Imagine this: riding on the Shanghai ferry to yet another Expo site, you find yourself sitting next to a Chinese businessman. Your neighbor looks friendly, but he’s quiet. You’d like to strike up a friendly conversation, but don’t know how.
“Is that a good read?” you offer, pointing to the magazine in his hand. He looks at the magazine curiously, then looks at your empty hands, puzzled. He thinks, “Does he want to read my magazine? Maybe he doesn’t know where to buy magazines in China?” He doesn’t say anything, and you smile awkwardly.
He feels obliged to look out for you because you’re a visitor in his country, so he hands the magazine over. Now you’re sitting red-faced, with a magazine full of Chinese characters you can’t even read. You try handing it back but he won’t take it and it turns into a struggle. “All I wanted to do was talk. What happened?” you ask yourself.
Making small talk is an art, anywhere; different cultures go about it in different ways, and learning the Chinese way to chat is as important as getting your pronunciation and tones right. If you really want to make a connection with someone, especially using their language, knowing what they like to talk about and how to approach them will make them feel much more comfortable. Also, it will help you not look like a bumbling idiot.
“My goodness, you foreigners have such long eyelashes!” The man’s wife leans over, staring at you intently. Bright red and completely speechless, you just missed the cue for that talk you were trying to start.
You will almost always get asked awkward questions and hear odd comments. You might feel like you have no way to respond. But just saying ni hao will never get you far. Greetings sometimes take other, stranger forms.
An old granny will ask, “What did you buy?” as she peers into your shopping basket. The taxi driver will ask, “Have you eaten?” The hotel receptionist will belt out, “Where are you going?” Though they might sound intrusive, these are some of the most common greetings in China. These questions aren’t necessarily meant to be answered. A simple “I’m going out,” or “I bought some things,” is all you are expected to say.
What did you buy?
Nǐ mǎi shénme liǎo?
Just some things.
Mǎi le diǎn er dōngxi.
Have you eaten?
Chī le ma?
Where are you going?
Qù nǎer ya?
I’m going out.
Wǒ chūqù yīxià.
Today is cold, wear more clothes.
Jīntiān hěn lěng, chuān duō diǎn a.
Yeah, you too.
Ng, nǐ yěshì a.
One foreign friend was greeted at a coffee shop by a waiter, who asked, “You’re alone today?” The foreigner had been to the coffee shop with his girlfriend, but only once; he didn’t even recognize this waiter. Why was he asking him this? Small talk in China often starts with seemingly obvious comments. The best reply to this would be a simple “Yes, I’m alone today,” and then to ask, “Has it been a busy morning?” (There’s no need to go into a 10 minute speech about why your girlfriend just dumped you.)
This type of friendly concern can sometimes get really intense. Taking the train to Inner Mongolia, I had my trousers pinched by the passenger next to me, who said excitedly, “You’re not wearing enough layers! The place you’re going is very cold. Look everyone, this guy isn’t wearing long underwear!” A group of passengers quickly encircled me and joined in, pinching my trousers and warning me not to catch cold. I laughed it off and spent the rest of the train journey chatting with my new friends.
If you feel like your privacy has been invaded, then someone is trying to be your friend. You may be asked questions that are strictly taboo in the West. You might feel uncomfortable. Here are some ways to answer questions that might throw you off:
How much money do you make in a month?
Nǐ yīgè yuè zhēng duōshǎo qián?
Enough to keep me going.
Hái gòu yòng ba.
How much do you weigh?
Around 80 kilos.
Bā shí gōngjīn zuǒyòu.
How old are you?
I was born in 1980.
Wǒ 80 nián chūshēng de.
Nǐ zhēn pàng.
Haha, yeah, I like my food.
Hāhā, shì a, wǒ tài ài chī le.
Nǐ zhēn shuài.
No way, you’re handsome.
Bù huì ba, nǐ cái shuài ne.
Why do you foreigners have such big noses?
Nǐmen wàiguórén de bízi zěnme nàme gāo?
My mom gave it to me.
Wǒ mā gěi wǒ de.
Will you marry a Chinese girl?
Nǐ huì qǔ gè zhōngguó rén ma?
Whatever happens, happens.
Shùn qí zìrán ba.
When all else fails, talk food. Chinese people love to eat and love to hear about how foreigners eat. You’ll almost always be asked “Do you like Chinese food?” or “Can you use chopsticks?” Also, you won’t be the first to hear someone say, “In China we eat rice. In America you eat a lot of meat.” Stereotypes about Western food can really feel insulting, but stereotypes held in America about Chinese food—that it’s all fortune cookies and chicken balls—aren’t too much better.
One American, who’d been in China for years, was invited out to dinner by a Chinese friend. At the restaurant, the Chinese friend joked: “Sorry, no hamburgers on the menu!” The American laughed it off and later in the meal talked about the many dishes—other than hamburgers—that he liked to cook, tactfully dispelling the stereotype that Americans only eat fast-food.
Do you cook by yourself at home?
Nǐ zàijiā zìjǐ zuò fàn ma?
Yeah, I love cooking.
Shì de, wǒ hěn xǐhuan zuò fàn.
No, I mostly eat out.
Méiyǒu, wǒ yībān zài wàibian chī.
Where can I get some authentic chicken feet?
Wǒ zài nǎer néng chī dào zuì zhèngzōng de jī zhuǎzi?
I heard that in Qingdao you can buy beer by the bag.
Tīng shuō zài qīngdǎo néng mǎi dào dài zhuāng píjiǔ.
Cultural differences aside, friendships are made in China just about the same way that they are back home. Some things are universal. Show that you’re interested. Ask questions about work, family and friends.
And since you’re probably an avid reader of our magazine—and thus well-informed—talk about how much you love China! It’s sure to go over really well.
Image courtesy of Prince Roy on flickr.com