Cultural Curiosities of China

I recently went on a business trip to Panyu, Guangzhou China.

I led a 2-day intercultural training session for a Mexican executive who needed help motivating his local team at a manufacturing plant.

My mother was born in what was then Peking and my grandfather’s family had been missionaries in China for several generations before they moved to New York in the early 1900’s.  So I have a good amount of ingrained knowledge of the culture, but delightfully had an opportunity to learn more.

I’ve been impressed by the complexity of the Chinese “story”, and have been coming to a deeper understanding of the multiple layers of contextual communication that goes on for event the simplest of exchanges.

It’s a fascinating place and the people are full of intriguing paradoxes – delightfully friendly and respectful and dignified in one moment, then going against socially accepted behavior the next.

There is symbolism everywhere.

There’s an ancient Chinese belief that an evil spirit dwells in the throat. They frequently clear their throats and spit in China to keep the evil spirit at bay and to keep him from strangling them when they swallow. Also, practically, the Chinese have a lot of phlegm build-up due to the weather and smoggy conditions. And they chain smoke. It should be noted, however, that spitting is also considered rude in China amongst the upper class and younger people.

Slurping soup and belching, on the other hand, both are a sign of pleasure from a meal, a sign of gratitude toward the host, and a compliment to the chef.

The guy next to me checking in at the front desk of this Guangzhou hotel, puffing away at a cigarette, reminded me to ask for a non-smoking room. The woman behind the country smiled slightly but looking moderately perplexed; “we have no non-smoking rooms”. I clearly was not in Kansas anymore.

And I realized more and more why they call Hong Kong “Asia Light”.

Alarmed to see this in my hotel room, thinking it was a gas mask. Turns out it's to use in case of fire.

[Alarmed to see this in my hotel room, thinking it was a gas mask. Turns out it’s to use in case of fire.]

As a vegetarian, it’s always challenging finding food in China.  There was literally nothing without meat or seafood on the hotel menu for room service. When I asked the hotel manager if anything could be done to have a dish with no meat or fish, he looked a little bewildered and forlorn, “we’ve never been asked that before, I’m not sure the cooks will understand”.

The Chinese – as with the case in other Asian cultures – have a really hard time saying “no”, because it may cause them to “lose face” (mianzi, in Mandarin). They don’t like to admit if some service can’t be offered and often hedge the answer so they’re not put in a position to deliver disappointing news.

I encountered this during my previous trip to China, to Shenzhen. A Chinese friend of mine had invited me to her favorite local dim sum restaurant and was excited to have me try it out. Likewise, the waitress was eager to please this new gweilo (foreigner). We ordered rice and vegetable soup and then I asked what dim sum dishes were vegetarian. “Not many”, was her answer. “Well, I only need one to try it, really, what dim sum do you have that are without meat or fish”. “Not much” was her answer. This went back and forth for an uncomfortable amount of time when I realized – duh – that she didn’t want to tell me that there was nothing vegetarian. I kept insisting and every time I did, I was doing the terrible “manzi” faux pas of making her lose face.

Lovely Chinese dim sum waitress, wherever you are – please forgive me for my wicked Western ignorance!

So, back a little further north to my adventure in Guangzhou, the hotel manager ends up walking me over to the local grocery store to forage for some vegetarian grub for dinner that night – which was so very kind of him!

I love browsing around local markets in any new country I visit. The only thing for dinner that initially I thought might be vegetarian was the Cup of Soup. Of course all of the ingredients were written in Chinese only — we’ve been spoiled with so many years in Europe, with multiple languages being a legal requirement! Aside from the fact that I was pretty certain one of the first ingredients would be MSG, the pictures on the fronts seemed to indicate there would pretty definitely be something with eyes inside – whether they be from land or sea. Dinner that night: cashews, a banana, and a bag of potato chips (cucumber flavor. Not bad!).

Then tried connecting to Facebook and of course forgot that it is censored in China. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Google, no any kind of Western social media platforms. There are local versions of all those things, the content of which presumably the Chinese government is better able to track and control.

The hotel very kindly arranged for a shuttle bus back to the ferry to return to Hong Kong. It was fascinating to see the amount of horn usage for a ½-hour ride – which, by the way, was on the “right” side of the rode, a side I had not ridden on since our arrival to Hong Kong. Oddly for the American that I am, it felt weird! The driver honked at the slews of pedestrians and bicycle riders who were several yards away. He honked if it looked like any car might be coming even remotely close to our bus. And instead of signally to turn, the preferred alerting procedure was – you guessed it – the mighty horn.

My driver was very friendly, smiling all the time, and chatting away with me in Mandarin, which I – of course – didn’t understand a word of. He took regular breaks to talk on his phone. No, to YELL INTO HIS PHONE.

“WHY”? “WHY?” NUN JAI”!!

I love that the Chinese answer the phone with what sounds like “why” (but essentially means “hello”)… it always makes me think they’re all saying “why? why are you calling me, why”?

As a side note, I always thought it would be interesting to do a little study on the various ways of answering the phone in different languages. The Portuguese answer their phones “Sto”, which means “I am”. If they can’t hear, they add a “si” at the end. So the first part of the phone conversation would be “I am….. I am…. I AM , YES..!”… and so on.

And I love the Italians “pronto” = I’m ready. Whatever crazy merda you may throw my way on this phone call, I’m ready for you. Just like the Italians to be crafty like that.  “Furbo“, you might say.

“Hello” just seems so very banal.

But I digress.

So I had my cigarette-smoking, horn-honking, non-seatbelt wearing, smiley, chatty and swirv-y bus driver taking me to the ferry to return to Hong Kong when I glance out the window and see the police.

No, two police.

Both on the same motorcycle.

Neither of them wearing a helmet.

And BOTH smoking cigarettes AND talking on their phones.

Gotta love China.

Sup and Fall Down Carefully? Okay.

“Sup and Fall Down Carefully” notice on the shower door. Okay then.

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