Tuesday, January 02, 2007

"Your Chinese is really great!" and other lies...

One thing I knew about Chinese culture before I came here, both from reading books and from having Chinese friends, is that they will often compliment you and you're never supposed to accept the compliment, but vociferously deny it. So, for example, in Western culture if you tell someone you like their skirt and they say "Oh, no, it's very ugly, very cheap," etc, it would be vaguely insulting to you, and a little annoying. But this would be an excellent response in Chinese culture. To say a simple thank-you is rather rude.
It gets confusing in a few ways, though. Sometimes you are paid a genuine compliment, and don't have to deny it quite so much. This happens more when I compliment Chinese people- often they will just ignore the compliment, which I guess is a tacit acceptance of it. Also, they will sometimes compliment the worst thing about you as a way of helping you to save face- ie, if I try to speak Chinese and what comes out is absolute rubbish, they might say, "Your Chinese has really improved! How have you improved so quickly?"
I get two compliments on an almost daily basis: Your Chinese is so great, and you are so beautiful. I'm told these things in both English and Chinese, and deny them in both languages. It can get a little tiring, though. While I was never complimented on my beauty and language ability in the US, I also didn't have to exclaim many times a day on my lack of beauty, nor enumerate the ways in which my fecklessness and general lack of intelligence contribute to my poor command of the Chinese language. Constantly insulting yourself can get a little old. But it's manageable.
Sometimes it gets a more complicated, though, and I'm sure I insult many people simply because I don't know what to do. For example, people often comment on the fact that I'm tall, and my skin is white (whiteness is an obsession for most people in Taiwan, and most people here get "dark" unless they take extreme precautions). So I am tall and white compared to most people here, and I can't tell if this a compliment or a simple statement of fact. Usually I say "really?" (zhende ma?) and this seems to be OK. But I don't know. And then there are times when I don't really know what the Chinese person is saying- so I probably accept many compliments without knowing I was complimented.

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