China Beat Archive


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August 12, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright August 12, 2008 Mary S. Erbaugh. Used by permission.


US parents warn their children, “Don’t talk to strangers!” But Chinese adults traditionally avoid even superficial greetings to strangers. This preserves a distinction between insiders and outsiders (nei wai you bie) which honors insiders but deflects con artists and unwelcome requests. People remain wary until they know someone’s title, surname, and background through networks of connections (guanxi) with kin, classmates, and colleagues. People do not say “hello” even to neighbors on the street. In stores, restaurants, train stations, taxis, post offices or clinics, customers request service without pleasantries: “Pork chop noodles!,” “To the east bus station!” Good service focuses on a quick but silent response. Strangers remain lonely and vulnerable to rudeness, as any Chinese bus rider knows.

Mandarin classes and phrasebooks for foreigners stress phrases which are supposed to be equivalents to English “hello,” “please,” “sorry,” “thanks” and “good-bye.” But surprisingly, such phrases are not universal. The Mandarin versions turn out to be very recent, unfamiliar translations from European languages. Using them can sound as awkward, conversation-stopping, and potentially sarcastic as saying bon jour in a Mississippi gas station.