Most books on China these days seem to claim that only they can tell you how Chinese people really think/are planning world domination/the spread of socialism/destruction of the environment/monopoly of the world’s resources. Actually, only this blog can tell you how Chinese people really see the world. So keep on reading.
There’s only a certain number of times you can reply to the question, ‘where are you from?’ before getting bored stupid, especially when your answer is less than exciting.
The conversation goes this way:
Chinese Person: Where are you from?
Chinese Person: Oh.
About two months ago, I decided I would start replying to this question by asking people to guess where I’m from, and then asking why they guessed the way they did, which has revealed a host of wonderful national stereotypes.
First, a little disclaimer: although the number of taxi drivers featuring in this post may make it look like I spend my whole life in Beijing taxis, the reason drivers feature so strongly here is that they are notoriously opinionated and chatty. You’re almost guaranteed an interesting conversation with every ride. Actually, I only spend half my life in taxis.
So, according to the Chinese public, where is the Lotus-Eater from and why? Here are the most common guesses I get.
Let’s start with England because I don’t think any Chinese person has ever guessed this correctly. Perhaps this is because:
1. There aren’t many of us around
2. Calling someone English seems to be a bit of an insult
I’ve been paid some lovely backhanded compliments by way of being told ‘you don’t look English’. For example, one taxi driver guessed I was French.
Taxi driver: Why did I guess you’re French and not British? Because all British people are fat.
Me: I thought it was Americans who are fat?
Taxi driver: Oh, no, all Americans are fat of course but so are English people.
Talking to a Chinese friend about stereotypes of British people, I was also told that I could pass as coming from another country because British people have very broad faces and rough features.
Because Russians are blond. And because Russians are the only Caucasians who can speak Chinese. It’s a communist thing.
The Soviet Union
The Soviet Union is apparently still knocking around, according to certain members of the older generation who haven’t picked up a newspaper in a while.
Because Germans are blond. And because Germans are smart enough to learn Chinese. Actually, I have met a lot of Germans in Beijing so statistically speaking it’s also a smart guess.
Because Norwegians are blond.
Because Americans are everywhere. And only Americans have the dollar to take taxis, which is where I get a lot of my guesses from. A nice soft power move on the part of HM Government might be to sponsor my taxi rides thereby demonstrating the might of Britain’s economy to the Chinese people.
One of the most honest responses I’ve ever got was from a taxi driver who took it upon himself to teach me a few home truths about Americans and Brits.
Taxi driver: Where are you from?
Taxi driver: America? Britain?
Me: Yes, Britain. Why do you guess that?
Taxi driver: Why did I guess that? I’ll tell you why. Not everyone will tell you but I will. It’s because you all look the same.
Me: Oh, really?
Taxi driver: Yes, I can always tell. You look exactly the same. [Getting increasingly excited] Your faces! What you wear! [Shakes his head knowingly and drives on into the smog satisfied in the knowledge of having enlightened another ignorant foreigner.]
Mixed Race Chinese
This was the biggest shock and a guess I’ve heard a good three or four times. The ability to speak intermediate Mandarin apparently means you’re a candidate for having at least one Chinese parent. Even then, it is pushing it a bit as I look not even a little bit Chinese.
I was once asked ‘Are you Chinese?’ by an earnest shopworker in a bakery after placing an order in Mandarin.
‘What?’ I replied, in a sudden attack of wit as the people in the queue behind me began cackling at him.
‘Why would you ask that? In what way does she look Chinese? What a stupid question. You ShǎGuā 傻瓜 [my favourite insult meaning ‘blockhead’, literally: ‘stupid melon’].’
‘I was confused!’ claimed the shopworker, throwing his hands up in the air. ‘She was speaking Mandarin!’
Another time, a joke I once made to a martial arts teacher about being Cantonese went a bit far when he took it seriously. He explained that he thought I was half-Chinese and that maybe the reason my Mandarin wasn’t fluent was that Cantonese is actually my first language. A girl can dream.
Who’s the Fairest of Them All?
Judging by my current experience, I would say that the biggest compliment seems to be to call someone Chinese, with Russian/Soviet coming in second place, and British usually a downright insult or at least a conversation stopper.
Which brings me on to Brexit (all roads do, after all, lead to Brexit). After the monarchy, Brexit is probably the best thing that has happened to Britain from a conversational point of view. If you’re not asked about Kate and William, or your opinion on Brexit, the sad truth is that you will have little else to discuss regarding the land of the morbidly obese and the fat-featured. You’d be better off discussing the Soviet Union’s latest Five Year Plan and agricultural output for 2016.