You know the expression – “You can take the girl out of Taiwan but you can’t take Taiwan out of the girl..”?
Well, for someone who has grown up and lived most of her life in “the West” – and who is considered pretty Westernised - I’m still often surprised by little things that crop up in everyday life which remind me how “Chinese” I still am, underneath it all.
Like a few days ago, when I upset several readers because I happened to mention on my dog’s blog that I find it really embarrassing to sing her praises – to others – in public, and struggle even to accept compliments about her, without always rushing to counteract with a catalogue of her faults or to “belittle” her good behaviour with an excuse (whereas others usually find reasons to excuse their dogs’ bad behaviours! ).
For example, while out at a cafe a few weeks ago, with a friend who wistfully compared my dog’s calm, quiet presence by the table with her own dog’s inability to settle, I rushed to “brush away” Honey’s good behaviour by claiming that it’s simply because she is much older. I wasn’t even aware I was doing it – the words were out before I realised – and it was only later that I thought to myself, “Why did I say that? Actually, it’s true that my dog shows impressively good behaviour compared to many others. And it’s certainly not because of her age – she has been able to settle calmly like this since puppyhood and it’s something to be proudly acknowledged. Why am so I embarrassed to do so?”
It’s simply not the Chinese way – we’re raised from the cradle to consider “modesty” one of the most important qualities ever to aspire to – and modesty in Chinese culture means never talking about yourself or yours in a positive way, or accepting compliments from others, without trying to “dilute” the compliment first.
In fact, in Chinese circles, this determination to be “modest” can reach almost comical proportions. Anyone who has ever worked, lived or married into a Chinese community will probably be familiar with the following scene:
Mrs Lee : “Ah, your daughter so beautiful! Make you so proud!”
Mrs Wang : “Oh no! Not really. She actually very ugly – just using some good make-up – ha! ha! You are the one proud – your daughter so clever! Top of the class!”
Mrs. Lee : “Aya, no! Not at all! She quite stupid but she has good teacher.”
Mrs. Wang : “Oh – I am sure is also because she has good mother like you, look after her so well. Your cooking so good!”
Mrs Lee : “No, no, my cooking very bad! Just make very basic dishes. Nothing special. I don’t have good skill with my hands…not like you! So clever! My husband say your cake best he ever tasted!”
Mrs Wang : “Ah no, that is just because your husband so easy-going. So good temper! Not like mine – so fussy! Always complaining!”
Mrs Lee : “Oh no, your husband work very hard. Has very important job. So successful! You so lucky! Your new house so beautiful. You have very good taste – decorate so nicely!”
Mrs. Wang : “Aya – no, no, just I find some lucky things in the shop. But I never get good discount like you! You have great skill with bargaining!”
Mrs Lee : “Oh, no…”
(…and so on.)
I know – to a Westerner reading this, it sounds like a lot of ridiculous false modesty and fishing for compliments. But it really isn’t that at all. Each one is genuinely trying to deflect the compliment by “talking it down” – and then hurrying to return the compliment in kind. But why, you wonder, is it necessary to go through all this?
Well, I guess it’s just what is considered “acceptable response” to a compliment in different cultures. In the West, if someone were to say “You’re beautiful!” – it’s OK to simply say “Thank you” but you would be considered terribly conceited if you’d smiled smugly and said “Yeah, I know”. So similarly, in Chinese culture, simply saying “Thank you” to a compliment is the equivalent of that smug smile and arrogant agreement. Even if it’s true and the compliment is completely justified, you’re never supposed to just accept it without protest. (Well, there’s one exception to this rule – which I’ll tell you about in Part 2! )
(Oh, by the way, while Googling around, I came across a lot of pop psychology about ‘the inability to accept compliments’ being a sure sign of low self-esteem. Well, I can’t speak for every Chinese person, but I can assure you that my struggle to accept compliments is definitely not due to low self-esteem! Sometimes the reason isn’t always psychological but cultural.)
Don’t get me wrong – Chinese people enjoy & welcome compliments just as much as the next person and they lavish them on each other. But they just have different ways of “accepting” it. So if you do ever compliment a Chinese friend – don’t be taken aback if they contradict you – and don’t overdo it. One token repeat after their first protest might be nice, just to really flatter them – but if you keep insisting on praising them (“No, really, your cooking is amazing!” “Seriously, you’re the best cook ever!” “No, it’s not the cookbook, you are just such a great cook!”…) , you’re simply embarrassing them and forcing them to keep coming up with more and more excuses to deflect your praise!
Of course, the Chinese mutual complimenting ritual only works when everybody knows the system. You need two to play the game. Otherwise, you end up with a lot of cultural misunderstandings and conversations like this!
Mrs. Lee : “Ah, your daughter so beautiful! Make you proud!”
