Monday, April 13, 2009

They doubt us... just like we doubt them

How could I NOT love this spicy baby?!!

Last week I squeezed in a lunch with a hotel PR, and had a rather interesting conversation:

She: Can we speak Chinese? (in Chinese)
Me: Sure!

We talked for a good, 10 minutes, before she said:

-Oh my god! Your Chinese is so good! I have never met a foreigner that can understand as much as you! How long have you been here for?

-2,5, soon 3 years.

-I know a foreign man who has been here for 6 years and he doesn’t understand anything!

-Well, I have studied for some time.


-Oh….. (excited/impressed facial expression changed into disappointed. Not quite sure why? Did she seriously think I had picked all that up from the street?)

Topic changed into food:

She: So, shall we order?

Me: Sure, how about some Chinese food?

-You LIKE Chinese food?!

-I LOVE Chinese food.

-Oh, most foreigners that I know don’t like it…

We went on like that for a while. Basically, I was the exact opposite to all foreigners that she knew over here. I liked Chinese food. I loved spicy food. I wasn’t scared of trying something that most foreigner don't like, but that Chinese people normally love, like ‘duck’s tongue’ (“No foreigner likes that!!” “Sure, but we can still try it, right?!” –I had to nag for 20 minutes before she agreed to order it).

Once the food was ordered she relaxed for a bit, until the dishes started to arrive. Then, she picked up her chopsticks and gave me a big smile:

-Now, I know that chopsticks can be a bit hard for foreigners… do you want me to ask for a fork and knife for you?

-Eh…. I can handle chopsticks, thanks. Like I said, I’ve been here for almost 3 years and I often eat Chinese food.


-Eh… yeah, sure…

I don’t know what it was that gave her away…. The superficial smile on her face? The face expression? The rolling of her eyes? Regardless of what, it was just so obvious that she didn’t believe a word that I was saying! I have no idea why, but she really didn’t believe that I 1. Could eat with chopsticks. 2. Really enjoyed Chinese food. 3. Especially enjoyed spicy food.

Even though I proved her wrong during the meal, the experience still stayed with me the whole day. I tried to imagine me meeting a Chinese girl who’s been living in Sweden for almost 3 years and who could speak Swedish. I then asked myself if I would ask the girl: ‘So, have you tried Swedish meatballs yet? And oh, can you handle a knife and fork?!’

Nope. I sure would not.

Well, I guess we are all different.

Then I was reminded by an interview I once did with a western company CEO. They had just expanded their factory and he told me that they had bumped into some major problems during the expansion because they had used a western company to re-build their factory, rather than a Chinese one. Local authorities were constantly on their backs and it took twice as long as usual to get approvals/permissions. Finally the CEO had understood that the main reason why the authorities were so suspicious was because they were using a foreign company, rather than a Chinese.

-We used a western company because we wanted things to be done well and we didn’t trust a Chinese one to be able to do the job. But what we didn’t realize was that just like we doubt them, they doubt us.

And then it all became crystal clear. Of course they doubt us…. Just like we doubt them. Just like when I went to do the wedding photo shoot with my sister and Michael, and my Chinese friend (who had helped me book it) was calling me every 30 minutes, asking if I was OK (she first suggested I’d do the shoot during the wknd so that she could come and ‘help out’ -as no one at the agency spoke any English- although I had said no, claiming that I would be ‘fine on my own.’) and if I needed any translation help (I didn’t).

Just like she doubted my Chinese language skills (that she also so often praises), this hotel PR doubted my whole ‘I love China and Chinese food’ –attitude. Quite funny if you think about it. I wonder what you’re supposed to say/do in order to avoid a Chinese person them doubting your words/ability… Proving them wrong is obviously not enough. 

26 comments:

Andi said...

I totally agree, I have run into similar problems in China and Japan. Although I have not lived there and do not speak the language (I would try if I lived there) I love Japanese and Chinese food A LOT and can use chopsticks, people are always shocked when I visit there.

