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updated 10:30 PM UTC, Dec 14, 2017
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Chinese Language and Culture; the Obscurity of "When in Rome"

Sunday afternoon; I was snugly sitting in an international coffee shop, sipping a cup of Mocca, waiting for my German friend, J. I am a proud Chinese person, but sometimes I like to savour a little western culture while thinking about my next article.

In my state of idleness, I gazed out the window and my glance settled on an elderly, obviously western man with a prominent nose, waiting at the bus stop. Patiently standing behind the crowd with an air of dignity and serenity, he paled in comparison to the throng of restlessly stomping Chinese who were (possibly oblivious to the fact themselves) starting to edge into position, vying for the vantage point that would put them first on the bus, long before it had even pulled in. The bus eventually screeched to a halt. The throng, young or old, rushed to the door, with but only the one aim of scrambling for a cozy seat; agilely jostling with the one ahead while ranting to the one behind, “Wei, ni you mao bing a! Bu yao tui wo!” (Hey, what’s wrong with you? Don’t push me!).

Anyone who has been in China for any length of time and witnessed such a scene would know it was an out-and-out commotion with no queue and code of conduct of which to speak. My foreigner stood there, motionless and bemused by the scene unfolding before him. Following his upbringing and habits in strict compliance to selfless rules such as, “Others first”, he slowly edged toward the bus door, but just as he was about to raise his right foot to the step, the door slammed shut. From my prime viewing location I could see the bus driver motion his head toward a compartment already packed to bursting point, coldly saying, “Den xia yi liang ba!” (Wait for the next one). Obviously perplexed and disappointed, my foreigner retraced a few steps to continue his wait; my attention was soon diverted but I had no doubt that he missed at least the next bus, for a greenhorn foreigner is no match for a local!

At the sound of my name being called I swiveled around to see my friend J walking towards me with a small bag in her hand; a surprise as I thought before meeting me she was going shopping for fruit and vegetables.

“What happened to the shopping?” I asked. An indignant look flashed across her faced as she launched into a tirade...

“I can’t believe it.

I got ripped off again!”

“What happened?” I asked, my heart going out to this poor girl.

“I wanted to buy some oranges, pears, potatoes and onions so I put them in separate plastic bags just like everyone else was doing, but when I went to have them weighed they wanted to charge me double the price! I saw the price of the oranges were ¥10, so I had picked out one kilogram of the best, but the cashier weighed them up at ¥20. I tried to argue with her but no one could understand what I was talking about! So I just bought the oranges and left the rest behind. Why does everyone here want to charge me more because I am a foreigner?”

Taking the plastic bag out of her hands I immediately cottoned on. “Hey, check out the price again; it’s saying ¥20 for one kilo and these oranges weigh just over one kilo.” I pointed at the price label. “What?” She stared at the price, mouth gaping, “No way. I’m 100% sure that the sign read ¥10.” Grinning at her, I hit the nail on the head; “Sweetie, that sign meant ¥10 for half a kilo, which is “yi jin” in Chinese; our measurements are calculated in 500 grams.” Recognising her misunderstanding, she expelled a short sigh and muttered on about the obscurity of the Chinese language and Chinese culture.

Sitting down with J, I told her about the chaotic and uproarious bus scene, explaining that while the elderly man might think most Chinese people uncivilized, if he kept on behaving politely like a gentleman in this case, he would never get onto a crowded bus. What he needed to do was to discard his polite manners and compete for a priority seat while not considering others to be intolerant or disrespectful, but rather simply survivors; it is sometimes a dog-eat-dog world where only the strongest survive. J’s experiences in Nanjing are often at times frustrating and fraught with misunderstanding since she is unfamiliar with the environment and has no inkling of the complexity of a culture that is strikingly different from hers. I explained to her that if she continued to measure by her own values, she would always bump into stumbling blocks in inter-cultural communication and never grasp Chinese culture.

Foreigners arriving in China are often thrust into contact with countless people who appear alien, exotic and perhaps even eccentric. Such contact can be excruciatingly painful; cultural shock is inevitable and confrontation sometimes occurs. There are only two possible reactions; to adapt to the environment or return to one’s own cozy home culture. If choosing the former, what actually should be done in order to adapt better and faster into the new environment?

