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Chinese Culture Explained in Five Expressions

Mural in Chinatown, Ottawa, September
Mural in Chinatown, Ottawa, September

I was customer number five in the queue and, like everyone else, I was balancing a plastic tray on my palm. It was just before noon, the best time of the day to pick up freshly baked sweet and savoury rolls at the Chinese supermarket. The eggs tarts were already sold out and the customer ahead had just grabbed the last three red bean paste buns.

Customer number one was holding the lineup. She was ordering a birthday cake, but she wanted it with taro paste filling instead of the regular green tea filling. Like French people, Chinese don’t believe the customer is always right—the bakery employee was horrified by this specific combination of flavours and she was trying to convince the customer it was a foolish choice. “Taro is too sweet!” she claimed in Mandarin. “Mango mousse is good.”

Eventually, the customer obliged and the queue started to move.

One employee was bagging the rolls and the other one was handling the register. When my turn came, they didn’t look up and asked in Chinese: “要别的事吗?” (“Anything else?”)

My brain is wired to reply in the language I’m addressed in. “加一个油条,” I said, pointing to the fried dough sticks Feng loves.

“三块钱。” (“Three dollars”).

Just as I was handing out a toonie and a loonie, my unmistakably Western eyes met the employee’s unmistakably Chinese eyes.

“啊!你会说普通话!” (“Oh! You spoke Chinese!”) she exclaimed.

I gave her a non-committed shrug. “再见!” (“bye!”) I added.

This is not the first time I reveal my hidden skill—yes, I speak Mandarin. The immediate response is often a look of surprise, followed by a brief moment of panic (“What did she overhear?”) and curiosity. Inconveniently, many Chinese then assume that I’m completely fluent and switch to fast-paced Mandarin, peppered with regionalisms and colloquialisms.

Mandarin is much more than a somewhat exotic-looking language—it’s the key to Chinese culture. Can you say anything in Mandarin? “Nǐ hǎo,” maybe? “Xièxie?” “Chop suey?” (Forget about that one, it will be useless in China because there is not such thing.)

Okay, follow me. Let me explain Chinese culture in five expressions.

回来了! (“Huíláile,” in English: “You’re back!”)

No matter whether you step out to buy lunch or go work abroad, upon your return, you will be greeted with a loud “huíláile!” Indeed, you are back. You are standing right there. Duh.

Technically, “hello” in Mandarin is “你好” (Nǐ hǎo) but Chinese like to greet close ones by mentioning what they are doing, and therefore stating the obvious—which I always find very amusing. For example, if you see someone eating, you’d go “啊你吃饭啊! (“A nǐ chīfàn a !”, “you’re eating!”) If someone is resting, you’d say “啊你休息啊” (”A nǐ xiūxí a!”, “you’re resting!”), etc.

I challenged the tradition a few times with my in-laws, stating that no, I wasn’t eating or insisting I wasn’t reading a book. My wit was met with puzzled looks.

小皇帝 (“Xiǎo huángdì,” in English: “Little Emperor”)

China’s “little emperors” are the children born in the 1980s after the implementation of the one-child policy. As the middle class is getting richer and the family unit smaller, these snowflakes typically receive excessive amounts of attention from their parents and grandparents—and carry the heavy burden of parental expectations, including achieving success and taking care of the family.

“Little emperors” can be seen in parks with four or six adults (grandparents and parents) doting on them, dressed liked princesses or superheroes and wearing foreign brands. If it’s raining, they are doing homework at McDonald’s or hanging out at Starbucks, two “upper class” foreign franchises in China. They have the latest gadgets but their parents still perform basic tasks for them, such as tying their shoes or brushing their hair.

Technically, Mark is a “little emperor” but since I’m French, I don’t believe in royalty, status or privileges.

成语 (“Chéngyǔ,” in English “four-character idioms”)

Chéngyǔ are four-character idiomatic expressions widely used in classical Chinese (i.e. almost the equivalent of what Latin is to most Western European languages) and still common today.

Chéngyǔ are compact, synthetic and intimately linked with the myth, story or historical fact from which they were derived. In isolation, they are often unintelligible without explanation. For example, the chéngyǔ “画龙点清”(“Huà lóng diǎn qíng,” literally “drawing the dragon’s eyes”) means dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s… with a twist. Why? Well, many centuries ago, a painter, famous for his realistic work, was asked to paint two dragons on a temple. His work done, he left a blank space for the eyes. All the villagers were begging him to finish the dragons, but he refused until the emperor ordered him to do it. With a resigned sigh, he painted two pairs of eyes. He had just finished when a storm ensued, lightning came down and brought the dragons to life. The moral of the story? Sometimes, it’s best the leave things the way they are.

Using these bits of Chinese wisdom in a modern context is like working SAT-level vocabulary into a casual conversation (or for French speakers, using the imparfait du subjonctif)—it makes you look smart. Unless you’re a Westerner, in which case you’re just seen as “奇怪” (“Qíguài,” “weird”).

关系 (“Guānxì,” in English “a connection”)

Using a guānxi is the art of trading favours with your connections. It’s basically what the West calls “networking,” but taken to a higher level.

For instance, if you are looking for a job in Canada, you can let your friends and co-workers know you are on the market and they may tip you if an opportunity comes up in their department or field. It’s up to you to submit your resume and impress HR but you still have a leg up over other candidates because many positions are often only advertised internally—the famous “invisible job market.” In China, however, it’s fairly common to pick an applicant just because he has good guānxi, regardless of his skills or experience. For instance, he could be the son of two Communist Party members, or connected to the army.

Using a guānxi is also called going through a “hòumén,” literally a “back door”.

米饭/面条 (“mǐfàn/miàntiáo,” in English, “rice/noodles”)

Like the French, Chinese people are completely obsessed with food—and rightly so, because Chinese cuisine is simply amazing. In such a huge country, each province developed its own culinary traditions. For instance, the Sichuan province is famous for its spicy food, Shanghai is known for ‘小笼包’ (‘soup-filled dumplings’), Beijing for ‘烤鸭’ (‘roast duck’), etc. But the fundamental divide is between North and South, wheat versus rice. Northern China is too cold and dry for rice cultivation so Northerners are more likely to munch on noodles or dumplings, whereas pretty much any kind of food comes with a bowl of rice in the South.

This culinary divide runs deep—a southerner will claim that a meal would not be complete without a bowl of rice accompanying it, whereas a person from northern China would say that you’ll get a better meal with noodles.

There. No vocabulary test tomorrow, promise!

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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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