Brad F. said...

I kinda ran into the same issue in Singapore. They like to put a lot of chili in the food here, and when I would order I had to assure them multiple times that it was ok for them to serve me food with chili. They kept asking if I wanted them to make it without chili. I eat at the same places typically, so now they know that I eat the chili and enjoy it. It took a few months for them to get used to it though.

But... I might jokingly tell someone who just moved to the US from China that there was no rice or chopsticks with the meal, but I wouldn't seriously doubt their ability to eat a meal without rice, or with a fork and knife. It seems almost insulting. Of course, a knife and fork are simple to use compared to becoming proficient with chopsticks...

kanmuri said...

Ummm, that must be quite annoying. Here people will ask you if you can use chopsticks, but when you show them you can, they look at you as if you're god or something...

Monica said...

Jonna Jonna Jonna - did you forget you already tried duck tongue in Changsha? :)

Chris said...

I've had similar experiences to this too. I think part of it is just general stereotyping that has been going around since these people were children. I know a lot of students I meet at work believe that I go to KFC and Macdonalds every day for lunch and dinner, they are shocked when I say I love Sichuan food instead.

The other day I was on a bus with a Chinese friend who was getting off long before my home. I knew exactly where I would be getting off but she insisted that the bus driver let me know when it was my stop so I wouldn't get lost. I continually said I knew exactly which place to get off as I've lived here for a year, but no, she still made sure the driver told me when it was my stop. It wasn't embarrassing at all!

Mark's Blog said...

It appears that all of these come down to the issue of trust, and it takes time to build it, at least get used to each other

flyingfish said...

It sounds as if you remained good-humored. I think I might have slapped someone!

I call the attitude you describe the "exotica syndrome." Some friends last time I was here called it the "monkey can talk syndrome." I take your point about the western CEO, but I still don't think the degree of doubt is mutual. I think many Chinese (though of course not all, perhaps not even most) doubt us far more than we doubt them. I think there is, has long been, a huge, widespread (but certainly not universal) reluctance to believe that any foreigner could ever understand anything about China or Chinese culture. My students last time I was here used to tell me, ad nauseam, that I must find China "exotic." I always told them I didn't (hey, I'm originally from San Francisco), but they never believed me. As I think I've mentioned before in commenting on your posts, I know an American professor of medieval Chinese poetry who has more than once been asked, quite seriously, if he is acquainted with a Chinese poet named Li Bai. Now, I know for sure that if I met a Chinese professor of English literature, I would not ask him if he were acquainted with Shakespeare.

I think the culture of sort of auto-bounded exoticism is changing, though. On the Western side, Orientalism seems to have had its day. Maybe it still has a few kicks left in it, but most people don't take it seriously, do they? And on the Eastern side, new kinds of openness and pluralism are starting to take over. The family I live with now doesn't think it's at all weird when I quote Qu Yuan and Tao Yuanming. Why would it be weird? I'm a grad student, and Chinese literature is what I study. Knowing about Tao Yuanming or Qu Yuan is just like knowing about organic chemistry or applied mathematics. Anyone can do it. It belongs to everyone.

Lilly said...

Unfortunately, people have stereotypes and it's difficut to change. "I do not like him because I do not know him." This kind of thing happens.
I always try to take time to know and understand a person whoever comes from different background.

Anonymous said...

You are proud trilingual, uh?:-)

Hang said...

Good to see it from a laowai's perspective, the continuous doubt seems annoying. Especially when you proved that her doubt was wrong.

dfvxc said...

First I want to say: I LOVE your blog!!! Since I discovered it a few weeks ago, I'm totally addicted.

I'm a Taiwanese whose family moved to mainland China since I was grade 3, and I went to international schools in BJ,SH, until university.

That said, locals do the same thing to me too (but not nearly as extreme), and I'm natively fluent in Chinese.
There is a strong preconceived notion that I'm babied inside this cocoon of wealth and comfort, and that I do not see nor understand the 'real' world in China, especially the ugly side.

