The Final Frontier

In 2000, Tom Clancy published his spy thriller The Bear and the Dragon.  It was banned in China - not unreasonably considering Clancy spends much of the novel comparing Chinese people to Klingons.   It was a post-Cold War attempt to reframe the whole good guy / bad guy question.  In this book, the Russians were forgiven and the Chinese were...well, Klingons (when Klingons were bad...i.e. before Worf and Deep Space Nine).   I read The Bear and the Dragon in 2002, when I first came to China and, despite the fact that the book is essentially a borderline racist, scaremongering, fast-paced, indictment of the entire Chinese culture, the concept of the Chinese people as Klingons stuck with me.  Clancy's point, albeit inelegantly made, was that Chinese culture is so foreign to us, the ways of the people so different, their thought processes so incomprehensible...that they might as well be aliens.  The fact that he chose Klingons as the alien race with which to compare them as opposed to say, Vulcans or Bajorans (who are essentially the Canadians of the alien world), is where the racism begins to creep in.  It could have been worse.  He could have compared them to the Borg and had them assimilating everyone in sight (Chinese are not mad about assimilation though so perhaps the Klingons are a better fit).  

When I first lived here, I really did have a problem understanding Chinese people.  It wasn't just a linguistic barrier I faced, but a cultural one.  My very favourite China story of all time is when, back in the bad old days in Wuxi when I was teaching at state-run high school, I decided that my rickety little dorm room with its dodgy electrics and bars on the windows was a bit of a fire trap.  I asked my liaison teacher, Sophia, if she knew where I might procure a fire extinguisher just to give myself a bit of peace of mind.  Sophia seemed a bit confused but said that she would ask The Leaders.  The Leaders were, as far as I could tell, a rarely spotted gang of Party men who sat in leather armchairs smoking cigarettes and running the show/school. Anyway, off Sophia trotted and appeared again a few days later. “I have asked The Leaders about your fire extinguisher”, she said with her very serious, bespectacled face staring blankly ahead (Sophia was very good at staring blankly). There was a long pause as I waited for her to formulate the correct way of breaking the news to me. “The Leaders say” she continued, “in China…there is no fire”. And that was the end of that.

You have to live here a while before you understand how a reasonably intelligent and educated person could look you in the eye and tell you that fire does not exist in China. I haven’t lived here that long, but I’m getting there. Every day I learn something that gives me another insight into the Chinese mentality, their particular way of thinking, their approach to life. This week four things stood out in particular:

1. However
I can’t really say for sure how many words the Eskimos really have for snow but I can tell you that the Irish have more than a few ways of saying, “It’s raining” (bonus points if anyone can count how many). In Chinese, there is no way to say “No”. Instead, there are at least nine ways of saying, “However” (keshi, danshi, que, buguo, ran’er, dao, gu, wunai, zennai). This says a lot about the way Chinese communicate and conversations often take the following lines:

  • (In the fabric market) “We can absolutely make your coat in green material, however, we do not actually have any green material”.

  • (In the days when I was teaching English) “Of course I did my homework, however, I did not write it down”.

  • (In the taxi) Me: “Do you know this addresss?”. Driver: “I know. I know. I know”. (Twenty minutes later). Driver: “Where do I go?”. Me: “I thought you knew the address”. Driver: “I do know the address, however, I do not know how to get there”.

I think of the Chinese language as a sofa that is being delivered to your house. It arrives at the door - a plush velvet sofa with gold embroidery. It is plumped with soft, fluffy filling and, at first glance, looks invitingly soft and comfortable but, as you will soon discover, in the very middle of the plush sofa - right below where you’re about to sit - is a vertically positioned fire poker. The fire poker is the item that is being delivered to your home. Yet for some reason, one that you can’t quite fathom, it needs to be wrapped in a sofa.

2. Might is Right
And nowhere is might more right than on a Chinese road. No matter where you are on a Chinese road the smallest thing on the road, e.g. the toddler, is always the thing that has to give way. The layout, lights and markings may mistakenly lead you to believe that this is not the case but I can assure you, it is. I think someone in the Ministry for Traffic watched a few too many Hollywood movies and thought, “Aren’t those white lines dashing? We should have some of those on Chinese roads.” It’s not the Chinese government’s fault that foreigners mistake these white lines for pedestrian crossings and momentarily presume that the traffic might stop (or even slow down) when they attempt to cross at one. Same goes for the modern art installations at traffic lights that we foreigners frequently confuse for green men. Just because the man is green, it does not mean you have right of way. The bigger thing, the thing made of metal and hurtling towards you…that is the thing that has right of way.

I was walking on the pavement last week. I was walking past the entrance to an office building. As I was half way across the entrance to the office building, a big black car was driving out of the office car park and wished to join the main road. The security guard at the entrance to the office building carpark started blowing his whistle at me (you’re no one in China if you don’t have a whistle) and shouting at me to walk faster to get out of the way of the car that wanted out of the carpark, despite the fact that I, the pedestrian was on the pavement and therefore should have had right of way. God forbid the car (obviously occupied by someone more important than me) should have to slow down for two seconds while I ambled along the pavement. It was at that point where a Chinese word for “No” would have come in particularly handy (or a few other choice phrases that I haven’t yet worked out how to say in Chinese yet). I reacted to this pedestrianism in a very Chinese way - I ignored the whistle-blower and his shouting. I pretended I didn’t hear him. I slowed down a little bit more…and I smiled. I think I’m turning Chinese.

3. You’re All Fabulous
On Friday, I had a four hour spoken Chinese class. As part of the class, we all had to stand up and act out a conversation between a shop assistant and a customer in a clothes shop. We were graded for our efforts. I was a bit stressed - I didn’t want to be awful, get a D and live in shame for the rest of the semester. Imagine my surprise when my group got an A++. Not just one plus, but two! Turns out that there were only four grades given by the teacher for our project…A, A+, A++ and A+++.

I’m actually not sure whether this is a reflection of Chinese society though (I just wanted you all to know that I got an A++). I think it’s much more likely that my entire class is just amazing at Chinese dialogue. We are going to rock the socks off the shop assistants next time we want to exchange a pair of corduroy trousers for a smaller pair in a slightly different style.

4. East Meets West: An Infographic by Yang Liu
I love infographics. I would read more non-fiction if it was presented to me in picture format. I saw this on the web this week and thought it was one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Yang Liu is an artist who was born in China but lived in Germany from the time she was 14. She designed this series of infographics to represent her observations about Chinese culture and German culture. Obviously it’s a huge generalization but, actually, surprisingly accurate. I particularly like the one on queuing. Some day I’ll write a handbook on how to queue in different countries.

Lifestyle: Independent vs. dependent

Attitude towards punctuality

At a party

Ideal of beauty

Elderly in day to day life

The boss

Noise level inside a restaurant

Problem-solving approach

Size of the individual’s ego

Perception: How Germans and the Chinese see one another

How to stand in line

Complexity of self-expression

Traveling and recording memories

Connections and contacts

Three meals a day



Moods and weather


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