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Location: Penang, Malaysia

July 20, 2008

The four most hated questions

My friend, Juliet Delta Lima used to teach English in Beijing for a couple of years. He told me something very interesting many years ago. In China, after getting to know each other names, Chinese people will follow on with 4 questions, the 4 most hated questions which will piss off any Americans. The idea of blogging about this doesn't come until I saw the report on BBC News during the weekend.

Beijingers told to mind their manners.

Wow! They came out with an "Eight Don't Ask" booklet. Hmm... I really want to get hold of it. I am not sure whether they explain the reason behind. Chinese and Americans think very differently and let me try to share from my experience working with both cultures. Well, these are just general views...

1. How old are you?
The Chinese wants to know because if the American is older than him, the latter will be "accorded the proper respect" as in the Chinese culture. On the other hand, the Chinese might be interested to know by what age people can travel overseas. The measurement is that the younger the guy is, the more "successful" he is as there is a Chinese saying which is translated to be "only strong dragons will cross the river".
American doesn't like this as the age is something private, it has nothing to do with his ability to do his job, etc.

2. Are you married?
Married people are basically more senior than bachelors. Again, this is the Confucius teaching about respect. Getting to know people's marital status shows that the Chinese "care".
This is really a tough question for an American. Actually, the Chinese doesn't need the detail, he just wants to know whether he has a wife or not. In reality, American would like to be precise and sometimes it could be really hard to tell that he has just gone through a divorce, widowed, etc. Some are just cohabiting, also known as POSSLQ which is pretty common. The hardest to explain will be the "significant other" thing. OK, try this reply which will definitely give any Chinese a big shock, "我是断背的" (wo shi duan bei de)... bwahahaha.

2A. How many kids do you have?
This is a bonus queston if the answer for question 2. above is "yes". I would say this is Chinese "hospitality" and this kind of question is just part of small talk, not being a busy body at all.
However, Americans might not be comfortable to talk about 2 sons from the ex-wife, a step daughter from the ex-wife who wants to follow him instead of her mum, one daughter he has with the current wife, and a step son from the current wife... very complicated. So, don't ask.

3. What is your weight?
To the Chinese, this is another small talk. Usually, among the Chinese, they will tell each other that they had gained weight as compliments, especially when they haven't met each other for quite sometime. Gaining weight shows that they have "enough to eat". Yes, life is harsh and so, adding pounds or kilograms is being viewed positively.
To the Americans, this question is too personal. Why do you want to know? Damn it! I broke the bathroom scale last night, you know?!!!

4. How much do you make?
This is taboo among the Chinese too. They will not ask each other and even if they ask, the answer is just "I make enough for two meals". You don't have to reveal the figure at all. The main reason the Chinese asking the American this question is to gauge the "opportunity" outside of China. One gallon (3.8 liter) of milk in the United States costs about USD 1.50, which is equivalent to about 10.35 yuan today (using 6.9 as the conversion rate). That amount of money can only buy you a liter of milk in China.
Americans really take offence on this. Don't you know what is "Private and Confidential"??? You idiot!!!


Blogger k.t.x said...

lol. this is one thing which also happens to me sometimes, but i am highly aware nowadays to not engage in conversations like this in an abrupt manner!!! hehe

3:20 PM  
Blogger Junqiu said...

Interesting points....especially the one
我是断背的. I guess the young generation in China might also find those questions very uncomfortable, haha

8:08 AM  

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