Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Hard to say 'thank you'

"You're welcome"

Before I did my very first trip (for work purposes) to China, my at-that-time-editor sat me down for a quick survival briefing. She'd travelled to China frequently during the last few years and that was enough for me to swallow her words hook, line and sinker.

When I think of some of the advices she gave me today, I kind of sniggle, as a lot of the things she said were way too dramatic. Although obviously, she also had some good points:

1. Always carry toilet paper/napkins with you (check!). Public toilets are rarely equipped.

2. Stomach pills are your best friend (hm.. this made sense during my first 1.5 years here although for the last 6 months I haven't gotten stomach sick once -knock on wood!- Also, I don't think stomach pills can prevent this so much... it's more like, avoiding street food/restos that don't look clean?)

But then, there was one thing that I deeply regret ever having listened to:

3. When someone pays you a compliment, politely decline it.

When I heard the 'compliment' behavior at first I felt a bit confused.

-What, so if someone tells me my bag looks nice I should say: 'oh no... it's not nice at all?!' I asked.
-Well no.. maybe u can say something like 'oh, this old thing? It is nothing special!'. You should be very modest in China. If you just say 'thank you' that might be regarded as rude.
-Oh?! Got it.

So.... I journeyed to China and back again. Didn't receive many compliments at all that first time (I guess my bag and clothes weren't hip enough, hmpppf). Then, I made the big 'China move' and arrived in China to study, work, and get lost in translation.

And then, my editor's words started ringing in my ears again especially since one of the first things I learned when I started taking Chinese lessons was: how to respond to a compliment:

-A polite way to respond to a compliment is to say: Nali nali/ Mei you/ Na you (all of those are basically polite ways of saying 'no no').

In the beginning it was kind of fun, especially since it really made sense to say 'oh no no' when someone complimented my Chinese skills (because let's face it -I sucked!). Taxi drivers loved it. Shopping assistants too. Old women found it hilarious.

But that was then and now is now. And you know what? I still say 'nali nali' whenever I get a compliment. Like, yesterday when I met with an old friend that I haven't seen for more than 6 months, and we had our conversation entirely in Chinese and she said: 'wow, you have really improved Jonna!' I was all like: 'oh no... my Chinese is still terrible, bla bla bla'... Gosh, I don't even like caning myself, but it seems that I cannot stop doing it?

My bf also commented on it some other day.... when he paid me a compliment that I brushed off, and he was like:
-What's wrong with you? Can't you just say 'thanks'?

I started thinking about what he said and then it occurred to me: a simple 'thank you' doesn't exist in my mind anymore. A few examples from last week:

(Just came out from the hairdresser and met a friend)
-Wow your hair looks great!
-ah... well, it is so-so!

(dinner with a big group of noggys)
-What a lovely dress Jonna!
-Oh, this old thing? No.. it's nothing special?

Yesterday with a group of Chinese people:
-Wow, your Chinese is really good. You understand everything we are saying?! Awesome!
-Oh, no no no.. my Chinese is still quite terrible.

Holy Sh**** this HAS to stop?!!! I do not like the person I have turned into who cannot simply say 'thanks.' (I used to be that person, and I want that person back!!!)

But I've noticed that since I set the ball rolling it is kind of hard to stop it.. Has anyone else experienced this over here? Suddenly you find yourself not being able to take a compliment because you want to be so polite? Gosh, sounds ridiculous doesn't it?! My friends will k*** me if I come home over Xmas and go on brushing off everything nice they say to me, because not being able to accept a compliment is the exact opposite how you are expected to behave in Sweden. There, u should simply say: 'thanks!' And that actually makes much more sense than this whole 'oh no no no no' -thing...

In fact, some of my young Chinese friends have even told me that the 'nali nali' isn't really used that much anymore by young Chinese people, and that it is now OK just to say 'thank you,' but I still cannot get it in my head.


Anonymous said...

Nali nali means where where. It's so funny if someone compliments how pretty you are and you answer back where where.

Anonymous said...

I know just what you mean. After eight years of studying Chinese and several years in china, I developed the same habit. It's taken quite a while to break it. For some reason, it becomes really hard to accept compliments or you feel uncomfortable after trying to deflect them for so long. It's definitely not appreciated in the west since people think it's false modesty. I'm sure your friends will help you break the habit though.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Anoymous -well haven't u heard the joke about the American man at the Chinese wedding? The American told the groom:

-Your wife is so beautiful.

The groom politely responded:

-Nali Nali!

The American looked confused before he answered:

-Well, everywhere!

Heli82 -"it becomes really hard to accept compliments or you feel uncomfortable after trying to deflect them for so long." -exactely!! Oh, I am so glad I am not the only one feeling like this. I also dislike false modesty so I better get myself together and learn how to say 'thanks' again.

And hey, 8 years in China.. whooooa! Nice one!

Mark's Blog said...

Being in NZ for 3 years, I have the problem in reverse.

I think this may has something to do with expectation of someone about oneself and that of other people.

For example, if a Chinese say to me
"Your English is good"
My response is usually
"Bu hao, Bu hao la"不好,不好啦

But if it is a native New Zealander, my response is usually

One reason for me to reject the compliment from Chinese is because the standard they use to judge my English is basically too low. This is especially true when it comes to friends.

If mastering 2000 words is good in their eyes when it comes to strangers, I am only required to master 1000 words to be good enough to them. That is only a metaphor,but it has truth in it.

Basically, the standard of good/bad is different when it comes to different people, measured by the strength of relationships. It could be both high and low.

