Speaking Chinese in America
1 Once at a dinner on the Monterey Peninsula California my mother whispered to me confidentially: "Sau-sau (brother's wife) pretends too hard to be a polite recipient! Why bother with such nominal courtesy? In the end she always takes everything."
2 My mother acted like a waixiao an emigrant no longer patient with old taboos and courtesies. To prove her point she reached across the table to offer my elderly aunt from Beijing the last scallop from the garlic seafood dish along with the flank steak and the cucumber salad.
3 Sau-sau frowned. "B'yao zhen b'yao!" she cried patting her substantial stomach. I don't want it really I don't.
4 "Take it! Take it!" my mother scolded in Chinese as predictably as the lunar cycles.
5 "Full I'm already full" Sau-sau muttered weakly eying the scallop.
6 "Ai!" exclaimed my mother. "Nobody wants it. It will only rot!"
7 Sau-sau sighed acting as if she were doing my mother a favor by taking the scrap off the tray and sparing us the trouble of wrapping the leftovers in foil.
8 My mother turned to her brother an experienced Chinese magistrate visiting us for the first time. "In America a Chinese person could starve to death. If you don't breach the old rules of etiquette and say you want it they won't ask you again."
9 My uncle nodded and said he understood fully: Americans take things quickly because they have no time to be polite.
10 I read an article in The New York Times Magazine on changes in New York's little cultural colony of Chinatown where the author mentioned that the interwoven configuration of Chinese language and culture renders its speech indirect and polite. Chinese people are so "discreet and modest" the article started that there aren't even words for "yes" and "no".
11 Why do people keep fabricating these rumors? I thought. They describe us as though we were a tribe of those little dolls sold in Chinatown tourist shops heads moving up and down in contented agreement!
12 As any child of immigrant parents knows there is a special kind of double bind attached to knowing two languages. My parents for example spoke to me in both Chinese and English; I spoke back to them in English.
13 "Amy-ah!" they'd scold me.
14 "What?" I'd answer back.
15 "Do not question us when we call" they'd scold in Chinese. "It's not respectful."
16 "What do you mean?"
17 "Ai! Didn't we just tell you not to question?"
18 If I consider my upbringing carefully I find there was nothing discreet about the Chinese language I grew up with no censorship for the sake of politeness. My parents made everything abundantly clear in their consecutive demands: "Of course you will become a famous aerospace engineer" they prodded. "And yes a concert pianist on the side."
19 It seems that the more forceful proceedings always spilled over into Chinese: "Not that way! You must wash rice so not a single grain is lost."
20 Having listened to both Chinese and English I'm suspicious of comparisons between the two languages as I notice the reciprocal challenges they each present. English speakers say Chinese is extremely difficult because different words can be denoted by very subtle variations in tone. English is often bracketed with the label of inconsistency a language of too many broken rules.
21 Even more dangerous in my view is the temptation to view the gulf between different languages and behavior in translation. To listen to my mother speak English an outside spectator might make the deduction that she has no concept of the temporal differences of past and future or that she is gender blind because she refers to my husband as "she". If one were not careful one might also generalize that all Chinese people take an indirect route to get to the point. It is rather my mother's individual tendency to ornament her language and wander around a bit.
22 I worry that the dominant society may see Chinese people from a limited perspective hedging us in with the stereotype. I worry that the seemingly innocent stereotype may lead to actual intolerance and be part of the reason why there are few Chinese in top management positions or in the main judiciary or political sectors. I worry about the power of language: If one says anything enough times it might become true with or without malicious intent.
23 Could this be why the Chinese friends of my parents' generation are willing to accept the generalization?
24 "Why are you complaining?" one of them said to me. "If people think we are modest and polite let them think that. Wouldn't Americans appreciate such an honorary description?"
25 And I do believe that anyone would take the description as a compliment at first. But after a while it annoys as if the only things that people heard one say were what had been filtered through the sieve of social niceties: I'm so pleased to meet you. I've heard many wonderful things about you.
26 These remarks are not representative of new ideas honest emotions or considered thought. Like a piece of bread they are only the crust of the interaction or what is said from the polite distance of social contexts: greetings farewells convenient excuses and the like. This generalization therefore is not a true composite of Chinese culture but only a stereotype of our exterior behavior.
27 "So how does one say 'yes' and 'no' in Chinese?" my friends may ask carefully.
28 At this junction I do agree in part with The New York Times Magazine article. There is no one word for "yes" or "no" but not out of necessity to be discreet. If anything I would say the Chinese equivalent of answering "yes" or "no" is specific to what is asked.
29 Ask a Chinese person if he or she has eaten and he or she might say chrle (eaten already) or meiyou (have not).
30 Ask "Have you stopped beating your wife?" and the answer refers directly to the proposition being asserted or denied: stopped already still have not never beat have no wife.
31 What could be clearer?