Sunday, September 28, 2008

Are you Kidding Me?

Communicating cross culturally is challenging to say the least! Forget about the language barrier. Let's talk about the idea of social graces and acceptable verbiage. In the West, we find questions about profession, age, and martial status common, although for some mildly annoying. Other comments or questions are just plain "off limits." I would never ask a complete stranger or even a casual acquaintance about their weight, financial status or question their child rearing practices. Yet, this is a common occurrence in China.

A friend of mine was relaying a story about getting his tire pumped up by a local bike repair guy. During their conversation, a buddy of the repair guy stated,
"You're too fat! That's why your tire is flat. You shouldn't ride a bike. What do you usually eat?" Just this last week one of the Chinese interns told a male classmate of mine that his voice was cute and he sounded like a small Japanese girl! Ouch! Talk about crushing a man's masculinity!

These comments sound shocking to us, but believe it or not they are common ways to socially engage and show care, concern or affection for another person. It's called "Guan xin Talk." When someone asks about one's age, financial status, or physical attributes it is generally not to be nosey, but to gain information about another person so that the proper respect or care can be shown to them. For example, when someone is advanced in age or financial accomplishment they are shown special honor. Given that perspective, it makes sense, (sort of) but it still doesn't feel less embarrassing or intrusive. Westerners cherish our individualism and don't feel that anyone has the right to pry into our business, judge us, or give us advise on our weight, finances, or any other matter we consider personal.

That doesn't even start to cover the humiliation of Chinese people staring or laughing at, pointing to, or touching our physical body parts...which for most of us is even more challenging to handle. First of all, let's face the fact that most Chinese women don't have hips or bubble butts...we do! Arm hair in China is normally not present either, so it freaked me out a little bit when a Chinese student started "petting my fur" (arm hair) because it was so interesting to her. I really wanted to crawl in a hole when she bluntly asked, "Are all Americans fat and hairy?"

It's so offensive it's almost funny...except when you are the one in the spotlight. How should one respond when told that Americans should eat less bread and dairy products because it make us fat and smell like sour milk? I'm not really sure yet. If I try to remember that these comments and bits of advise are signs of care, affection and curiosity rather than malicious arrows aimed at tearing apart my formerly strong self esteem, then it's easier to take-most days. As long as they keep their hands off my "interesting" rear end!



Leah VM said...

LOL That's AWESOME! Can't wait to hear more!!

bversluis said...

And you want to live there why? OK, aside from the G-thing, why would anyone want to subject herself to such humility? I get extremely offended when Americans comment about my weight. I think if a little C-person said anything to me about my weight, I would probably, very fleshly-like say something like: "Well, your men are ugly!" Then gladly let them escort me to the nearest airport never to return! You're amazing, Lindy! And no matter what those little people say: you're absolutely beautiful and just right! Remember, the USA, with 4.5% of the world population, loves you just the way you are, without judgment! Who cares what 19.7% of the world thinks? You rock in our part of the world! And in the highest!