Cai Li's Culture Column

Pass the salt! In this article, Cai Li provides a quick primer on social do's and don'ts for first-time travelers to China. After reading the article, choose a link below to read another or to visit another section of the Classroom Package.

Country of Courtesy

Traveling to China? Well, then, you no doubt have a well-packed suitcase. But are you sure you've got everything you need? Have you got your culture-shock-diminishing apparati? Your standard social-survival kit? Perhaps a different-perspective viewer? Maybe a cultural-sensitivity meter? Actually, those are all carry-on items that hopefully you'll be packing in the baggage area above your neck. It would probably take books to cover them all thoroughly; but I'll just offer a few paragraphs that you can take with a grain of salt. (Hey, they're free, don't weigh anything and don't take up luggage space!)

Let's start with the basics: common courtesy. Chinese people proudly refer to China as the Country of Courtesy; so, as a guest, you can certainly expect generous doses. Where language and custom present minor obstacles, smiles are the universal communicator of good will -- and a table full of sumptuous food will make sure everyone keeps smiling. But before you walk into someone's house to eat a home-cooked meal, take your shoes off! Shoes, in most Chinese households, are considered filth-conduits and are best swapped for a pair of slippers at the doorway. (Smelly socks are definitely the lesser of two evils.) Now that you are in, if it is your first day visiting, you might offer a gift to your host. After all, an old Chinese saying states, 'Li duo ren bu guai!' -- 'People never mind too much politeness (or too many gifts)!' Just make sure you don't give a clock! You see, the phrase song zhong -- to give a clock -- sounds the same as song zhong (written with different characters), meaning funeral -- so the gift would be equated with portending the receiver's funeral. And that's not very nice to do. As for your plate on that table full of food, don't be too surprised if someone other than you keeps filling it up once you sit for the meal. When you've had your fill, simply say 'Chi bao le, xie xie' -- 'I'm full, thank you.' (You may have to say it several times to convince your plate-filler.)

If you are eating at the home of a host family, you may receive an unexpectedly different form of courtesy at the table: the well-known self-deprecating declaration of saltiness. (It was made famous in Amy Tan's book, The Joy Luck Club, and the movie of the same name, and is a standard in Chinese households). It is always offered by the host referring to the food he or she has just served and can take two forms: 'Tai xian le!' -- 'It's too salty!' -- or 'Tai dan le!' -- 'It's too bland!' (meaning it's not salty enough). (On special occasions, it might even be generalized to, 'Cai bu hao chi!' -- 'The food is no good!') Usually, it will be just right. A simple 'Hao chi!' -- 'It's delicious!' -- or 'Heng hao chi!' -- 'Very good food!' -- will do the trick. (In some households, it might be considered insulting -- or at least shameful -- if the guest add salt or pepper to the presented dishes.)

As you spend more time in China and eat more meals here, you'll pick up a few more conventional regulations and expectations. Many hosts, for example, feel that guests should never set foot in the kitchen since that would indicate that they, the hosts, are not being hospitable enough, which would constitute a serious loss of 'face.' Likewise, in many households, a guest is expected to eat as much food as possible, especially meat, since animal flesh is a symbol of prosperity and vegetables are conversely associated with skimpiness and poverty.

During (and after) your meals, your host will undoubtedly want to practice his or her English on you and attempt to teach you Chinese. While this can certainly benefit both parties, it may also call for a bit of patience and tolerance. Most likely, you'll both boggle the other a bit, tripping over pronunciations and tones. Don't be afraid to ask people to repeat (instead of acting like you understand them when you don't) and be prepared to make more than one attempt yourself. (It will help if you repeat back the words you did understand so the person can concentrate on pronouncing the ones you didn't.) And, hey, you might as well have fun while your fumbling along. Laugh at yourself a little -- and don't be offended if your host laughs with you. Most hosts, of course, will be very sympathetic, but be prepared to encounter the occasional excessively insistent informal instructor. This person, with apparently little awareness of his own less-than-100% perfect pronunciation of English, may have you repeatedly attempt to pronounce a Chinese word 100% correctly despite your repeated failure to do so to his complete satisfaction and approval. In this case, you can politely ask him to pass the pistachios.

OK, so, now that you've passed the elementary level meal test, let's head out. By the way, you can never go wrong asking Chinese people where they are heading -- 'Ni qu na li?' They'll frequently ask you the same. Far from being an invasion into one's personal space or business, it's a standard greeting. So, too, is the question they ask you once you get there, 'Chi guo le ma?' -- 'Have you eaten?' The respective answers, regardless of the particulars, are: 'Wo chi guo le' -- 'I have eaten' and 'Wo chu qu' -- 'I’m going out.' Because this is only a matter of formality, no one really expects an explicitly honest answer.

So, let's go outside for a walk along the busy city street. You remember, of course, we're in the Country of Courtesy, right? But, wait a minute, it's so crowded out here -- endless lines of cars, bicycles and mopeds and throngs and throngs of people -- all fending, some rather distinctively discourteously, for themselves. Talk about no personal space! That's right, out here, it's a different story -- and the household rules of common courtesy need not apply! Stand in a line and you may find that six others have squeezed ahead -- and left you behind. Hawking and spitting, despite the government's hand, are a common practice across the land. Public smoking is obviously in vogue, and signs that prohibit it are regularly ignored. It will do you no good to protest the pollution, the problem's too big for an easy solution. (OK, I will stop with the rhymes.) Some people are relentlessly staring at you like they've never seen a non-Chinese person their whole life. And all these things and many others (including simply being outside your own cultural comfort-zone) are what go together to create that little phenomenon people call culture shock! Oh, you can't escape it -- and that's not such a bad thing. After all, that's why you're here. To stretch yourself, to broaden your world view (even if it means learning to accept realities you never dreamed of or were prepared to deal with). If you are resilient enough to withstand the things that shake you, to not let them get you down and negative, then you'll be be able to appreciate the many, many things that make a culture and a place and a people truly unique and wonderful. (Now, I could list plenty of those here, too, but I'll leave them for you to discover for yourself.)

OK, you've experienced your first taste of culture shock and passed that test, too. So, now maybe you're ready to head out to the Chinese countryside. Out there, there are a whole new set of variables and they vary widely from place to place. Can you handle, say, outhouses, a third language, clear-cut rain forest land, disturbing garbage disposal practices, the sight of people working excessively hard to earn in one year half the amount of money you've paid for this trip, the idea that some people practice a religion very, very different from your own and much more devoutly than you practice yours? That's all out there -- though, in most cases, you would have to look quite deeply to find it. (Maybe that will be another, longer-term journey.) And of course, as I mentioned above, each destination also has its own set of rewards if you can look beyond the things that shock and shake you. Mostly, you'll find lots of friendly people and your mind will be stretched by just beginning to comprehend the breadth of what China really is. As the old Chinese cliche goes, 'Qian li zhi xing, shi yu zu xia' -- 'A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.' Enjoy!

Country of Courtesy
I Mean What You Know! -- Tricky Chinese Expressions
Mystery Languages
A Matriarchal World
Jin Yong, the Kung Fu Master
A Brief Look at Banned Books

Cai Li's Culture Column

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