way we think and even the way our eyeballs move, how about the nearly two years that I’ve spent in China?

Most of the changes, I suspect, are small enough to be unobservable, especially as I lose the contrast of American thought and behavior to compare it to—noticing how my thought and behavior change in China is like trying to find a butterfly perched upon floral wallpaper. In effect, to notice changes in my thought and behavior, I need to have a picture in my mind of how I would have acted in a similar situation back in the United States that is triggered by a feeling of strangeness at my new behavior.

Yet as hard as spotting changes can be, some changes are obvious as my new fondness for tea:

After I arrived in northeastern Dalian’s train station last Friday morning, I went straight to the ticket office to purchase a ticket in advance for my return trip.

The line was short and the ticket-seller was strangely unharried, yet after I told him when and where I wanted to go, he cut a corner and summed up my order, “Bottom berth, 250 Kuai.”

On so-called “hard sleepers,” there are three choices: top, middle, and bottom bunks. Bottom bunks are the accepted favorite because they don’t require scaling a ladder; they have storage space underneath; and they have enough room to sit up, making them good couches. Despite all this, I really wanted a top bunk, where I could read and sleep out of the action and keep my laptop out of thieves’ reach near my head.

But, in un-American fashion, I hesitated. It’d be too mafan to correct him; he already took the time to anticipate my desire for a bottom bunk; it’ll be awkward to point out the mistake; why should I speak up for my own preferences when he’s already decided a course of action?

I started to hand him the money, but at the last moment I leaned closer to the speaker mounted in thick glass and asserted myself in the most roundabout way: “Uh, are there still top berths?”

“Yes, 240 Kuai,” he replied, thinking nothing of my disagreement.

The cultural moment here was not his attitude: to him, my assertion of preference was nothing out of the ordinary. Instead, what struck me as strange was how afraid I was to assert my own preference and my willingness to follow what someone else dictated, especially when it was supposed to be in my interest to want a bottom berth.

I’m certain that back in the US, I wouldn’t have hesitated to assert my own preference. I also doubt that the ticket-seller would have tried to anticipate my preference.

There’s a tragic lining to the changes in my thought brought about by my time in China: there’s a myriad of changes in my thought and behavior that are so minute I will never be aware of them, and, like a flower in the heart of the deepest jungle, the changes will grow, flower, and wither, all without having been appreciated by human eyes. The top bunk, by the way, was just fine.

November 28, 2008

More Questions that Aren't Questions

Traveling is probably the best way to have strange cultural interactions, since it entails meeting and interacting with lots of people in a short period of time. On vacation, instead of riding my bike straight to school, getting from one place to the next requires buying tickets, requesting information from locals, navigating buses and trains with fellow passengers, and any other miscellaneous interactions.

My first trip this year outside of Beijing to less-than-fabled Liaoning province on the North Korean border was no exception. I had a second rich cultural bathroom encounter.

Before heading to the bus station for the long haul back to Dalian, I had lunch at a local restaurant. After eating my plate of bamboo shoots and lamb, I decided to make use of the restaurant’s bathroom facilities, which were likely to be much cleaner than the bus station’s—at least a little bit cleaner.

I paid the bill and asked the fúwùyuán, “Is there a bathroom?”

“The bathroom across the street at KFC is free,” she answered, motioning toward the red KFC across the street.

I thanked her and walked out onto the street toward the bus station, feeling that my need was not urgent enough to justify invading KFC’s facilities without buying anything. It wasn’t until I had made it half way down the street that I realized the fúwùyuán hadn’t actually answered my question.

Instead, she had, like the train ticket salesperson and the woman on the flight to Guangzhou who offered David her meal out of compassion, anticipated my desire and answered in the quickest possible way.

But was that what it was about? There was something very Chinese in the way she had fielded my question. For one, it was quick. To the frustration of language nerds like me, Chinese interactions are done as fast as possible with a minimum of words. If gestures or grunts work, even better.

Or maybe it was an attempt to hide unsavory information using the Chinese art of dodging a question. Perhaps the bathroom was really dirty—so dirty that she thought I would be better off going to KFC. Or perhaps the bathroom was for employees only and she didn’t want me to argue with her about whether I could bend the rules and use it anyway. The restaurant had two stories, so it was big enough that it should have had a bathroom. It’s questions like these that still nibble at my western mind days after our interaction ended.

Of course, Americans do this too, but I think it’s much less common, especially in a formal situation like this with someone you don’t know. I think in the US, the serviceperson would have responded more long-windedly, “I’m sorry, our bathroom is for employees only, but you’re welcome to use the bathroom across the street at KFC.” In this way, I could get the whole picture and make the decision for myself.

Yet what is clear to me is that her anticipation of my underlying request was something I see a lot more in China, rather than the American let’s-give-all-the-information-and-let-you-decide way of communicating.

Her response was, after all, consistent with psychological findings that East Asians are more likely to look at the whole picture under a holistic perception style. So instead of answering questions as asked, the waitress looked around at the entire picture of what I was asking, rather than at the pure, analytical words that were floating through the air.

The uncertainty behind answers like hers frustrate me during my so-called China life, but I try to remind myself that answers like this can mean either that people are making assumptions or that they’re anticipating your preferences, depending on how you look at it.

In the end, I held it until I made it all 4 hours back to Dalian. I guess it wasn’t that urgent after all. Or is that too much information?