How Wude

2 Jun

Jiang Zemin, ex-president of the PRC

“Chinese people are so rude.”

At home, abroad, on the internet, in my own house, I have heard that phrase like a mantra, again and again. It resonated with me the last time I was in Canada and heard it repeated by an Aunt and Uncle who were citing an incident that took place in a grocery store. From what I could gather, a group of Chinese people were taking up a whole aisle in the store and wouldn’t get out of the way to let others pass.

“Chinese people are so rude,” the story ended.

And I wondered at it because, I’ll be honest, from this Canadian’s point of view, Chinese people are outlandishly rude. Picking noses in public, screeching into cell phones on public transit, letting kids defecate in the street (and sometimes indoor garbage cans), littering both indoors and out, hocking loogies out bus windows–the list goes on. The language itself isn’t even that polite. “What would you like?” literally translates as 你要什么?–“You want what?” Could you imagine walking into a shop at home and having the clerk ask you, “Hi. What do you want?” It would be a little rude, no?

Yeah, it really does happen

And yet…and yet.

We were in a well-known Turkish restaurant here in Guangzhou the other day. I turned to the waitress and politely asked her if I could have more water. When I turned back around, my flatmate and good friend–a lovely Cantonese girl named Lum Lum–was looking at me strangely.

“Why did you just change your voice like that?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” I was a little confused.

“You raised your voice almost an octave. You talked to her like she was a little child. Why did you do that?” She was completely baffled.

This led to a conversation in which Nathan (my other flatmate, really good friend, and Lum Lum’s significant other) tried to explain to her that I was not speaking to her like a child, and that raising the tone of your voice whilst at the same time softening it was actually a sign of politeness in our culture*.

Who does that?

She was not convinced.

“Yeah but, don’t you think she can hear you turn around and talk to us in a completely different voice as soon as you finish talking to her? Don’t you think it’s a little rude to speak to her differently than you’re speaking to everyone else?”

Well how about that. Here I was having a Chinese person stare at me in utter confusion because someone who she had come to see as a polite, well-adjusted person had just acted blatantly rude to someone in the service industry. She was flummoxed.

In the end she begrudgingly agreed that it must be a cultural thing (thank God Nathan was there to back me up), but to this day she continues to remain highly suspicious of the whole voice-change concept.

This is not an isolated incident.

Time and again my students will attempt to understand the layers of politeness that are built into our language**. More often than not they need constant reassurance that, no, saying “please” this many times does not sound fake and, no, you’re not insulting someone’s intelligence by asking them a question in such a roundabout way. And China stares at us in awe for a host of other things: the flaming that occurs on blogs and the horridness that gets printed in our tabloids (and occasionally “respectable” newspapers) being just two examples.

So, are Chinese people really so rude? And, for that matter, are Canadians (I only speak for my own nationality here) actually all that polite?

Well, yes and no. Lum Lum herself gets super choked at people who cut her off when driving or goes off on people talking too loudly in restaurants. And I know lots of Canadians who scratch their nuts in public or grope the waitress’s ass. But at a certain point we have to remember that people are just people–rude people are rude people and polite people are polite people no matter what flag flies over their head. Yes, there is an underlying aspect of culture to a lot of it, and that’s where understanding is needed. If someone is being rude to you, feel free to tell them to piss off, but don’t go about blaming the entire nation for it.

Grow up and go have a conversation with one of these people you keep bitching about. Trust me, most of their cultures are more than willing to welcome you in and share anything you would want to know. Can the same be said of ours?

Actually, yeah, it is in this case

That's what I thought

*Seriously, try it out yourself. When you’re trying to be very polite, your tone of voice changes.

**For example:
What’s the time?
Excuse me, do you have the time?
Would you mind telling me the time?
Could you please tell me the time?
Sorry to interrupt but I was hoping that you’d be able to tell me the time.

The number of ways to be polite in English is actually staggering.

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4 Responses to “How Wude”

  1. minka July 25, 2011 at 8:22 am #

    … The other day? Didn’t you tell me this story last fall?

