Living in China, there are some questions I hear over and over again: "Do you like China?", "Doesn’t America have so many guns?", and "How much does an iPhone cost?", for example. What about Chinese people who go abroad? What kinds of repetitive–and sometimes silly–questions do foreigners like to ask them?
In January, a writer for Aboluowang.com, a Chinese news site, wrote about the top 10 questions that foreigners like to ask Chinese people abroad. Here is the article translated:
1. Which is your family name, which is your personal name?
The way Chinese people do it, family name is first and personal name is last. It’s very logical. But Western people do not do it that way. The put the personal name first and the family name last. So, when foreigners see a Chinese person’s name, they don’t recognize which is which, and they ask: Which is your family name, and which is your personal name? The answer naturally is: The first part of my name is my family name, and the later part is my personal name. But don’t think it’s this simple. Using English to explain is troublesome, and foreigners will still be confused. So these days, a lot of Chinese people will simply reverse the order of their name when they go abroad and introduce themselves.
2. Are you unhappy?
I remember that time I went to France. At the Charles de Gaulle airport, a friend picked me up. He was "bearing his teeth and hands." He even kissed me. His exaggerated actions were like he had not seen me in lifetimes. Although my two eyes are watering, but I’m just shaking hands, and on my face, you can see tears streaming down. This causes foreigners to be bewildered: Are you unhappy? How can I explain to a foreigner? Chinese people say, "It is always a pleasure to greet a friend from afar." It mainly refers to a feeling of pleasure but not the outer manifestations of laughing and joking. Of course there are always exceptions. I have one friend who loves to talk and joke, always flourishing facial expressions. Although he has dark eye color, black hair, and yellow skin, but foreigners always ask her if she is American or Latin American or from some other country.
3. Does dog meat taste good?
When I got to France, some French people asked me: Does dog meat taste good? When I first left China, I didn’t know this pitfall of a question existed. No matter how I answered, I would be admitting that eating dog meat is a fact, and this was precisely their intent. In these foreigners’ viewpoint, dog is man’s loyal friend. How can you treat it as food!? It is hard to tell foreigners, although dogs can be seen in China watching the house, doing police work, and accompanying their owner, their status is not so high, and their reputation isn’t so good. For example, when Chinese people are belittling other people, they will often say, "a dog threatens under a master’s power (狗仗人势)," "running dog (走狗)," "smelly dog shit (臭狗屎)," etc. With this cultural background, eating this "dog stuff" meat isn’t considered anything bad. Of course, in front of foreigners, don’t boast about shark fin or birds nest soup, to prevent the charges of cruelty to animals.
4. Do you have "guanxi"?
The Chinese word "relationships" (guanxi) has become one of the few Chinese words to enter the Western vocabulary. Once when I was applying for a job at an export company, the company personal director asked me in a mysterious voice: "In China, do you have ‘guanxi’?" Actually, Westerners and Chinese people both speak about relationships. One of my American friends told me that starting in elementary school, Americans learn about "KISSING-UP," which is like the Chinese phrase "to smooth whiskers and pat a horse’s bottom (溜须拍马)," with the intent of pleasing the teacher and pulling guanxi, so they can get a better grade. A Chinese-American friend tried to convince me that what the Chinese call "guanxi," in the eyes of Americans, isn’t the same as their idea of "relationships." He raised an example: Suppose Bill Gates recommended a young man for a job at another computer company. If it is an American company, the American boss will think, this man was introduced by Gates; he must be a quality candidate. On the other hand, if it is a Chinese company, the Chinese boss will think, this man was introduced by Gates; if I do not hire him, then he will lose face.
5. Why is Chinese so hard?
A lot of foreigners are interested in Chinese culture and want to study Chinese. But after trying the "ma, ma, ma, ma" [saying "ma" in each of the 4 tones of Chinese], they, frustrated, say: "Why is Chinese this hard?" Foreigners think Chinese is really hard, but there are also serious psychological barriers for foreigners studying Chinese. In foreign vocabulary, the word "Chinese" often indicates something that is impervious to reason or something that looks fresh [interesting] but doesn’t have any actual value. In English, there is the phrase "Chinese puzzle," which describes something cryptic and difficult to understand. "Chinese boxes" are a set of boxes of varying sizes with small boxes fit inside the bigger one, a Chinese toy, and now this phrase is an allusion to complexity. The phrase "Chinese copy" refers to the shortcomings and defects of something that is a replicated copy. I remember once when I was studying in France, we were taking a test, and after the test was passed out, I could hear a classmate next to me faintly say "C’EST DU CHINOIS" ("This is Chinese to me!").
