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What do Chinese think about Westerners’ ‘thank you’?

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In America, saying thank you is routine. In China, it can be puzzling.

在美国,说谢谢是常有的事。在中国,说谢谢会很令人费解。

 

In an essay for The Atlantic this week, Deepak Singh described the culture of saying “thank you” in Hindi. His explanation for why many Indians don’t say thanks out loud took me back to my early days in China, when I was struggling to learn Mandarin. Singh wrote:

在本周的《大西洋》月刊中的一篇文章中,迪帕克·辛格描述了用印地语说”谢谢”的文化。他对于为什么那么多印度人都不大声致谢的解释,带我回到了我早期在中国努力学习中文的那段日子。辛格写道:


In India, people—especially when they are your elders, relatives, or close friends—tend to feel that by thanking them, you’re violating your intimacy with them and creating formality and distance that shouldn’t exist.

在印度,人们——尤其是当他们是你的长辈,亲戚,或是很亲密的朋友——当你在感谢他们的时候,他们会感到莫名其妙,你是在违背你与他们之间的亲密度,还会制造出本不应该存在的正式礼节和距离感。


One of the most jarring yet subtle aspects of my experience with Mandarin Chinese was the counterintuitive use—or lack of use—of thank you (xiexie), please (qing), and other softeners like “would,” “could,” “I’m sorry,” and “excuse me” that liberally season vernacular American English.

我学普通话经历中最令人震惊同时也很微妙的一个方面就是违反直觉地使用——或是很少使用——谢谢,请,和其他的软化词,比如说”麻烦”,”可以”,”对不起”,和”不好意思”等这些美语里的四季通用方言。


Here is what I wrote in my book Dreaming in Chinese about my struggle with this piece of Chinese language and culture:

以下是我在《用中文做梦》一书中写下的我在学习中国语言和中国文化时的奋斗历程:


I often feel like I’m being abrupt and blunt, and even rude, when I’m speaking Chinese. Bu yao (don’t want), bu yong (don’t need), mei yǒu (don’t have), bu shi (is not), bu keyǐ (cannot)—all these are standard forms of declining offers or requests, or saying no. But each time I use them, I fight the urge to pad them with a few niceties like “thank you,” “excuse me,” or “I’m sorry.”

当我说汉语时,我经常会觉得我很唐突,又直言不讳,有时甚至还很粗鲁。不要(不想要),不用(不需要),没有,不是,不可以——这些都是拒绝提议或请求的标准形式用语,或者直接说”不”。但我每次说这些话的时候,我都要强压下极力想要铺垫一些细节的想法,比如说”谢谢你”,”对不起”,或是”我很抱歉”。


“Fuwuyuan! Fuwuyuan!” or “Waitress! Waitress!” diners cry to demand a glass, a bowl, or a pair of chopsticks. And no “Miss, could you please get me another beer?”

“服务员!服务员!”食客们大声叫他们提供杯子,碗,或是一双筷子。而且也不会说”小姐,能请你帮我再拿一罐啤酒吗?”


One of my tutors, a young guy named Danny, who straddles the line between being a Chinese nationalist and being an edgy global youth, nodded his head enthusiastically when I asked him about this interpretation: “Good friends are so close, they are like part of you,” Danny said. “Why would you say please or thank you to yourself? It doesn’t make sense.”

我的一个导师,是一个叫丹尼的年轻小伙,他跨越了作为一名中国民族主义者和作为一名前卫的全球青年之间的界限。当我叫他帮我解释一下:”好朋友之间是如此的亲密,他们就好像成为了一部分你自己,”的时候,他非常热情的点了点头,说道”你为什么会对你自己说请和谢谢呢?这完全没有意义啊。”


The first Mandarin term that Westerners usually learn is ni hǎo, the greeting. The second is probably xiexie, or thank you. It’s a comforting way to become acquainted with a language. But it’s worth keeping in mind how the generous and well-intended use of xiexie sounds to Chinese ears.

通常西方人学会的第一个普通话术语就是你好,一个问候语。第二个可能就是谢谢。这是很令人欣慰的熟悉一门语言的方式。但是要牢记于心,中国人耳朵里过多的以及故意的”谢谢”的使用是什么样子的。

2016-06-24

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