9 Tips for Being Other-Centered in Conversation and Friendship with Chinese
I would like to share some tips for more sensitive, comfortable conversation and deepening friendship with China internationals. These tips are the combined fruit of my own (sometimes painful and embarrassing) continued trial and error, shared wisdom, and especially advice from my Chinese friends.* To give some context, my experience has been mostly with PhD students and visiting scholars from China, as well as with university students and their families in China. These tips may not all apply to undergrad students or immigrants.
1. As a friend of mine from China who works at Microsoft shared: “Be careful when making an assertion about a person purely based on the fact that he is Chinese.” And of course, that is why you’ll have to take my tips with a grain of salt!
In his example, someone may say, “You must be very good at computer science because you are Chinese.” Though this may be meant as a compliment, my friend suggests a better way to phrase this: “I know there is a strong computer engineering culture in China. I’m guessing it’s likely you are quite skilled in this area.”
2. It is natural to want to start with something we know about China, and build a bridge to closer relationship. China is a large and diverse country, and stereotypes are our beginning way to understand things. However, mentioning our stereotypes can be hurtful. For example, when I lived in China, I often heard, “You Americans are always so open,” which often meant, “I know modesty is not very important to Americans.” I resented being immediately associated with Britney Spears and MTV.
So, if you are going to bring up a generalization about China, remember to be humble and curious. For example, you might say, “In the U.S. we often think that _________ . I would love to hear whether that is true in your experience and in your province, or whether that is a mistaken stereotype.” Even if you are sure that your stereotype is based on fact, at least somewhere in China, let your Chinese friend be the expert, and value her answer.
3. That brings to mind a simple list of topics that are better to avoid, unless the other person brings them up, and even if you are the world expert on them. Before you jump in and try to debate, inform, or change someone’s opinion, think twice. Even if they do arise naturally, these are topics which require a GREAT DEAL of sensitivity and trust, because they can actually be very personal and painful, let alone creating a huge rift between you and your friend:
Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen
The one-child policy
Pollution and crowding and other challenges China faces
How much time students have to spend in school
Though it may not be obvious why these are personal topics, they truly are sometimes personal and painful. Chinese long to see their country flourish after a long period of struggle. My friends have parents and grandparents who went through famines and wars and other major traumatic events. While we in the West are sometimes intimidated by the recent growth and power of China, often my Chinese friends do not know we feel this way, and may see their country as an “underdog” who was struggling and long looked down upon by the West. Though she has an incredibly rich 5,000-year history, China was oppressed and feels as if it is only now stepping into a new era of prosperity and renown. Bringing up these topics may feel like rubbing in the struggles. If you want to talk about China as a country you might ask, “What are some of the major opportunities you see that China has today, and what are some of the challenges, from your perspective?”
Other topics for conversation if you’re not sure where to start:
Their experience in America so far
Activities they enjoy or hobbies
Their home province and what it is known for
Music, books, movies, food, culture
Do they consider themselves religious? (For the average Chinese international, this is a far less sensitive question than the above topics and is a topic more open for discussion than you will find among your American friends.)
Questions and comments not to be surprised by:
I remember being surprised as a single woman teacher in China when a vegetable saleswomen would ask me, “Where are you from?” and then, “How much do you make?” and then, “How old are you?” and then, “Why aren’t you married?” Finally I realized this was just customary small talk. They might sometimes throw in, “How much do you weigh?” or “You’ve gained/lost weight!” This is a cultural difference that you can enjoy or simply and carefully let your friend know makes you uncomfortable.
4. More tips from Chinese friends: “When the relationship becomes closer, don’t say so many polite words.” Our tendency as Americans is to say “thank you” even to our family members for something so trivial as passing the salt. However, in China, saying “thank you” is for those you don’t know well. Family and friends show their appreciation for each other in actions rather than using “polite words.” This may feel awkward to you, but consider how it may feel for your friend.
5. “Don’t fake smiles or emotions.” Whereas Americans often feel pressure to smile and act positive to try to be polite, this can be seen as “fake,” and as unnecessary between friends.
6. “Ask for help sometimes. Asking for help shows trust.” In much of Chinese society, friends and family depend on each other and are generally group-oriented. Treating someone to lunch can mean, “You can treat me next time,” and show a desire for continued friendship, whereas splitting the bill can indicate distance. Though saying “thank you” can be too formal and also somewhat trivial, showing friendship and appreciation through exchanging gifts or food or in helpful acts of service is appropriate.
A common question I get from Chinese friends is, “Can you help me with my pronunciation in English?” I try to say yes whenever I can, even if I can’t do it as often as they may be hoping for, because I know it takes courage and vulnerability to ask for help, and it is often a sign of friendship. If I can’t, I will make an effort to explain why, and try to help them find someone else.
7. Hospitality is taken to a whole new level in China. In Chinese culture, if my friend is under my roof or in my car or under my care in some way (for example, if I am the tour guide for the day, etc.), it is my honor and responsibility to provide (or at least forcefully offer) everything he or she may need, from food and drink (to the degree of putting food on his or her plate) down to an escorted or paid ride home; it is even my responsibility to make sure my guest has a toothbrush. If you ever experience this kind of hospitality in China, you will be blown away and possibly embarrassed at the times you have casually told your Chinese guest, “Help yourself.” While American hospitality has its own beauty, just remember that it is quite different in China, and decide whether it may show love to do things more in the Chinese way for your friend.
Here are a few simple tips if you want to try hosting “the Chinese way.” When you invite someone to your home, provide slippers if possible, and hot water to drink, or tea. Giving your guests a tour of your house helps them feel welcome. Show them to your sofa and invite them to relax. Rather than asking if they want a snack, simply prepare it and offer it, because they may say no just to be “polite.” (If it is a new food for them, let them know they don’t have to eat it if they are “full,” in case they don’t like it). On the other hand, they may already know and enjoy American-style hospitality, and want to help you cook or “help themselves.”
8. A PhD exchange student at the University of Washington told me, “Don’t worry if we Chinese seem shy. It is usually because we are [operating] in a new language, not because we don’t want to talk or participate.” It’s hard to be quick with replies in your second or third language, so ask a question and then wait for a response, rather than continuing to ask more questions or talk. Become comfortable with more silence than is common with American friends.
9. I’m especially clueless when it comes to grief. Often friends who are going through a hard time will not want to “inconvenience” or affect me (and others) with their sadness, so they won’t tell me if something hard has happened (miscarriage, death in the family, depression, etc.). If your friend is going through a hard time, ask another Chinese friend how you can help your friend, as it may be counter-intuitive to you and stressful to your friend when you offer your American style of help. For example, a friend of mine had a baby, and I wanted to organize a meal train, which is a normal American tradition. For her, however, this was a terrifying prospect, and yet she felt hesitant to tell me so. I asked her friend about it to see what she thought, and she said, “It is because in China the mom stays home with the baby for 40 days afterward, and they do not have visitors.” No wonder!
I am hoping by God’s grace to be a better friend, paying attention to the signs, and truly learning what it means to be “other-centered.” I hope that these tips from my experiences can also help you along in the process.
*An excellent resource on this topic is a little booklet called “Understanding the Mainland Chinese Soul” which can be ordered from LEAD Consulting.
Heidi Ifland is on staff with China Outreach Ministries in Seattle, Washington. She graduated from Covenant College in 2005 and subsequently taught English at a university in China.