Then there is my own standards when I need to judge myself, which is usually high I suppose. So if someone praise me for something I have done that failed my own standards--like tests, English, I reject that praise. But if I do think I accomplished something that exceeded my own expectation, I say "thanks" to those who compliments, because it is something I deserve.

It's not only about being modestry or polite, but also about setting a standard, a goal and a destination for oneself that is both high and needs substantial effort to achieve.

Having said this, I guess there are certain assumptions that need to be take into account when Chinese compliment. If one Chinese compliments about the other, the one being complimented is usually well aware that the one complimenting is using a low standard to judge him/her. It could be for a various of reasons. Then, the one being complimented says a rejection of compliment, like "Nali Nali" or "Buhao Buhao". This rejection, I believe, is not a rejection of the compliment/praise/admiration per se,but it is a rejection of the standards being used by the one complimenting.

If the one being complimented do accept the praise while being aware of the standards the other side is using, it in fact signals the other side his/her acceptance of not only the compliments, but also a lower standard. All this risks the one being complimented be seen as arrogant and not interested in achieving anything.

Anonymous said...

What a great post!

I wouldn't say the same thing has happened to me because of the Chinese influence --I think there have been other factors that have been just as important in turning me into one of those can't-just-take-a-compliment people -- but I think it's definitely an issue.

I'm really interested to hear about the cultural expectations in Sweden. How about elsewhere in Scandinavia? I have this fantasy (highly unlikely ever to be realized, but, hey, a girl can dream) that one day I'll go teach Chinese in Denmark or Finland. I guess it would be good to know how to take a compliment there, just in case anyone ever pays me one!

Jonna Wibelius said...

flyingfish -although Scandinavia/the Nordic countries might seem like 1 country to many ppl the 5 countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland) are actually really different. Especially Finland I would say. Meanwhile Danes are quite outgoing and open (the 'happiest people in the world' according to some poll, right?) the Finns are veeeeeery quiet and reserved! Even more reserved than Swedes I would say.

Also, Swedish, Norweigian, and Danish are quite similar languages (and people from these countries can normally understand each other) meanwhile Finnish and Icelandic are 2 completely different languages that sounds like Chinese to me, I guess that's why there is a bit of a culture gap between Swe/Den/Nor and Fin/Ice as well.

I don't think your dream is far-fetched in any way.. there is a huge interest for China/Chinese in Scandinavia a.t.m and many Scandos want to learn Chinese. So I'd say go for it!

As for compliments in Finland and Denmark -just say thanks! The Finns however, not being very outspoken, are not much likely to pay you compliments, regardless if you are a supermodel :) It's just not in their nature... :) During my one year in Tampere (located in the middle of Finland) I think the closest to a compliment I got was 'well obviously you are not fat since you like sports'... :) Got to love their down-to-earth-life though!

mtfranklin said...

Hey Jonna! I must admit that I'm a bit of a lurker but I simply must speak out about this issue!

I'm Chinese Australian and I hate the fact that Chinese people always brush off compliments! I speak Cantonese and for us there are two ways of saying thank you (which always confuses me). One is more like "please" and when someone does you a service (like if they pass you the salt at the dinner table). The other thank you is more for when you get a gift or a compliment. One time a Cantonese family friend commented that I looked nice so being brought up the Aussie way I thanked her, only I used the wrong form of thank you. So I was basically saying to her "please, please! compliment me more!" She was shocked, to say the least.

I have been listening to Cantonese every day of my life and the reason why I got confused is because in the whole 19yrs of my life, I have NEVER EVER heard a Chinese person accept a compliment. ARGH! It annoys me so much. People here in Oz find it annoying if you can't accept a compliment, and I do too!

Anonymous said...

Evidently, mtfranklin.89, you are a so-called banana-man (or, woman).

Anonymous said...

Interesting to hear the "nali nali" is fading - it was one of the things I found most difficult to adopt. Well, so much in China is changing (between my trips there - 1986, 2000, 2006 - it was like visiting a different planet each time. Enjoyed your blog - thanks for the stroll down amnesia lane!

Anonymous said...

this is a interesting blog :D
it is really nice to know how western people really think about chinese people when they actually live there.

Anonymous said...

I thought I've seen the word "Perth" somewhere in this blog so just thought I'd drop some word.

It's interesting to see how foreigners seeks to understand chinese culture. Good work.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Anonymous -you're from Perth, WA? Lucky thang!!! I lived there for 3.5 years (2002-2005) and I miss the place sooooooo much.

bkbj said...

Jonna – have you noticed the phrase "那是" ("That is true") started appearing in the Chinese vocabulary? So far it only comes up jokingly among young people when they reply to compliments. But, at the rate things are changing, "那是" could be the new "哪里" any time now ;)

Love your blog by the way – I am officially a fan :)

- Xueyin

Anonymous said...

I usually just say thanks or something like that. Trying to be all modest is just too much work :)

I think Icelandic is easier than some danish dialects. Specially when they get drunk :(

Jonna Wibelius said...

bkbj -I have never heard of the phrase "那是" ("That is true") but now I will definitely have to try and use it the next time someone pays me a compliment! :) Just to see their reaction.

Emil -I had a guy from Iceland in my class in highschool.. couldn't understand a word of what he said when he spoke his native language, although he picked up Swedish very fast..

Maybe Danish is easier for people from Skåne to understand? Seeing that we also sort of swallow a lot of words down south... (or so I have been told, people love making fun of my skånska dialect even though it isn't that strong anymore...)