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Gareth is an Australian who has lived in JiangSu, SuZhou (Heaven on Earth) for a few years - he is a keen observer of the Chinese people, Chinese culture and the changes that are occurring in China at break-neck speed. He can often be found on his a nightly 'perch' in front of his bar in the famous Bar Street in Suzhou, talking to the locals in his bad Mandarin, teaching the 'flower-selling girls' English, eating street food and smiling at the local chengguan (neighbourhood police). Gareth also has several other businesses in China around Business and English training. His experiences have been varied and interesting and his years in China have taught him to be wary of promises but excited about prospects, not a bad situation to be in!
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Secrets Learned in School. Pt1    

By Garreth Humphris
2749 Views | 5 Comments | 11/11/2010 2:23:11 PM
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I love the way that little things in China seem to escalate into fully-fledged philosophical discourse in China so when a ‘common’ thing happened to me last week I decided not to ‘ignore’ it like I usually do, but to seek a deeper meaning.. so here goes!

As an English Language trainer in China I often come across people who, for all intents and purposes, speak exceptional English but claim that their ‘communication’ is poor.

To set the scene - I was doing an annoying ‘freebee’ for the training centre I was selling my soul to for a few weeks…they call it a ‘demonstration class’ which means you get a few students in that are looking to see if they will part with 20,000rmb for an English language training course – I hate them (the classes, not the students!) because I am not being paid for them, the students are usually sitting through the 15th one trying to get as much ‘free English lessons’ as they can and the weather outside was bad and I wanted to go home and go to sleep!!!

So, when I heard “My communication is poor’, I pounced, like a rabid crocodile onto this concept!!!

Now, I can honestly tell you, my Chinese is atrociously bad by any measure – after 8 years living in China I can identify a chair, a table and a glass but not anything written in a Chinese Restaurant Menu… I can ask for beer, water and icecream but not assistance, directions or the time of day! I have myself to blame, insisting on English-speaking staff, never attending lessons and living in a city where the dialect spoken is so sing-song and far away from Mandarin, you may as well be living in a different country altogether.

Yes, my Chinese is bad but I would never openly say this – in front of other people, I’m stoic and resolute. “My Chinese is good!!!”

I was a little puzzled by this apparent lack in self confidence of my Chinese students, after all they are highly educated and have lots of experience technically and working in foreign companies with foreign bosses – is it the Chinese cultural situation of deflecting compliments, or is there something deeper?

Now, I am not a linguist or a researcher and my interest in these things is curiosity (in trying to learn Chinese language myself) rather than pure academic endeavor, so I will outline some thoughts and feelings after finding some reading ‘online’ about Chinese culture and speaking with some of my students about this apparent ‘lack of self-confidence in their abilities’.

So after the ensuing ‘My English Communication is poor’ comment, I did a bit of a brainstorm with the students to try to work out which areas of English they had troubles with so we might be able to work on them more – the biggest one was ‘Business Communication”.

“Easy”, I said, “just tell me some examples that perplex you and I’ll try to help you ‘script’ some of the common examples you will find in this case” (yes, I did say perplex!)

The answer – “I don’t understand communication!”

“What?,” I said, cocking an eyebrow learily, “That’s what we are doing now isn’t it???”

Answer “Now we’re just talking!!!”

Now I could have just left it there thinking that my Chinese students were just playing games with linguistic symantics, but tired from constantly trying to understand this, I thought I should at least try to find out the difference from a Chinese student’s perspective – and herein lies the story!!!

Apparantly, there is no direct translation for the English word ‘communication’.

Some people use the word ‘gou tong; 沟通’ meaning ‘to connect or to link up’, whereas others use ‘jiao liu; 交流’ meaning ‘to exchange’ or ‘chuan bo; 传播’ meaning ‘to propogate or spread’. So, I guess if I am chuan bo-ing you, I’m giving you some gossip or some propaganda but hopefully we can get the goutong-ing happening to get some meaningful dialogue!

More interestingly, the students suggested that there are people who have the ‘gift of talking’ or ‘neng shuo; 能说’ and people who are skillful at speaking or ‘hui shuo, 会说’ and unless you are specifically known for these talents, you might consider yourself to be ‘persona incommunicado’.

Apparently Da Shan (that annoyingly excellent Chinese-speaking Canadian that puts all other foreigners to shame with his witty Beijing repartee - I have never envied the Canadians before, but I envy him!!) has lots of neng shuo, but I have none!!!

Of course, to say that Chinese people don’t communicate is just ridiculous because like the rest of us in the world they have daily arguments, discuss about life, negotiate for objects, do business and everything else!! But to Chinese people, this is ‘talk’ and not ‘communication’ - a hierarchy of communication – you have ‘meaningful communication’ and ‘talking’!

I had come across this before actually, in discussions with business people and politicians I had noticed a ‘secret language’ that I had assumed was some haughty attempt to define oneself from others by the language style chosen. A bit like the difference between ‘the Queen’s English’ and my ‘Australian strine’ or putting on ‘airs and graces’ at opportune moments to appear ‘dignified and refined’.

But in fact, from my discussions with the students, I was wrong, and this ‘secret language’ is something akin to a language of diplomacy; strengthening relationships and offering inducement and critique in the form of good-natured, idiom-laced non-specific banter. There is no room for argumentative or confrontational types of language here. It is a form of verbal ‘guanxi’ based on hierarchy and role – known broadly as li, 礼 (ritual or ceremonial propriety) – in effect, doing what is proper and correct with the right people in the appropriate relationships – and trying to establish and maintain a state of harmony (he, 和) while doing this.

