An Honorable Interruption

dishonorshirt3Picture this. You’re sitting at a Starbucks with your best friend, enjoying your drink and conversation, when suddenly a little kid who you’ve never seen before walks up and starts talking with you. You think it’s cute and engage with the kid for a little while.

What happens next?

Presuming you’re living in a Western country, you’ll probably hear the kid’s parent start calling their child. Either that or they’ll come get their child and give you a quick apology. Why? First, because you’re never supposed to talk to strangers, and second, because it’s considered impolite to interrupt someone else’s private conversation.

It’s a little different in China.

Cultural Lessons from a Child

Last night, while I was meeting with two friends of mine (both of whom aren’t Chinese) in a coffee shop, a 5 or 6-year old girl suddenly appeared out of nowhere holding a miniature, plastic guitar in one hand.

(The following conversations were carried out in Chinese, but I’m translating it for obvious reasons.)

Girl: “Are you foreigners?”

Friend #1: “Yes, we three are all foreigners!”

Girl: “He’s not a foreigner!” (pointing at me)

The girl proceeded to serenade us with her four-stringed guitar. (Poor guitar, I thought she was going to snap one of its strings the way she was strumming that thing. She was really into it.) We couldn’t help but laugh and applaud her performance. Then she performed some sort of dance which involved lots of twirling and “superstar poses.” We weren’t sure whether it was something she was taught or something she made up on the spot, but it was cute.

Girl: “I will play another song for you and you can give me money.”

Friend #1: “Haha, okay.”

She later returned to us and spent another couple minutes singing and playing her guitar in hopes of earning more money (perhaps she has a future career in busking). Still not believing that I was a foreigner, she came up to me and asked me to talk. After saying a few words in English, she exclaimed:

Girl: “You are a foreigner!!” (and then she ran away laughing)

That last remark made my friends and I laugh. She was genuinely surprised that I wasn’t a local Chinese person.

Bold Acts Bring Honor to the Chinese

It’s worth noting that at no point during our exchange with the girl did her mother (who seemed to be busy talking with another parent) get up to pull the girl away from us. In fact, she didn’t even say anything to dissuade the girl from interrupting our conversation.

Like I mentioned at the top, a Western parent would probably be embarrassed if their child interrupted three grown men (and strangers, for that matter). It’s just not regarded as culturally acceptable. However, as one of my friends explained, in China the child brings honor to the parent by doing something bold like the girl did last night.

Generally, bold acts are regarded as highly honorable in Chinese. If you look at many Chinese films, they often follow the story of the tragic hero. No matter what the outcome, as long as the main character does something bold, they are regarded as hero – even if it means killing themselves.

As someone who grew up with Western culture, I have a difficult time wrapping my mind around the honor/shame element of Chinese culture. What is valued in my culture is very different from what’s valued in this culture. I’ll definitely be sure to revisit this topic in a later blog post!

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6 thoughts on “An Honorable Interruption

  1. Fascinating Chris! I’m glad to see that not only is your Chinese improving every day, but that you are not forgetting to be perceptive to the social aspects of Chinese culture. Keep it up man. I love hearing your stories. SAM?

    1. Hi Chris!
    2. I love that shirt.
    3. How interesting! I think I’ve never thought about the boldness thing before…even honor/shame culture can look so different in the mainland versus in westernized asian cultures. Thanks for the fascinating insight!
      1. Hi Yi-Ki!
      2. You should buy one. Haha.
      3. That’s a really good point. I think honor/shame can definitely be expressed differently in Western Asian cultures, though it can probably all be traced back to their Mainland Chinese roots. In my grandparents’ generation, I can definitely see a lot more of it than I can in my parents’ generation.
  2. Cute! I think as Westerners we don’t want to inconvenience other people, and there’s also the “stranger” issue with children to worry about. Kids get taught to not talk to people they don’t know as a way of protecting them from harm. Maybe a little too much.
    ++Bonus points for Mulan references.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Darcie! I think the inconvenience issue stems from the invisible division that often separates strangers. In Western nations, there’s more of an individualistic focus, versus the community focus in Chinese culture. For instance, it’s not at all weird for Chinese people here to criticize or question your parenting style – even if they are complete strangers. Haha. That’s just the way they roll.

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