Mrs. Jackson : “Oh thanks – yeah, she’s pretty awesome, isn’t she? And she’s top of the class too! I’m so proud of my baby girl. She’s just the best daughter any mother can have. Well, see you next week…” (walks away)
Mrs. Lee : (to herself) ‘What a conceited, boastful woman with no social sensitivity!’
(ETA: Oh, before anybody takes offence – I just want to clarify that I’m not saying Mrs. Jackson actually IS conceited & boastful. She’s probably behaving perfectly appropriately for a Western society…just perhaps not for a Chinese one! That’s why I said that it’s only when the cultures mix that problems arise…)
Growing up, I stood by and listened to a lot of conversations like the first one above, between my mother and her cronies, talking about me right over my head. Every Chinese kid is probably well used to being put down by their parents in public. Ask any of my Chinese friends and they’ll tell you similar experiences. I suppose most Westerners reading this are horrified at the thought of all the psychological damage caused by hearing your own mother call you “stupid” and more – (but hey, since everyone’s mother calls them “stupid”, it doesn’t quite have the same impact – ha! ha! ) – and yeah, I agree, it probably isn’t best for one’s self-esteem to listen to your parents criticise you so harshly. I suppose a “sensitive” child could really take it to heart – and I do remember moments during hormonal teenagehood (when I was always hovering on the brink of taking offence anyway! ) – when I was angry and hurt at my mother for talking about me that way.
But overall, those moments were few and far between, and I quickly learnt that she didn’t really mean it. It was just a social ritual. She never sat me down and told me so but – just like the way children learn the rules of grammar by listening and absorbing and understanding in context – rather than being specifically told a set of rules – so too did I realise that Chinese social interactions had far more complex layers of meaning than what was just being said.
In fact, without ever being specifically taught, as I grew up and started joining adult conversation, I slowly began to respond in similar ways, when necessary. It’s not an easy skill, you know – the ability to always find a negative side and talk down any good thing!
So yeah – while I never doubted that my mother loved me and was very proud of me, I knew she would never say so directly to others in public To many Westerners, who believe in lavishing praise on their children in public, this seems almost like a crime. In the West, there is a lot of fuss now about children growing up in hyper-critical environments and the negative effect this can have on their emotional development and self-esteem. This can certainly be true… (although by this reckoning, every Chinese child probably needs to see a shrink! )
On the other hand, I’ve also heard a lot of disapproval about the modern (Western) phenomemon of “over-praising” children for doing very little, just for the sake of bolstering their self-confidence. The way that competitions & events now give every child those ridiculous “Certificates of Attendence” for doing nothing other than turning up…and everyone behaving as if every child’s self-esteem needs to be on constant life support!
It isn’t that I don’t believe in rewards – anyone who has seen me train my dog, or teach students in the past, will know that I use rewards lavishly – but I agree with those who think that this phenomemon of “over-praising” children simply:
a) encourages arrogance & laziness and the tendency to “settle” for mediocrity, since you have to do so little to get recognition, and
b) makes a mockery of the few children who really do work hard and make an effort – and thus deserve unique recognition.
What’s more, many believe that this form of “constant praise” actually creates a generation of children more fragile and vulnerable to the inevitable criticisms, disappointments and failures that life will later throw at them. If you grow up with everyone always telling you how wonderful you are, you just can’t cope when you suddenly don’t get that constant accolade.
Real strength of character comes from the ability to continue believing in yourself, even when those around you are putting you down – and that’s something, perhaps, that I’ve learnt better from my “harsh” Chinese upbringing. My self-esteem is not based on what others say about me but what I know about myself.
My mother always used to tell me that she deflected compliments and put me down in public so that I wouldn’t “get a big head” – but also as a form of “vaccination” for any negativity I might have to deal with later in life. Hey, if you can cope with your own mother criticising you to others in public, you can pretty much cope with anything!
And don’t worry – us Chinese kids did get compliments. Just from everyone else, not our own parents. You never praise your own but you’re always quick to praise others – and so since everyone is avidly complimenting everyone else, it all evens out!
I guess the best thing is a balance. Perhaps the Chinese way is too harsh and it would be good if Chinese parents could acknowledge their childrens’ achievements in public sometimes. And perhaps the Western way is too indulgent and it would be good if Western parents could make their children work a little harder to earn praise and be less reliant on others for their self-esteem.
As for me, I’m slowly learning about balance too. I am much better about accepting compliments now and even manage to receive a few with nothing more than just an embarrassed “Thank you”. I’m still squirming inside, of course, but at least I manage to bite my tongue on the protests and excuses. It’s easier on paper/online somehow – I find that I cope better with compliments in text than in person. Somehow it’s less embarrassing (after all, you read it in private and it’s not said out loud in public! ) and it’s easier to control the urge to deny or deflect and instead just write ‘Thanks for your nice words!‘
So if the Chinese have such a hard time handling praise coming from others, you can imagine how impossible it is for them to actually praise themselves…my struggle with that has certainly led to some awkward moments, as I’ll tell you in Part 2!