amw (amw) wrote,

more on language and culture

Now i have filled y'all in on the day-to-day, it's time for a more cultural post. It won't surprise anyone to know that Chinese culture is different to western culture in several ways. Hell, even in different countries of the west we have different culture. Even in the same country in different ethnic groups. So obviously things are going to be different. That's why traveling is interesting for me. But something i am struggling with is the way family and friendships work over here.

I have already touched on this in prior posts - the idea of home. In Chinese, the word for home is 家 (jiā). If you return home you 回家 (huí jiā). If you want to say at home, you say 在家 (zài jiā). But 家 also means family. So you know how all those Chinese dishes in Chinese restaurants are interchangeably called "home-style tofu" or "family-style tofu"? This is why. Home and family are very much linked together linguistically.

One of the first questions people (both locals and expats) ask foreigners here is your 国家 (guó jiā) - your country. For me that's hopeless. Born in England, don't remember any of it, lived in many other countries, father born in Kenya, but he's a New Zealander, living in Austria, mom born in Holland, living in Australia... I'm a Canadian citizen. I don't have a home country and never will. I just have the country i currently call home. Right now that's China. A few months ago it was Germany. But i don't have any roots there, it's just where i live and who i will low-key support if there is some sports event on that i otherwise wouldn't care about. This doesn't make sense to Chinese people, because no matter where they are in the world, they still feel Chinese.

Not only do Chinese have a home country, they also have an "old home" - literally 老家 (lǎo jiā). That is whatever town or village your family comes from. And we're not just talking about where you were born, or even where your parents were born, but as far back as you can trace your heritage, where most of your ancestors lived. Because of the rules around internal migration, historically Chinese would go out to study or work, earn money, then come back home - 回家. And even though plenty of kids have been born and grown up in the new boomtowns, they still identify as being "from" wherever that place is that their ancestors came from. Perhaps their family still owns a plot of land there, or their grandparents are buried in the area. They don't live there, but it's home.

I wonder if this ties into why rental apartments here are furnished (see my last post)? People come into the city with nothing but the clothes on their back, work and save all their money, then move out to buy a house closer to their 老家? I am not sure. Certainly many of the dialogs we have been learning talk about exactly this experience - move to the city, work lots of overtime, "eat bitter" and then buy a new house for you and your parents.


吃苦 (chī kǔ) or "eat bitter" is used in several Chinese proverbs to mean bearing hardship. We learned 吃得苦中苦,方为人上人 (chī dé kǔ zhōng kǔ / fāng wéi rén shǎng rén). It means something like: if you endure a lot of hardship, you will become a higher person. Everyone i have asked could recite it. Still, many of the young people i am meeting in the city today seem less like they are enduring the hardships of city life and more just enjoying the convenience. In a few generations perhaps their ancestral home will be as meaningless as it is in other countries full of immigrants.

Monday was what the laowai were calling "Chinese Valentine's Day", but it's actually called the Qixi Festival. Even though there are fuck all folk temples in mainland China (compared to Taiwan, at least) everyone still knew the folk legend. A cowherd and a seamstress fell in love and were married. But the seamstress was actually the daughter of a goddess and when her mother found out she had run off to be with a mortal they were cursed to live apart forever. Only one day each year they can meet, when the magpies build a bridge across the heavenly river. On this day in modern China people go out on dates and send flowers and gifts to their boos. It was cute seeing all the couples out and about and all the e-bike couriers zooming around with bouquets. But especially endearing was hearing these hip urban kids earnestly share an ancient Chinese legend.


Another thing i have bumped up against is how relationships work differently over here. We all know i screwed up by not bringing some fruit when i got invited over to K's house for the first time. I guess as a laowei i have no face to lose, but it was definitely a major faux pas. It happened again on Thursday when i was very hungry and mentioned it in passing, then was given a packet of Oreos. I don't like sweets/candy very much at the best of times, and i think they're about the worst possible thing to eat when you are very hungry, so i refused, but i could tell at that moment that i had screwed up. When someone gives you a gift here you have to accept it, even if you don't want it. And then politely dispose of it or re-gift later. For fuck's fucking sake.

Anyway, it's not just the gifts. Several words and behaviors are coded into the language in a very different way to English. The most awkward word i have learned so far is 羡慕 (xiàn mù), which is commonly translated as "to envy". Except here that's a good thing. If you 羡慕 somebody, you say it to their face, and then they feel happy or proud. I guess a better translation might be "i am happy for you that ABC" rather than "i envy you because of ABC", but i tried to explain this difference to my teachers and they didn't really understand.

A similar word that in English has a very passive-aggressive undertone is 适合 (shì hé) or "to suit". It's used in the sense of saying "that hairstyle suits you" or "that dress suits you". Saying those things in English sounds snarky - the implication being that the previous hairstyle or dress didn't suit. But in Chinese it's okay to say it, just like it's okay to say "you are fat". Commenting bluntly on people's appearance - both negative and positive - is not seen as judgmental, or perhaps just not in the same way that it is in the west.


I guess if i'm honest these sorts of things are exactly the same sorts of things i struggle with in the west. The idea of "home" and "family", or how to politely feign interest in things you don't care about, or comment on some aspect of a person you would rather not bother discussing. I notice myself remembering far more Chinese vocabulary related to food and travel and work than i do about friends and family and obligations.

Other things we are learning are words i can rarely find examples for - things like "better" and "worse" and "favorite" and so on. These are judgements i try to avoid, because i think everything has pros and cons and it's pointless coming down strongly on matters of taste. But of course these are also some of the basic building blocks of language so you do need to understand how to use them.

It's odd having my learning hobbled by cultural or emotional blocks. Perhaps this is why people say it's easier to learn languages as a child. Not because learning the language is any easier, but because you just accept the words you hear as what they mean on the face and don't imbue them with unnecessary subtlety or context. I suspect i am overthinking things a lot here. Especially given the very basic level i am on.

That said, on Monday i spoke for about 2 hours straight about my weekend with one of my teachers. Almost completely in Chinese, just dropping back to English when i forgot a word or hit a complex topic. I still can't communicate so comfortably to "normal" people - the teachers know exactly how much vocabulary i know, so they can correct blown pronunciation and don't throw too much complex stuff at me - but it felt really good. It's nice to realize i am making progress.
Tags: china

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