Essentially, there's this belief that they've got me all figured out and I have no clue about them... Even Chinese ppl here in Toronto are the same...

dfvxc said...

So, I believe it's a similar thing with you - strong preconceived notions. Since it's preconceived, you can't avoid it, but have to work against it. Or just play along, it's easier :P

WoAi said...

Lots of things happen here that could never happen back home in reverse. Imagine being in Starbucks and one staff asking which customer ordered the machiato and then the other staff saying "the foreigner".

But it's because China IS different. It's very common for English people to eat Indian and Chinese food in England but much less common for Chinese to eat western food, so they often assume it's the same outside of China and why wouldn't they.

Funny though, I was once on a date with a Shanghainese girl and after about 10 minutes I realised she wasn't eating her steak. WhenI asked why she admitted she didn't know how to use a knife and fork. I had to cut the steak into small pieces for her!

flyingfish said...

@woai: The image of you cutting your date's steak up for her is just too cute for words. :)

Alex W said...

Despite the heterogeneity of China, it seems like some things are the same no matter where you go. I'm really curious as to why many Chinese ask the same questions of foreigners..and in the same order. I can't count the number of times the story you told has happened to me in exactly the same way. I think Flyinfish's comments are dead-on though...it's something that will change with time and increased engagement with the West, on a individual basis. Maybe our kids will be able to enjoy travel here without the stares and suspicion. but then again, isn't that part of what makes it China?

Jonna Wibelius said...

Really glad (from reading everyone's comments) that I am not the only one being doubted/babied around here in China... Chris' example of his friend telling the bus driver to stop at his stop (this has happened to me too, even though I, just like u Chris, did say that I knew where I were) just because they are worried you won't manage on your own. Most of the time I find this sort of concern quite cute, although at times it makes me go 'what the h'***, how do you think I ended up in China at the first place? Do you think I took a private jet here and was carried by human hands to my flat, so that no one would be able to bother me/so that I wouldn't risk getting lost?!' but then I remind myself that they only mean well... and calm down.

Flyingfish -yeah, ur comment it pretty spot on. China is not 'that exotic/that special' that it is completely impossible for us laowais to understand it.. sure, we might not get every single little detail but it's not rocket science. Sure, many Chinese people don't speak any English and it can be hard to get around in smaller cities without any knowledge of Chinese, but there are other places like that in the world too.... so it's not that mega special (at least not to me... I personally think Japan would be a bigger challenge but I don't know... also, not to be forgotten when I spent 30 min at Starbucks in korea trying to order a latter.. the Starbuck's clerk had never heard 'latte' and when I said 'milk' and 'coffee' he gave me one cup of hot milk, and one cup of hot coffee and charged me for both.... it took me ages to get out of that one... but anyways).

Andi -yeah, chopsticks aren't that hard...sure it takes some time to work up the speed but def not as hard as some Chinese people make it sound.

Brad F - Oh this one has happened to me too... Many times I have actually asked for 'extra spicy' and had to send the food back to the kitchen as it comes out all mellow. Although when it then comes back it is normally burning hot.. hehe. Just like I like it! :)

Kanmuri -yeah, maybe I should add it to my CV? Additional information: Like long distance running. Can handle chopsticks. Can eat spicy food. Yeah. Really!'

Monica -ohhhh I had forgotten about that experience..... That night was all about snake ;)

Chris -a classic. Has happened to me too (like I wrote). And yeah, me too felt a tad bit embarrassed when the bus stopped and the bus driver started shouting that it was time for the laowai to get off...

Mark -sure it takes time to build up trust.. but one thing I don't get. If I couldn't handle chopsticks I wouldn't say I could... if I didn't like spicy food I wouldn't say I did... so... where does that doubt come from?? Does people here say that they like things that they actually dislike?

flygingfish -spot on.

