“You too fat. No have pants for you.” The Hong Kong salesclerk was more than direct. I was learning that the Chinese are bluntly honest, while the Japanese prefer polite evasion. I would have to develop a thicker skin in China.
“How old you are?” The sales women asked as she sat across from me in the sleek lounge of the high-end yoga studio where I had just attended a class with a friend. “Can tell you used to be beautiful,” she added, smiling matter-of-factly as she “buttered me up” before trying to sell me an outrageously priced six-month membership card.
“Can tell you used to be very beautiful,” she continued rather doubtfully, clearly concerned at the distressed expression on my face.
It was a scenario that would be repeated many times before I eventually moved to Beijing six months later. Luckily for me, by the time we arrived in the capital, I was familiar with the Chinese penchant for forthrightness, at least where certain topics are concerned. Having lived in Hong Kong for almost six weeks before returning to Tokyo, the U.S., and eventually China, many of my shortcomings had already been pointed out to me. For example, I was well aware that I had gotten too much sun as a teenager. “That why you have so many wrinkles and spots on your face,” I was told more than once by the ladies at the skin care counter in the IFC mall in Hong Kong.
But forthrightness can have its benefits. Before I stopped taking language lessons, I never felt guilty when I didn’t do my Mandarin homework. Since my teacher told me almost from the start that I really didn’t have much of a chance of becoming fluent, why study? After all, I graduated from a small, private liberal arts college in the States. “All my students who went to the Ivy League school learn much faster than people like you who went to the small college I never heard of." At least she softened the blow by telling me that she scored so low on the standardized tests in high school, the only option available to her was to become a language teacher.
I now laugh with Beijingers when they make fun of my mispronunciation of words, that is, when they realize I'm trying to speak Chinese. How can I not be amused by the joy it seems to give people when I attempt to speak their language? But I wish I had a yuan for every time I’ve repeated a phrase in my absolute best Mandarin to an obviously confused listener, only to have them suddenly realize what I’m trying to say and begin parroting my words—in between gales of hysterical laughter—exactly as I have uttered them (or so it sounds to me). They always seem so astonished that I actually expected to be understood. Eventually, you figure out that it’s cultural, not personal, since they usually laugh even harder at themselves when I correct their English, even though I’m a guest in their country and can’t reasonably expect them to speak my language.
After friends of ours adopted their pre-school age daughters, Chinese twins, they took them home to Texas for an extended visit with family. While the twins’ grandmother was instantly enthralled with her adorable new grandchildren, she soon became so worried about their manners that she pulled her daughter aside to express her concerns. “You really need to teach my granddaughters how to say ‘please.' Why just now, one of then actually said ‘give me a cookie Grandma!’ And the other one added ‘give us milk now!’ Can you imagine?”
When our friends thought about it, they realized that as the twins became more fluent in English, they were naturally translating phrases from Mandarin into English, and in China, children don’t use “please” and “thank you” when speaking to their grandparents. These words are considered polite, but are too formal to use within families because they place distance between loved ones. While the girls thought they were drawing their wai po closer to them through their language, as they would in China, they were inadvertently pushing her away by speaking “rudely” to her in English.
I once mentioned to our Mandarin teacher—my husband and I had the same instructor—that I found Chinese people to be very forward and even blunt at times. (I think it was right after she told me that my husband’s Mandarin was better than mine, so he must be smarter. Being American and not Chinese, I chose not to tell her she had a poor memory because clearly she had forgotten that he took a nine-week immersion course before arriving in China and I had just started studying the language.) After thinking for a few moments, she admitted that she had to agree with me. “Our country is full of so many people, we have to be tough and blunt, otherwise we won’t get what we want. We just say what we think and don’t waste our words.”
Over time I have come to realize that the startlingly blunt comments people often make are almost always meant to be helpful in some way. When the doctor told me the irregular black spot on my back was a keratosis and that I was “just getting old,” I realized she was trying to reassure me that I didn’t have anything serious, such as melanoma. And when the doorman told me that I looked “really awful” after I had just flown to Beijing from San Diego via San Francisco and had been awake for almost 24 hours straight, he was only worried about my health.
What’s more, I can't recall one single seemingly blunt comment that was ever made to me with anything bordering on malice. After all, that would have caused me to “lose face,” and causing someone to lose face is to be avoided at all cost.
After living in Beijing for almost three years, I’ve become endeared to the Chinese and their uninhibited way of speaking to one another. I find their forthrightness a manifestation of their lust for life and the vigor with which they approach it. Why waste time and energy tiptoeing around something that is perfectly obvious to everyone? Why not just state the facts and move on to more important things?