To date, my posts have mainly focused on travel destinations, but there have been readers asking me to cover the topic of social interaction with locals, as this should leave a sizeable impression on the foreign visitor or resident, even on a par with the sights and culinary experiences.
Indeed, this topic provides a deep and fascinating chasm to delve into and share insights, many of which could save others from commiting an unfortunate faux pas, and, conversely, endear yourself greatly through your knowledge of local social etiquette.
First, a few simple disclaimers are in order, and I hope these will put to rest any potential vociferal naysayers.
In this series, the focus will be on social interactions with Han Chinese in Chongqing, Sichuan, and neighbouring areas, from a long term foreign resident’s point of view, though I’m sure many particular statements may well apply nationwide.
Secondly, no one experience is ever the same, so all the content I include is based on my own personal experience. Readers are welcome to disagree with whatever I say, my aim is to simply offer a perspective through which people might benefit from studying social interaction in China.
Finally, I will maintain as neutral a tone as possible, giving full air to both positive and negative that people experience, whilst trying to counterbalance the latter by explaining how differences in culture and mentality result in such misunderstanding.
That aside, let’s get into it!
Have you eaten?
This simple question is an amusing source of much confusion and slight awkwardness for foreigners in China, despite being covered so widely in travel guides and phrasebooks.
A possible reason is that cultural patterns of thought are so ingrained that westeners almost invariably interpret this question as an invitation to dine together, leaving the supposed benefactor in a muddle on how to respond.
In fact, the question form of 你吃饭了吗？(Ni chi fan le ma) is actually a greeting, kind of like saying hello, but with an ostensible layer of friendly concern, an alternative to the more formal and perfunctory feeling of just 你好！(Ni hao)
You are most likely to hear this greeting from people you encounter regularly, but at the same time not so personally familiar with, such as security guards in housing complexes or service workers.
The way to respond is normally to say you have, ‘吃了'(Chi le). A very common western trait that needs to loosen up in China is the mentality of thinking in a rigid matter of fact way. The result is that some might answer ‘no’ (没有 mei you) when that is indeed the case. Though perfectly honourable the intentions, you should bear in mind this question is just a friendly greeting, and not an actual investigation into your dietary habits.
So, when you hear ‘Ni chi fan le ma?’ Avoid unnecessary complications and just say ‘Chi le!’ You can certainly reciprocate by asking ‘And yourself?’ 你呢？(Ni ne).
No matter your instincts on hearing this phrase, there is never any confusion between Chinese people on whether this is a greeting or invitation. Rest assured, when a friend or acquaintance wants to invite you to dine together, they will ask in a direct and specific manner, probably using words like 请(qing) for invite, or 一起(yiqi), meaning ‘together.’
On a final note, you may already know the word fan饭 means originally means cooked rice, but it’s used to mean food in general, as it’s the quintessential staple in China.
Incidentally, the Chinese word specifically used for uncooked rice you can buy on the market is ‘mi米.’
Since ‘Ni chi fan le ma’ has a connection to meal times, you will naturally hear the phrase used more in the early morning, around lunchtime, and possibly in the evenings. At other times, the more conventional greetings will take precedence.
A Call for Requests
Social interactions will be a rich topic to develop on my blog. There are many more situations I intend to cover, but readers are welcome to put forward their own questions or requests, and I will be very happy to answer them in the form of a blog post.
Until next time!