Last time when I visited family in China, a few days into the trip, my sister told me ‘Stop saying thank-you to me all the time. You are becoming a real foreigner!’.
I initially was quite taken back by the comment, but then when I reflected on it, I realized that 11 years of living in France/Australia is definitely leaving a mark on me – in terms of what ‘being polite’ means.
According to an article ‘What ‘Thank You’ Sounds to Chinese Ears’: the Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you. And saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.
It’s so true. From the beginning, I struggle to come up with a proper sentence to teach Nina the equivalent of ‘can I have some water please’ in Mandarin, simply because we do not use ‘can I … please’ in China under such context. The literal translation (‘请问我可以要些水吗’) just sounds not quite right, especially addressing the family members. ‘I want some water. Thank you’ (我想要些水。谢谢）would be the most polite and popular way of saying it – even then, more often than not people will omit ‘thank you’ too, esp within family and close friends. There just aren’t many ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ floating around the Chinese household. And it’s ok. In fact it’s more than ok – it’s expected, and the opposite of it (adding ‘thank you’ ‘please’ everywhere) is considered a bit out of place.
For my husband and in many Western cultures, teaching manners to children such as saying ‘thank you’ ‘please’ “could I’ ‘may I’ is extremely important – in fact is considered as basic education. For these cultures, Chinese can come across quite blunt and rude without using these expressions often, if at all. Even I, a native Chinese, become really aware and sometimes uncomfortable when these practices clash. Many Chinese friends I make outside of China do not often say these words, and many times I have to remind myself that they are not being impolite at all, but just an act of showing them considering me as their friends. Among friends, such formality is not required. They show their friendship and politeness by offering me help and advice in ways that most friends from Western cultures will not. And that’s fine too.
It’s not an issue of value. Being grateful and graceful are equally important values in both Chinese and Western cultures. But the practice of it is very different in respective culture. People show their respect and gracefulness in very different, sometimes even seemingly conflicting, ways.
Being a parent who’s trying to pass on not only the language but also the culture to my child, it’s an act of practice and awareness (sometimes soul-searching and not necessarily obvious one) that’s required to be respectful of all cultures involved. Hopefully nobody becomes a foreigner in our own land.