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When you travel or move to China, a little bit of culture shock (文化冲击 – wén huà chōng jí) is inevitable. I know I certainly experienced it when I first moved there, whether it was trying different food (silk worm larvae, anyone?), drinking baijiu (白酒 – bái jiǔ) for the first time (gross), or learning how to queue in China (hint – you don’t). One thing you’ll quickly learn about the people and the language in China is that they’re very direct. In this post I’ll try to help you understand a bit more about this element of Chinese language and culture as I discuss being direct in Chinese.
To start with, Chinese can be a very direct language. You don’t need a lot to say a lot in China. A lot of the time, less is more when it comes to speaking in China. Here are a few examples of very short, direct phrases that you’ll often hear:
When I first started studying Chinese, I learned that “Where are you going?” was translated as 你要去哪里? (nǐ yào qù nǎ lǐ). However, cab drivers always simply asked me “去哪儿?” No need for wasted energy on a few extra syllables in China!
When we see Chinese tour groups around the world (and they’re everywhere these days), I always joke with my wife that the only thing I hear the guide say is “Come, come, come! Good, good, good! Go, go, go!” (来, 来, 来! 好, 好, 好! 走, 走, 走! – lái, lái, lái! hǎo, hǎo, hǎo! zǒu, zǒu, zǒu!). You really can say so much with so little in China!
Another great example I can think of is being in a restaurant. People in most Western cultures will very politely wave their waiter down and say something like, “Excuse me, could we please take the check when you get a minute?” Why do we need to say so much, guys? In China, all you do is yell “Waiter! Check!” (服务员! 买单! – fú wù yuán! mǎi dān!). It may seem rude to you at first, but that’s just how things are done in China. It’s certainly much more efficient.
Over the years, I can’t tell you how many times I had someone tell me “Your Chinese is not bad” (你的中文还不错 – nǐ de zhōng wén hái bù cuò). It doesn’t sound like much of a compliment, but it is one in China. It never bothered me until now, as I currently teach English to Chinese students online. When parents give me 4/5 stars for a class and write “还不错” as a comment, I know they mean well and actually enjoyed the lesson. In their eyes, they’re giving me a good review. However, anything less than 5/5 actually hurts me and my chances of a raise. Cultural differences can be frustrating, can’t they?
Many Westerners who go to China are taken aback by how direct the people there can be. For example, in China it’s not considered rude to ask someone their age, man or woman. In the West, we’re often told not to ask a woman their age. However, in China, a very common question is “How old are you?” (你几岁了? – nǐ jǐ suì le/你多大? – nǐ duō dà). Even taxi drivers will ask you your age within minutes of meeting you!
Another topic that’s taboo in Western culture but not in China is your salary. It’s pretty much unheard of back home to straight up ask someone how much they get paid, but in China things are different. When I was an English teacher in China, I was constantly asked “How much is your salary?” (你的工资是多少？- nǐ de gōng zī shì duō shǎo?). The way I usually handled this was by simply responding with “Enough!” (够了 – gòu le). People didn’t get the answer they were looking for, but they certainly got a laugh!
People also aren’t shy about asking detailed questions about your home, car, phone, and how big/new/expensive they are. Especially in the big cities of China, people are obsessed with real estate. When I lived in Beijing, people would always ask me how many square meters my apartment was. I always told them “I don’t know and I don’t care” (我不知道, 我也不在乎 – wǒ bù zhī dào, wǒ yě bù zài hū). I understand why it’s a big deal to people there, but as a transient English teacher it really didn’t make a big difference to me.
Growing up, I was always told not to openly talk about my classmates’ appearance, or anyone for that matter. In the US, it’s considered rude and quite mean to tell someone to their face that they’re fat, for example. Imagine my shock when I got to China and students in my 3rd grade class would point to one boy and say “He’s fat! (他很胖 – tā hěn pàng). I felt bad for the kid at first, until he laughed out loud and agreed.
On another occasion, an older student told me “You don’t have a lot of hair” (你没有很多头发 – nǐ méi yǒu hěn duō tóu fǎ). Yeah, thanks kid, I’m well aware of my male-pattern baldness. Should someone openly comment on your appearance in China, don’t take it too personally. It’s just not considered a big deal to do so there.
Rather than let this directness frustrate you, it’s best to just go with the flow and try to adapt. I came to enjoy being direct with my students and even random people who engaged me in conversation. I also had a good time joking around with them and not really giving them the answer they wanted, but engaging in a discussion anyways. Being direct is just a part of life in China, so do your best to embrace it. You may find that you actually end up experiencing a bit of reverse culture shock when you go back home. I know I did.