Monday, June 18, 2012

The Art of War.

"Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate" 
--Sun Tuz in The Art of War

Discussing the nuances of being a Westerner working in China is one of those ineffable experiences in life. What I can say is that most of the outlandish tales you hear of China come down to a difference in that one little word: logic. The logic that Westerners and specifically, Americans, most value starkly contrasts that of the Chinese. The juxtaposition of Western and Chinese logic is a cocktail of certain confusion and unremitting frustration.

Culturally speaking, Americans are adherent to the idea that time is money, and Americans tend not to like it when their time—or money—is wasted. Likewise, Americans value straight-forward answers. In China, there is little concept of wasting time and likely your time will be wasted much of the time. Furthermore, if there is even an ounce of subjectivity, you will—listen to me closely—never, ever, get a direct answer to the question you asked. Ever.

    For example! In the United States of America, if one asked when the final exam will take place, he/she would likely get an answer like this:

“The final exam will take place Friday, May 4th at 7:30am in Meredith Hall, room 215”

     In The People’s Republic of China, if one asked the exact same question, he/she would likely get an answer like this:

“Because you are a Sophomore, that is, a second year, you are currently enrolled in the sophomore second-year learning program that focuses on English. All English majors must have a final exam that will in fact take place at said time which will be determined by the university at which said time the final will in fact take place. The English final exam will be required by everyone so everyone is required to take the final exam that will be taken at the time which will be determined by the university who has full discretion of determining the final exam time.”

Again, emphasizing my fluency in Chinese translation and all of its manifestations, I would like to translate the above paragraph from Chinese English into Western English:

“At this point in time we have no idea when the final exams will take place, and will likely make the decision irrationally, last-minute, and at a time most inconvenient for you. We will notify you the day before, thank you.”

Welcome to the wonderful world of Chinese logic.
(Anyone ever read, The Art of War? For those of you who haven’t, one of Sun Tzu’s tactics is, ‘confuse the enemy’. The Chinese seemingly employ this tactic in everyday interactions. A word to the wise: if you ever go into or plan to go into business in China, read The Art of War. You will gain invaluable insight to the inner workings of the Chinese mind. Read it.)

      You see, the Chinese, unlike the West, tend not to favor this kind if accurate, informative, logical response; but rather, have been steeped in the Confucian notion that giving straight-forward answers can offend someone, trap you into something, or create problems in general. Thus, they speak in riddles and circles, relying heavily on appeasement. 

     Now despite creating quite the migraine for Westerners, we mustn’t be quick to criticize the Chinese for their seemingly non-logical logic. Consider this: in the US it would be considered reckless endangerment to go about driving on the left side of the road, however, we can hardly rebuke England for all of their left-sided driving. Neither the United States nor England is ‘wrong’ for driving on the right or left side of the road in their home countries—it is just different.
The same can be said for Chinese logic. Therefore, it is not my intention to censure Chinese logic, but rather, connote that a Westerner traveling to China without a basic understanding of their logic is like an American driving in England without knowing to drive on the opposite side of the road--reckless endangerment.

So, for all those planning to visit, travel, live or teach in China, I have taken the liberty of making this handy little chart for you in hopes of alleviating the headache you are sure to face when trying to function in the Middle Kingdom.   

When  a Chinese person says this:
They actually mean this:



“It will be very difficult”

“We/I will try”

“Yes” or “Maybe” or any other response followed by a long sucking sound through the two front teeth
The truth is something you are not going to like, assume the worst. *(It could also mean no). 

“I am not sure” or “I will get back to you later”
No. Please forget about it and don’t ask me about it later.

…Long irrelevant explanation that doesn’t at all answer or even address your question
I have no idea (or no)

     In a word, it behooves you to put a ‘maybe’ in front of anything you are told in China (if it isn’t already done for you). Memorize this chart and you will be on your way to understanding the Chinese. The end.

1 comment:

  1. The Chinese have a very roundabout way of answering questions don't they? I think the manner of repeating the questions in several different ways then giving a thought that may provoke you to think of the answer is the most 'Chinese' way of answering a question. I agree, it's not wrong...but as an American it's frustrating as hell! Americans like things straight forward and to the point. I have a coworker who is 1st generation Chinese, and we always have conversations that feel like her giving long-winded answers that aren't really answers but thought provoking explanations, and me trying to filter those statements down to a few blatant words so we can reach some sort of endpoint. I never thought of it as a cultural difference until I read your article, but it most certainly is! Nice read.