6. Do you know kung fu?
Walking down the street in a foreign country, from time to time some foreigners will, for no reason at all, suddenly approach you throwing out hands and kicking feet. From their mouth vaguely comes the words "kungfu" or "Jackie Chan." So this is some kungfu fans who want to practice and learn from a Chinese person. If we start to talk, their first question is: "Do you know kung fu?" In a lot of foreigners eyes, Chinese people start practicing kungfu as a child. Although, we can’t necessarily leap onto roofs and vault over walls like Jackie Chan, [these people think] if we run into some thugs, we can more than handle them. Once when I went to Tanzania for business, after eating dinner, I wanted to take a walk on the streets of Dar es Salaam. Before going out, I asked the hotel security staff if it’s dangerous. That black man looked at me and said: If you are out there, then it won’t be dangerous. The locals think that all Chinese people are martial artists, so no one will dare provoke us.
7. Do you have qing liang cooling oil (清凉油)?
Thinking about what to bring when preparing to go abroad requires lots of thought. Aside from daily necessities, you should also bring some special souvenirs to give to foreign friends. For example, double-sided embroidery, folding fans, stamps, and the like can be regarded as good choices. In my experience, it is best to also bring some containers of qing liang oil. I don’t know why, but in foreign countries, qing liang oil is not produced, and there are almost no stores that import it and sell it. Foreigners ordinarily prefer mint flavor, but qing liang oil is refreshing and good for removing itch, and is especially popular in Asia, Africa, and Latin American countries. A lot of foreigners see a Chinese person and ask: "Do you have qing liang oil?" I have a friend who went to a small Latin American country recently. When [he or she] was at customs, the customs officer looked at the passport, confirmed they were a Chinese person, and suddenly extended his hand and said, as if he was requesting extra documents: "Qing liang oil…" This friend pulled out a tin of qing liang oil for their bag and gave it to him and went through customs easily. Everyone was happy.
8. When did Beijing "change its name"?
When I go abroad, there are always foreigners who ask when did "Peking" (the old English spelling of "Beijing") change its name to "Beijing" (the pinyin spelling of "Beijing," which has now become the international spelling).
I always answer this question mechanically: Beijing is Beijing, It never changed it’s name, It’s just that the spelling style now uses China’s Hanyu pinyin. But there was one time when a French person who studied Chinese asked me: Why isn’t "China" called by its pinyin name "Zhongguo" in foreign countries? I was speechless for a moment. Yes, "Zhongguo" is called "China" in English, in French its called "Chine" (pronounced like "Zhe yin ne"), in Arabic "middle" [the first character of "Zhong.guo"] is "si yin," in Thai it is "jin," but its not called "Zhongguo" or "Zhonghua" [another word referring to China]. But don’t be anxious, after Taiwan returns to the motherland, the unified country might be called Zhongguo.
9. What’s the thing you’re most surprised about?
Going to a Western country, once I introduce myself to my classmates or colleagues, the question friends or teachers mot like to ask is: "When you arrived in our country, what was the thing that surprised you the most or the thing you found strangest?" If we want the question answered sincerely, my answer would be: My idea of what this place would be like is almost exactly the same as it is. Put simply, Chinese people today, through newspaper, TV, movies, internet, and other media, can see and understand a lot about the West’s government, culture, and lifestyle. Except for language and a few things we’re unaccustomed to, there really isn’t much culture shock. A lot of foreigners aren’t intrigued by this answer. According to their understanding of China, they think you are from the backcountry of "Yellow Earth" or "Raise the Red Lantern" [Chinese films depicting traditional countryside feudal Chinese society]. To arrive in this debauched and developed world, we must feel dizzy, feel a lot of feelings!
10. How do you use chopsticks to eat soup?
A lot of foreigners work hard to learn how to use chopsticks, and when they go to a Chinese restaurant, they decline to use a knife and fork, saying it doesn’t have the same Chinese taste if they don’t eat with chopsticks. But there’s one thing that foreigners are confused with from start to finish. That is, how do you use chopsticks to eat soup? I have heard some foreigners try to be smart and say there must be some kind of chopstick straws that you can use normally to eat food but then put in your soup to drink it. I have told them, Chinese people put their chopsticks down and use a spoon to eat soup, or they hold the bowl up and drink from it. Foreigners hear this, and it’s almost like they don’t believe it: Is it really that simple?