Quiet chat break for busy office workers. Photo:thesmilingspiderblog.com
Before moving to China, I had certain thoughts in place about Chinese people as a whole. From personal interactions to movies to that brief chapter on Chinese history in high school, a vague picture of a polite, quiet people took shape. And let’s not forget that all important issue that every article about Chinese people feels compelled to mention – face (面子). While stereotypes are often exaggerated and sometimes outright wrong, they are what we use to build a framework of someone or something until we have the opportunity to look further – and that’s the key, to look further. And so, in the spirit of looking further, here are five stereotypes of Chinese people that only those who have never lived in China will actually believe.<
1) Chinese people are quiet
While those who move to a foreign country (usually to attend school) indeed tend to be the quiet, studious kind, Chinese people in China are… well… loud. It always takes me a minute or two to figure out whether two people are having a friendly conversation or threatening to kill each other. Because whether they are discussing what they had for lunch today or accusing each other of theft, the conversations are all done at roughly the same volume. That being said, it becomes obvious that it is, in fact, a fight when a) a crowd forms and b) hair pulling is involved.
2) Chinese employees are the hardest workers
Yes, they may put in a lot of hours at the office, but experience, second hand stories, and simple observation all indicate that many Chinese workers are not exactly hard at work. From hours of Farmville to the every present QQ to just plain old napping on the job, it only takes a small amount of digging to see that China’s workforce is not the most efficient in the world. One former co-worker spent a week – a week! – creating a list of customers to call. By that Friday, the “list” consisted of two names.
3) Chinese women are submissive
I can’t tell you the number of times people from my home country have asked about the role of women in China. Most tend to think that, since it’s a male dominated society, all the females must be very quiet and demure. Ha! While it’s certainly truer in some parts of China (ie: like much of the countryside) the fact is that in most first and second tier cities, it’s the women who make the rules. Yes, men still make up the majority of the workforce and make the money (although that trend is subsiding), but it’s the ladies who hold the purse strings (you know, unless she’s making the man hold her purse strings while she shops). My husband once had a male Chinese co-worker who, when asked what he received from his girlfriend for his birthday, said, “Well, my girlfriend loves photography, so she bought herself a camera.”
4) Chinese people are unwelcoming to foreigners
It’s a known fact that Chinese society is close knit – most don’t feel the need to rouse themselves about an issue if it does not directly involve them or a family member. But it is simply not true to say they are unwelcoming to outsiders. Most Chinese people are more than happy to engage you in a conversation – the younger generation largely to practice their English, the older generation largely when you are able to speak a bit of Chinese. Many will gladly welcome you into their home, talk with you for hours about your country or theirs, and feed you until you’re about to pop. Chinese hospitality should not go underrated.
5) Chinese are the most polite
Those who have never lived in China are regularly convinced that Chinese people are the most polite in the world, largely due to that mystical factor called “face.” The idea of face – that Chinese people want it, will do pretty much anything to keep it, and without it will be condemned to a life akin to a leper’s – is one that the media (especially the foreign media) latches on to in order to explain the most inexplicable behaviours.
What they don’t know is that keeping face often leads to outright lying or comments that by any Western standard (or basically any standard other than a Chinese one) would be considered rude. If a Chinese person doesn’t know the answer to something, (“How do I get to the nearest metro?” “What type of project does that client want us for?”), a lot of times they will simply make something up on the spot. Most of the time, this results in confusion and embarrassment for everyone else involved – but not for them! Similarly, if they have not performed a task they were given (at work, for instance), when asked about it they will simply stare and not say anything. This, according to my Chinese friends, is a way to “save face” by not admitting you’ve done something wrong. And I’m still trying to figure out how a society where “You’re fat” is a perfectly valid comment to a stranger ever got the reputation for being polite.