When in Rome do as the Romans do. Easier said than done, but accomplished and seasoned travelers, willing to show mutual respect and sufficient curiosity will overcome all frustrations. Nevertheless, while still easy to flounder from one predicament or misunderstanding to another, rather than expecting the country around them to change, the experienced will adapt and follow the customs of the host country. Do not be surprised by what would (in some cultures) be termed a lack of courtesy.

YOU are the visitor, and there are approximately 1,379,190,001 Chinese and only one of you.

Of course misunderstandings will often occur, especially as it is human nature to stereotype and have preconceived ideas about another nationality, often hindering communication and interaction and occasionally bringing about withdrawal and hostility. I explained to J it is important to acknowledge behaviour which may seem improper and even uncouth, such as not expecting an automatic thank you every time. Do not be surprised by topless men striding (proudly) in the streets, people littering or spitting, jaywalking or jumping the queue. Although I personally do not condone these actions, old habits die hard. Often when with my foreign friends I have to consciously remember to say “thank you”, because in Chinese culture it is an insult to thank your close friends and family.

During the conversation I told J about such a situation that I witnessed; I was in a railway station whereupon a foreigner was trying to buy a ticket. Promptly before it was his turn the counter was closed. Turning to the person behind him, he asked, “What happened?” Not understanding the answer he continued to repeat the question, louder, louder and then louder.

Unfortunately shouting in a different language never helps anyone, and of course I could have explained that the Chinese person was saying, “It’s her lunchtime”, but the belligerent attitude of the foreigner silenced me.

I feel blessed that I am able to a small extent appreciate western culture from the comfort of my international eatery, limited though it might be, and have several western friends but I still feel very proud of my Chinese culture. However, it is sometimes difficult to compare the two different cultures. Many elderly Chinese such as my Nan have noticed recent dramatic changes and are sometimes fearful of the future; she has never had contact with foreigners and although she saw a white man once when she was young it is still an amazing and somewhat frightening thing for her to see a foreigner and Chinese walking hand in hand down the street!

To those of her generation, opinions of foreigners are based on assumptions or hearsay or a stereotyped vision in which Westerners are rich, hairy and tall. These types of attitudes are not entirely unexpected; indeed, one of the first questions many foreigners have asked me is...

“You must like Jackie Chan and can you do kung fu?”

On the contrary, younger generations are exposed to more western culture and their better understanding of Westerners is due to a broader contact and communication with them. They are learning English and are in contact with foreign teachers as young as the age of 5; TV is saturated with movies and soap operas from the West and some are also making friends with Westerners. However, the virtual world of “Gossip Girls” or “Friends’’ or “Sex in the City” delude some from the realities of the western civilization.

J, like many newly arrived visitors, is starting to acknowledge the fascinating extraordinariness of China and of course is experiencing some of the downside; she misses the blue sky of back home and the relative privacy afforded by a much smaller population. She often complains about overcrowded public transport and incessant “Hellos!” from people spouting the only word they know, of the curious stares offered her way, especially when in the outskirts of the city; not out of venom and hate but of curiosity in her as she is an attractive young western woman. I taught her to reply to them, “Ni zai kan shen me?”(What are you looking at?). It is best to laugh them off or turn a blind eye. As with all cultures there are some sections of the community who accept visitors grudgingly or try to take advantage of them; I remind J to be careful of “cheaters”, who regard foreigners as gullible. Remember after all; it is a different culture.

Every visitor, long or short term, will cherish their own unique memories of China and some no doubt shall state that their trip to China ended on a bit of a sour note. It is not always possible for the Chinese police and government to be helpful; the language barrier and an influx of expatriates doubling its pace mean that authorities are faced with increasing pressure to cope.

As we finished our third coffee (J and I do like to talk!) I reminded her to be careful with her belongings, use her common sense when communicating with strangers, keep on reading The Nanjinger for hints and information on how to survive in this country and talk to her expat friends, but also try and make some trusting relationships with locals.

China is real, China is fun,
China is real fun!
Experiencing is seeing and seeing is believing,
So make the best of it!




Humidity: 46%

Wind: 12.87 km/h

  • 22 Mar 2016 13°C 8°C
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