And this is the bit of realization for me, because when you boil everything down, he 和 is the underlying basis of Chinese culture - it means more than just harmony, but also balance and unity, kindness and restfulness, peace and prosperity. The Chinese speak of ‘social harmony’ or ‘harmonising society’, which many others translate to ‘law and order’ or ‘social compliance’, but it is actually a way of understanding your community and interacting with others on a more personal level.

I’ve described ‘guanxi’ before in other articles – but many foreigners believe it is some type of superficial business club that somehow you ‘crack’ and it brings you riches. If you take it the logical step further it is the business manifestation of this ‘social harmony’.

But where does this come from? The underlying ‘thoughts’ of much Chinese culture stem from Confucianism (I’m no expert here either!), that suggests individuality and true self are separated, and that self is actually a combination of social and ethical responsibilities – case in point, if you ask a Chinese person ‘Who are you?’, they often start to describe themselves as who’s son/daughter they are, which hometown they come from, which school they went to, and not what they have achieved through independent activity.

Maintaining self-esteem, obtaining social standing and ‘what other people think about me’ are incredibly high on the agenda of Chinese people (in general) and the Chinese-self needs to be nourished, recognized and defined by others to be complete.

Interestingly, self-improvement is not necessarily doing things for ‘one’s self’ but in doing things that are recognized by the collective – in behaving in accordance with the social expectations rather than internal desires. For example, when I ask people why they became a doctor or a lawyer they often answer ‘because my father wanted me to be one’!

In the discussions, one of my students uttered the expression, gu guan da ju, 顾全大局, or ‘consider the whole when deciding your fate’, which got a laugh in the class, but in essence it contains the Chinese thinking on many things –
1) a personal submission to social expectations or reaching a level of social conformity often at odds with internal feelings,
2) excessive worrying about external opinions that to outsiders have no bearing on the issue (for example; Chinese children are taught that they are members of a family dynasty, and what they do, good or bad, reflects on the success of the family for generations – failing an exam brings dishonor to 8 generations of the family-tree!) and
3) developing non-confrontational exchanges that maintain harmony, maintain impression, protect ‘face’, protect ‘social position’ or otherwise reduce punishment or embarrassment socially.

Wow!!! Chinese Culture 101!!!

I had a captive audience so I went on to try to find out a little more of why they were studying English – I was expecting answers like, “It will help me with my job”, or “I want to meet new friends” or “I want to travel overseas and make lots of money”. But what I got was ‘my family think it is a good idea to learn English’

Ok, the old family thingy again…. So I asked ‘what do you think about English, do you like it?’
Answer ‘No, but my family think it is a good idea for me to learn so I must do it!’.

And this answer from an articulate, university-trained professional of 5 years in his late 20’s. So this goes along with my already biased general ideas of Chinese youth, constantly referring to the opinions and actions of others but cannot appear to commit themselves to an opinion. Even against his desire not to learn, he endured and appeared to go to class only for the good of the family!

... keep reading in Part 2 ...

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(Showing 1 to 5 of 5) 1
#2010-11-11 14:41:10 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

You keep finding ways to explain uniquely Chinese ways of thinking or Chinese concepts in a depth that goes well beyond my own understanding, which is appreciated but also a little embarrassing as I am forced to confront my own shallowness in failing to reach these depths on my own. Those of us who live and love in this great country really need to make an effort to understand its people - thanks for the reminder and the aid.

#2010-11-12 06:17:56 by kalzorch @kalzorch

Thanks for the primer.

#2010-11-12 14:06:12 by aussieghump @aussieghump

John, 哪里!哪里! you flatter me!!
I am by no means any closer to understanding China than anyone else and of course, the country and attitudes are changing so rapidly that my puny observations are inconsequential in general.

My attempt at understanding some of these items is from seeing the many 'traditional women' descriptions on CLM website and trying to decipher what is meant by this! To my benefit or detriment (not sure which!), I tend to focus on these terms and try to decide what they mean!

I am intrigued when the women who describe themselves as being 'traditional' are looking to a very non-traditional method to find a marriage partner (internet), and with potentially 'disruptive to Chinese Family harmony' partners (foreigners). Maybe this is another blog topic to explore!

#2011-01-04 18:42:31 by ozcanberra @ozcanberra

An adjective used regularly within Chinese women discourse, emails or direct, takes the form "I am a simple woman". Nothing is further from the truth. Another example is the name given to what is seen by many as the most beautiful Chinese garden in China, namely, the "Humble Administrator Garden" in Suzhou. No way that Administrator was humble. This always puzzles me.

#2011-02-09 00:33:49 by aussieghump @aussieghump

Hi OzCanberra, 'a simple woman enjoys simple things - men!'.....In China it also seems to be 'simply money'!!

The Humble Administrator's Garden is named after a guy who choose a life in the country rather than to try to overthrow his emperor in politics! So in the eyes of the emporer, he's humble.
Unfortunately I've also seen a rough translation of 'clumsy governor's garden' and 'drunken administrator's yard', so I'm not sure what is correct!! Some of the other translations for the gardens in my 'adopted' hometown are equally as impressive!

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