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Please and thank you

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“Thank you!”

It was such a strange thing to hear as I let a man and his dog exit the elevator before I did. He uttered it in English, which is an even stranger thing to hear, as my racial ambiguity often confuses many Chinese people who gamble on whether to speak to me in Chinese or English. The whole situation was the definition of foreign to me, as during my previous year in China I was probably thanked out loud less times than I could count on both hands.

Chinese people do not exchange such social pleasantries as liberally as we in the West are apt to do. However, this doesn’t mean that they appreciate your favours any less. In fact, being helped by someone else seems to be something of a privilege in China, whereas in the West (or at least in Canada), helping hands are everywhere and thanking someone has become compulsory, impulsive even, for many people. Chinese people often will not voice their gratitude, rather, a slight nod of the head or a broad smile will indicate that they are forever indebted to you and will fight alongside you in the Battle of Blackwater (okay, not really, but they do appreciate your help).

Students of Chinese, especially from the West, will speak Chinese in a manner deemed strange by some Chinese people (and I’m not referring to their atrocious accents). Because we tend to impose aspects of our native language onto our language of study, the propensity to thank the living hell out of anyone who merely bats an eye at us is translated into our use of Chinese. Oftentimes, Chinese people will say that we use the word “please” way too much, and that’s because native Chinese speakers will rarely say it, relegating it only to warning signs or subway announcements.

Or your child
Or your child

Take this conversation I had with a restaurant server when my Chinese was still awful:

Me: 请给我白菜水饺 (Please give me an order of dumplings.)

Server: 好。(Okay.)

Me: 请打包。 (Please doggy bag it.)

She comes back a few minutes later with my dumplings.

As she tosses chopsticks in the bag…

Me: 谢谢。(Thank you.)

As she ties the bag shut…

Me: 谢谢。(Thank you.)

As she hands the bag to me…

Me: 谢谢。(Thank you.)

Server: 你太客气了。(You’re too *damn* polite!)

Thank you ma’am. Now please hand over my goddamn food!

You’ll notice that I said “thank you” profusely and she never really said anything along the lines of “you’re welcome.” That’s because the Chinese language equivalent of “you’re welcome,” is 不客气,bú kè qì, which translates to “no need to be polite.” This thinking has made its way into Chinese culture as well, not out of lack of gratitude or spite, but because politeness is the expected behavior, so why should someone need to say thank you at all? I won’t get into a discussion of contemporary Chinese behavior (let’s just say politeness isn’t exactly vogue) but it is important to understand this aspect of the Chinese language, and know that a simple nod of the head and a coy smile will say more than language can.

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Published inChina LifeCulture

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