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The Mind-Boggling Art of Being “kèqì” in China

USA, October 2014
USA, October 2014

If you ever travel to China, you need to memorize a few words and characters. For instance, 男/女(male/female) to make sure you walk into the right bathroom. The basics, of course, 谢谢 (thank you), 你好 (hello) and 再见 (goodbye). Maybe狗 (dog) as well, just in case you don’t feel like eating a puppy with your noodles.

There are no single words to say “yes” and “no” in Chinese. To show that you agree, you may say 行 (sure, it works), 好 (good), 可以 (it works) or 对 (you’re right). To signify disagreement with the proposition put by the question, you use 没 or 不 (not) along with a verb and use an echo response. For instance, the reply to 你吃饭了吗 (did you eat?) could be 没吃 (I haven’t eaten, or literally “no eat”).

But the most useful three words to remember may be 我不要 (I do not want).

Eh, I’m usually a pretty “go with the flow” kind of person. Wanna move to Canada? Sure! Wanna backpack around the world? Sure! Wanna have a kid? Sure! Wanna start a freelance business? Sure! Wanna bring back cast iron statues to Canada? No way. Wanna have dinner after dinner? Uh uh. Wanna eat these two pounds of grapes? Nope.

See a pattern here?

Chinese like to treat guests as royalty and it can be embarrassingly overwhelming. There is an entire informal code of politeness, the art of being 客气 (keqi), that I quite don’t master. I understand it but it drives me crazy as a Westerner.

For instance, it is the custom to give 红包 to kids, from babies to unmarried young adults. Money is enclosed in these little red envelopes and you are supposed to turn them down many times before accepting them gratefully and naturally. It’s hard for me, though. For the French, money is a taboo, and I didn’t feel comfortable accepting cash on Mark’s behalf. I must admit it’s better than receiving material gifts though, as distant relatives don’t know what the kid wants or needs (if anything!).

Mark received many red envelopes during our trip. “We’ll buy him a few toys or some clothes before we leave China,” I told Feng when we received the first envelopes, full of crisp 100 yuan bills. After five or six envelopes, I stopped counting. Mark made more money in September than I did. Damn kid.

Gift-giving is customary and again, it can be overwhelming. As a Westerner, I tend to offer gifts on special occasions (birthdays, Christmas) or bring a little something to my host. Chinese give gifts to their guests, anything, really. When I pick a gift, I do it with purpose and with the person in mind. I feel Chinese give anything just for the sake of it. Feng and I had to fight hard to turn down a few presents we really couldn’t bring back, like vases.

Food is also submitted to this system of politeness. Chinese like to feed their guests. Okay, I guess all cultures do, but again it can be overwhelming as they take complete control of what you should eat and when. In Western cultures, hosts wouldn’t order on the guest’s behalf (…I think? Or is it just me?). At most, you recommend a specialty. Chinese will just force-feed you. And then call you “chubby” behind your back.

As a kid, I was instructed to taste every dish. With the best will in the world, this may be challenging in China. Silkworms, anyone? Oh, and I’ll stay away from blood pudding. And I’m a Westerner who eats pretty much everything—I love spicy food and I’m familiar with many Chinese dishes.

All in all, the whole idea of politeness in China is different from the Western concept of it. In the West, we tend to be polite because we don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. In Asia, you’re being “keqi” (polite) because you don’t want to lose face or look bad. It leads to situations where everybody is going to eat in a restaurant where nobody wants to go and when nobody is hungry just because… well because the host wants to appear generous and courteous and the guests don’t want to look picky or difficult. Gee. Another example? You bring gifts you’re not sure anyone will appreciate because you don’t know the people, and you are given more gifts in return. Hosts and guests will argue for an hour because it’s not polite to accept presents (and because truly, they may not want them) and eventually, gifts will be dumped on both side.

The code of “keqi” can be weird for a foreigner. I can’t help judging it as phony and “political” as you can never tell what people truly want or truly feel. If I accept a gift, I may be called “greedy” behind my back. If I turn it down, I may be judged “arrogant”. You just can’t win!

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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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