cultural differences

Apr 17, 2012

In your face

Know your new culture

You may have heard already about the Chinese concept of “saving face.” It’s a little different than the American connotation of that phrase, but as I understand it, it loosely implies that everyone in a given conversation has the responsibility to make sure that everyone looks good to everyone else. Don’t blatantly contradict another person or insult them, and don’t say anything that would make your conversation partners uncomfortable - even about yourself. It’s a slippery concept that can be difficult for straight-shootin’, in-your-face Americans.

One of the tools we’ve been using to help make sense of Chinese culture is a show called “Local Laowai.” (Laowai basically means foreigner.) We recently watched an episode that put this concept of “face” in terms of a Chinese business meeting, which was quite helpful. As they explained it, if your boss asks you for input, they don’t necessarily want you to just echo their ideas, but you have to be very careful with your constructive criticism. Start with saying you like their idea, then present the evidence that will support a different idea, and then present your different idea. You have to ease everyone in the meeting into the fact that you are supporting an idea that is contradictory to your boss’. This way there’s no confrontation, and also you avoid looking show-offy and arrogant - another thing that might create discomfort.

Extrapolating from this, I think I can now explain an interaction that I keep having with my students. Here’s an example:

Student: Where did you go last week?

Me: Um … nowhere. I was here last week, teaching your class.

Student: OK. I went to Beijing. I was the representative of Jamaica in the Model U.N. hosted by Harvard University!

Me: That’s wonderful! I’m really proud of you!

Obviously, my student was really excited to tell me that she had accomplished such a prestigious academic achievement. It baffled me at the time - if she wanted to tell me her exciting news, why didn’t she just start with that? But, if I’m interpreting this correctly, I think according to the rules of “face” she couldn’t just lead with, “Here’s why I’m so great!” It’s too abrupt and forward. She had to give me a chance to possibly share some good news first.

“Face” is a really tough thing to get a handle on. Fortunately, as foreigners, we’re given some leeway in how we conduct ourselves. But without understanding the concept, Chinese behavior can sometimes appear really strange to us. So figuring out each little piece of the puzzle helps us immensely.

Nov 7, 2011

Back in black

Let’s not talk about paperwork

Hello friends,

Sorry again for the slow down. Between some bureaucratic matters (it takes a lot of paperwork to live in China) and us both catching a change-of-the-seasons cold (now it’s in the 60s and rainy every day, instead of in the 70s and rainy every day), we haven’t had a lot of time for adventuring.

The paperwork could be described as an adventure, but not really an interesting one. I did learn that they use the English word “propaganda” to mean information or documentation — which kind of jibes with its original Latin meaning - but it is really funny to hear someone say, “Here. Take this propaganda,” at the police station (no one got arrested; foreigners have to do a lot of checking in with the police in China). Don’t worry. I didn’t laugh.

But we’re mostly well, and near the end of the process for getting our residence permits, so I’m hoping blogging will resume as normal.

Teaser: A short trip to Hong Kong is in the works. I’m excited to possibly find and eat some cheese; Peter’s looking forward to visiting HK’s giant guitar store.

Oct 20, 2011

The plumbing saga

Where the heck’s the toilet plunger gone?

The story of a plunger
(Photo illustration by the non-graphic designer of the house, FYI)

Yesterday, we were having some trouble with our toilet. I like to be a fix-it-yourself girl whenever possible, so before calling for help, I went out to see if I could find a plunger. This turned out to be harder than I thought.

I looked up the Chinese translation for plumber and I armed myself with my trusty notebook (fig. 2). I wrote out both the characters and the pinyin, just in case my characters were actually meaningless scribbles to a Chinese person. I also drew the top plunger as a visual aid.

My first stop was the hardware-looking store right next door to our school. I showed the shopkeeper and another customer the characters and the drawing. Blank looks. The shopkeeper went into the back to make change for his customer while she continued to try and help me figure out what I was trying to say. I did a little pantomime of plunging, and made a “pchew, pchew, pchew” sound. Suddenly, comprehension. She shouted back to the shopkeeper in Chinese. After he sent her on her way, he started looking around for something for me. Nails. Unfortunately, the woman interpreted my moves as hammer and nails. So I did it again for him. He had a realization, and wrote down the characters on the slip of paper in fig. 3. I think the second line was an address.

I took off in the direction he had pointed, excited that I was probably hot on the trail of a plunger. I saw another, more industrial-looking hardware store across the street. I showed the girl at the counter my paper, but she just shook her head. I noticed it was pretty much all lighting supplies, not really general hardware. Not the place to have a plunger. (Or a bicycle pump, as it turns out I was really asking her for, stay tuned …)

Nearby, there was what looked to be the equivalent of a dollar/variety store. I show the proprietor fig. 3. She nods and goes to get something: a bicycle pump. (There it is.) Oops. So I show her my original drawing, to which I’ve now added the squat toilet on the bottom left. She shakes her head no.

I continue on to a toilet supply store. They have both squat and western-style toilets, so I show the woman working there my notebook, and then do my miming over an actual bowl. She nods in recognition, but then indicates that they do not sell plungers. But she does say “zhu sai,” which is what Google translate said that I was looking for.

Moving on. Inspired by the toilet store, I do the drawing on the bottom right of fig. 2. I come to another hardware looking store and show her the whole thing. She does recognize it. But they don’t have it. She gives me directions in Chinese, though, indicating that somewhere back the way I came I can find what I need.

I turn around and go back the way I came. At this point it’s been an hour, but I’ve confirmed that I can communicate to a Chinese person that I need a plunger (and I’ve found where to buy a bicycle pump, should the need arise). I veer off onto a side street and find another thing shop. I show my notebook to the man here and he nods and goes back into his store. Success! He comes back with the item on the left of fig. 1. It’s brittle plastic and costs about $.30. I’m pretty sure this will not be effective, but I pay the man and take my prize.

Tired and discouraged, I head for home. Coming at the entry of the school from the other side, I see right in the front of another general thing shop an honest to goodness recognizable plunger (fig. 1, right side). Elated, I purchase it.

It’s also kind of crappily made, but I set out to buy a plunger and by gum! I got one. Those of you who know anything about plumbing and toilets can already guess how this turns out, however.

After a failed plunge and some research, I discovered that this is not the right kind of plunger to use. I tried the little plastic one for fun - and it was not that fun - which also didn’t work. Given how hard it was to find these, I decided against going out again and called our boss lady to say, “Help! Our toilet’s clogged!”

They sent over a pro, who got the job done in two minutes with some fancy snake machine.

The grisly conclusion: I suspect that, despite it’s modern, western look, our toilet may not be up to the task of handling toilet paper - I’ve seen it before in developing areas that you have to throw your paper in a waste basket, not the bowl. The pipes just can’t deal with it. But, as has been our mantra thus far, we didn’t move to China because everything would be the same …

Oct 18, 2011

Christmas carols all year

It’s happened a couple times now that we’ll be out and I’ll hear over a store’s PA system the lovely sounds of Christmas carols. It happened tonight at the restaurant we were at. Mixed in with regular “I love you, baby” pop music. I think, because most people don’t understand that much English here, the carols just sound like another nice song. But it’s really funny to hear.