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Concise Chinese vs cumbersome English

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Mel Patching (British)

A language is not just a way of saying things; it is a culture, a history, a value system. This becomes most evident when learning Chinese. I was brought up British, and so with every part of Chinese culture that I am exposed to, I can't help but evaluate it against the only thing I know… the British culture.  It never ceases to amaze me how the two languages function in ways that are sometimes polar opposite, and other times totally identical.

One of the major differences is how long and convoluted an English sentence sounds next to the cutting precision of a Chinese sentence. 

For example, we say "Thank you, I really appreciate it," where a simple "谢谢" in Chinese is more than sufficient. 

In the restaurant:

"Excuse me, could we get the bill please?"

"买单"

On the bus:

"Excuse me, could you move aside a little to let me pass please? Thank you!"

"让一下"

On the way:

"I think we had better hurry up – we don't want to be late now do we?"

"快点!"

At a friend's house:

"Don't worry, I will help you with that!"

"我来!"

In the mall:

"If it's not too much trouble, could you help me get the door please?"

"帮我开门"

Of course, Chinese can be extremely convoluted and overly deferential if you want it to be. My friends have told me the horrors of reading the Chinese equivalent of Shakespeare… yikes!

Looking closer at this pattern, however, I wondered why it is that a straightforward "不要" in Chinese is acceptable, whereas a "No" in English sounds so harsh and offensive.  

As mentioned in a previous article, the British culture takes great pride in being polite, whereas for the Chinese, politeness is seen as a violation of intimacy. I get that… I would be offended if my sister said, "Could I trouble you to pass the salt please?" but I would be just as offended if she said, "Pass the salt!" It seems there is a delicate balance to be struck between politeness and decency for English speakers. 

The relationship between a customer and a waiter is testament to this difference in culture. In a restaurant in England, waiters are tipped as an appreciation for their service. In turn, the waiters must maintain that delicate balance of being friendly but not too friendly and always unfailingly polite.

I was shocked at the way customers treat waiters in China. I did not hear a single "请" or "谢谢." My friend explained that the money is a sufficient a "thank you" as the waiter will ever need. I was therefore not surprised at how the waiters treat customers. It is impossible to get their attention, there is no eye contact, and I can't describe them as being anything close to friendly. 

Pragmatically speaking, however, it makes sense doesn't it? In a Chinese restaurant it is: "Do what I am paying you to do" – i.e. relay my order to the kitchen then deliver it to my table. Done. In England we prefer: "How kind of you to do what I paid you to do, I must thank you by paying you more and saying thank you a million times!" 

I'm not saying either way is right, I am just learning to look at things from both sides. 

In the past I would have thought "要不要喝茶" sounded not like a friendly request but more like an angry scolding: "Do you, or do you not, want some tea?" 

Nowadays, as I understand more of the culture, I actually appreciate the direct nature of this language.  It is a relief to do away with the flowery pleasantries and frilly etiquette that English is so encumbered with. And it saves me breath, if nothing else!

2016-06-23

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