Lilly -Stereotypes are universal, however, it gets a bit dangerous when people are too stuck on the stereotype to see what it actually right in front of u... it is just like I get called 'fat' just because I am a laowai. I am actually not even close to fat but it is almost as if the Chinese shop assistants just see my blonde hair and think 'oh, laowai, a fat one' and start brining me XXXL shirts...

Anonymous -Of course I am. Wouldn't you be? I have worked so hard when it comes to learning Chinese.

Hang -yup. It gets annoying.

dfvxc -ohhhh... always happy to hear from a new SHE-addict... ;) Glad u enjoy my blog!! :) And yeah, I totally feel you when it comes to people thinking that u have been babied. It is so funny coz I can tell people that I moved abroad on my own when I was 18 and they all go 'ahhh woooow!!!' and then one moment later they are still wondering if I can manage to take the bus home on my own.... Makes me go 'hm....'

alex -yup it is changing.. slowly. I find very refreshing when I have lunch with some Chinese people that do NOT ask me if I can 'eat with chopsticks/handle spicy food.'

Jonna Wibelius said...

woai -I forgot you, oh my, how could I...! That's quite a picture you painting with you cutting your date's steak... sounds very cute! Must have lead to an instant 2nd date, right?! (where u ate with chopsticks?!!!)

And yeah... China is different. But not as in 'a different planet different'... just a bit different in terms of social behavior/culture...

afritzse said...

It's funny how stereotypically many Chinese behave towards Westerners. I hope that under the surface, their views on people of the West are just as varied as they are as people.

WoAi said...

I just went up and down looking for your reply to me and didn't see anything .... then I scrolled down right to the bottom. Phew!

Yeah there was a second date. It was a long time ago, in 1999 and she was not one of the many "westernized" local girls you see everywhere these days. I was a bit embarrassed to be honest.

Dangerous Des said...

that happens here all the time... especially because I am American... of course being non-white some people doubt even that I can speak English... funny how they all know someone who has lived in China/Germany/Wherever for 10 years and speaks no Chinese/German/Whatever so it makes you a genius in comparison! LOL

Anonymous said...

that is a delicious picture of food.

胡崧 said...

I think it also depends on which part of China you live in. A lot of foreigners assume China as one big humongous country with one culture and people tend to behave the same way, which could not be more wrong in reality.

Imagine China as a "unified" version of Europe. There are a lot of regional subcultures and different customs across China. It is not rare for a Northern Chinese to feel somewhat a culture shock when he/she visits Southern China.

Therefore, It wouldnt say the mutual doubt always exist between Chinese and foreigners. It really comes down to where you live, which type of Chinese (e.g. Northern or Southern)you are hanging out with. Your experience can vary HUGELY.

Ivan Toblog said...

Ha ha! You said It's not Rocket Science. Of course not. It's Chinese.

Betsy said...

I have to admit the part that stuck with me the most is that you like duck tongue haha. One of my friends here at college, an English as a Second Language (ESL) student is from Wenzhou, and her mom sends her duck tongue all the time. My friend is always sure to give some to me because I absolutely love it.

Anonymous said...

ALTHOUGH YOU HAVE LIVING IN CHINA FOR 3 YEARS,I THINK YOU DON'T KNOW CHINESE.WHEN A CHINESE MAN EXPRESS CAREING ABOUT YOU,THEY JUST WANT TO HELP YOU WHATEVER YOU NEED OR NOT,YOU CAN FEEL EASY TO RECEIVE,WE JUST WANT TO SECURE YOU FEELING GOOD.THIS IS NOT DOUBT YOU ACTUALLY,IN deep down,IT'S JUST CARE ABUT YOU.

Brad F. said...

胡崧 : That's an interesting concept. I never really thought of that, though I suppose it makes sense. I remember reading at some point that China used to be a lot of different regions that were unified. Being such a big country, differences are bound to remain. The same is true in the US. Depending on what region you go to, people behave differently and have different customs and ideas. The "North" "South" "Midwest" and "West Coast" are all very different from each other.