In one of my current teaching jobs here in Suzhou I teach primary school children. The text books have improved over the years during my stay in China but still have some quirky English. One is teaching learners how to describe other people. But the cultural appropriateness is shatteringly absent in the text books and oral examples used. We have gems like, “Who is the woman with the big ears?” “Who is the man with the big nose?” There is a reason for the describers. In China habitual descriptions refer to the size of a person’s eyes and their mouths. (This is because hair and eye colour are the same here so differences in descriptions cannot be based on eye and hair colour, as we can in the West.) “He has small eyes.” This is slightly bizarre to a Westerner. We often describe people by hair colour and eyes because of the variety of possibilities. So just imagine walking past classrooms and forty Chinese kids are lustily bellowing after their teacher’s lead: “Are you the girl with big teeth?” “Are you the man with the big nose?”
Inevitably the kids are oblivious to the fact they are insulting one another. Which makes one think about the nature of insults. You kind of have to feel insulted or that the barb you are hurling is going to be satisfyingly offensive. But if the language and culture being taught from an early age implies there are no insults contained in the words used? Well, a hell of a lot more of us would get along just dandy. (And I would not have had a recent column censored just because I happened to use the word ni**er.) So you’ve got a horrible hooked nose and your mother taught you to dress funny. And you think I am an arrogant, condescending son of a bitch. Way cool, so what; let’s go for a beer together.
Many of my readers will know I have lost a tremendous amount of weight. The Chinese would often cheerily point out to me that I was a really fat man. A hairdresser’s mother (a complete stranger) sat next to me once while I was having my head shaved and pointed out that I should eat less (older people here can say what they like in public; they have earned their stripes once they have passed about sixty years.) I was deeply offended and stormed out the shop. Who had the problem? She was just giving me sound advice.
On the subject of beer, there was free beer and drink as much as you like on St Patrick’s Day here in Suzhou at a pub called Pulp Fiction. It is aptly named as the establishment looks like a setting in a Quentin Tarantino movie. When we arrived at the pub I was blown away by the fact it was empty. Free beer and no one … there? In case I was mistaken, using my basic Mandarin I asked the bartender about the free beer and she gave me a puzzled look, “For free? The customers have to arrive first”. I returned the puzzled glance with the stunningly obvious. “Um, we are customers, aren’t we?” She looked at me for a moment, letting this profound truth dawn on her. She muttered something to the manager and two dewy drafts of greenish Carlsberg arrived in front of us. Some readers and critics of Cracking Chinahave said I make fools of the Chinese. No; I simply point out what comes across as daft behaviour. Perhaps the bartender wanted more customers to arrive before dishing out barrels of beer. (Within an hour the place was packed to the rafters with Westerners and we ran out of Carlsberg; thankfully a dozen or so more barrels arrived soon enough.) But there is often this daft communication in China. Yet these are a people who, in some respects, are not easily offended (do not, as an outsider, criticise their country or customs).
Their placidity seems to have something to do with their communality. When I go to the local shop to get a few bits and pieces, owners of nearby shops and fellow customers stroll over to see what I am buying and discuss this among themselves or with me. Discuss my personal shopping with strangers?? Well, that’s how one can quickly make friends. There is none of that frigid obsession with privacy a lot of Westerners have. A fixation with privacy and being easily offended seem to go together. So I am in no rush to point out to the children I teach they are actually being offensive. Bring it on, mate. If you have got a big gut or your ears stick out too much, or I am being condescending, well let’s go for a beer together and discuss it further.
This article first appeared on Rod’s The Mocking Truth column on NewsTime