    • Angie Pants July 25, 2011 at 8:25 am #

      I probably talked about the idea. It’s a pet concept of mine. And Lum Lum’s given us strange looks for shit before, but the restaurant thing happened about two months ago.

  2. Ray June 2, 2011 at 7:07 am #

    I dunno, Angie. The only useful comparison to make is between what’s normal and how broadly those values are represented. You can’t say “Canada has rude people too, so it’s the same.” Even MORESO, it sticks out to me that the rude behavior you describe *is* an effort at politeness. A softening behavior misconstrued isn’t an instance of being rude. It’s an instance of being misunderstood.

    I grew up in the famously polite American south. For all the things wrong with it, how strangers treat each other isn’t one. When I start to let that standard go, I feel personally cheapened and stop. It’s not conscious. It’s just–when you’ve seen something working right somewhere, why forget it because people aren’t following it somewhere else?

    But why does it matter? Aren’t we talking about silly formalities?

    Here’s a scenario you can easily imagine living here, and my point is how easily you can imagine it: you’re walking through a grocery store and a woman puts a bullhorn between her mouth and your ear, unleashing a rapid-fire sales pitch at point-blank range. When that happened to me, I thought, looming over her: “There’s not a court in the country–oh God! Yes, there is! There is in THIS country!”

    Manners are bullshit. They’re just for making poor people feel stupid. But being *considerate* of the people around you? Without that, people get hurt. Actually physically hurt. ESPECIALLY in big cities.

    Anywhere I’ve lived or traveled in China, NYC might as well be located in South Carolina. I’m saying the rudest city in America looks idyllic. On the one hand, you’ve got shit like people welding over busy sidewalks, or dumping any manner of waste out windows (once, it smelled like bleach). That’s just plain not giving a shit. But the much scarier thing is the incessant, trivial competition. On the road, in the subway, at McDonald’s. In Nanjing, nobody understood queues at all–getting a milkshake or merging with traffic were equally treated like games where a gajillion people are playing against each other for the same goal. In Guangzhou, I see a sadder scene where a large minority understands necessity well enough to wait in line, but that line is tenuous and constantly jostled about by the game everyone else is playing.

    I’ve had a lot of conversations about this with a lot of people. Sometimes it leads to a productive cultural exchange. There are reasons people are the way they are here, there are reasons people are different elsewhere, there are different values, different ideas, and they are better and worse and more and less useful and appropriate to necessity and righter and wronger and must be judged accordingly. At my most idealistic, I like to think we can let go of the provenance of these things long enough to make unbiased decisions about what to keep, moving forward. But that’s not how it usually goes. China is predisposed to an ethnocentrism in excess of that depicted in your cartoon. When not espousing the doctrine of “love it or leave it,” that most irritating of Sinocal (seewhatIdidthere?) cliches is invoked: “developing.” My canned response is: “Developing into WHAT?” As best I can tell, a Bosch painting.

    For more on the subject of rudeness, see the excellent Sir Anthony Hopkins film “Hannibal.”

    • Angie Pants June 4, 2011 at 5:13 am #

      See, when I started writing this blog, that was the kind of response I was hoping for.

      I completely agree with everything you said. My point isn’t so much that Chinese people AREN’T rude as, you’re right, there is a basic level of consideration for those around you–specifically strangers around you–that is completely ignored here. My point is that it’s unfair to stereotype, especially when I can EASILY list multiple incidents of rudeness occurring in Canada.

      As a culture we may be a bit more polite, but that’s my point–it’s a cultural thing. On a person-to-person basis we have the ability to be just as rude, and I’ve seen it many-a-times. What’s even worse is that we come over here and people start to lose the little bits of cultural conditioning that they have always had. I myself have screamed for a waitress’s attention or pushed to the front of the line. I let myself believe I’m blending in with the culture.

      It’s easy for us to lose that thing we call “polite”. I try not to, but it happens more than I think it does.

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