Imagine that you’re having dinner with eight people you’ve only just met and one of them suddenly points out the zit on your forehead and says, “You have a big zit! You should stop eating spicy food.” Or imagine that when you go to get your flat bike tire repaired, one of the guys hanging out with the bike repair man says, “You’re too fat! That’s why your tire is flat. You shouldn’t ride a bike.” Or instead of imagining, you could just come to China!
This ought to be one of the first things they tell China-bound foreigners after the flight attendants have reviewed the safety instructions:
Be aware that personal questions considered as private in the United States are asked frequently and that guān xīn talk is a sign of care and interest.
It’s sort of a friendly joke shared among foreigners here. If you regularly spend time with locals, you will regularly be on the receiving end of 关心 talk, which is intended to express care, concern, or interest on the part of the speaker; it’s a relational gesture. However, many Chinese typically express care, concern, and interest by asking about or publically commenting on things that North Americans consider private, personal, and none-of-your-business: your appearance, age, marital status, weight (especially if you are exceptionally larger than the average Chinese, and many if not most Western women fit this category), number of children, salary, where you live, how much your rent is, how much your school fees are, what you should do about any apparent health concerns… these things are all in the public domain.
But it doesn’t stop there. 关心 talk also includes freely offered advice and criticism (劝解): usually what you or your child should eat, wear, or do to be healthier. It’s predictable, and was recently proven so by an American-educated-and-married Taiwanese woman we know here. She was out for a walk with a newly-arrived American English teacher, pushing her toddler in a stroller. She knew her son would fall asleep sitting in the stroller, and that locals consider this bad for the baby. She told her friend to watch, and sure enough, strangers came up and told her how to better take care of her baby.
(I also wonder if the questions, particularly the financial questions, are a means of “sizing you up,” so people can know where they stand in relation to you on the status-scale, which defines virtually all relationships in this Confucian-heritage culture.)
Gao and Ting-Toomey, who’ve co-authored my favourite all-around book about Chinese communication for Westerners, which ought to be mandatory reading for all Westerners in China, say this about 关心 talk (81-82):
…guān xīn (关心； “to show concern”) talk is a communicative genre that occupies a prominent position in Chinese relational communication. Guān xīn entails asking questions about a person’s well-being and other personal matters… “To show concern” also evokes the use of cautionary remarks, such as, “You should not drink too much because it is not good for your health” or “You should put on some warm clothes because it is cold outside”… Quàn jiě (劝解； “to caution and to advise”) is widely employed to show concern for others in Chinese culture…
Now of course, to Westerners all this public meddling in our private affairs is astonishingly offensive:
North Americans, however, do not appreciate others asking questions about their financial situation, age, family status, or appearance… To many North Americans, the discourse of guān xīn can be misconstrued as disturbingly patronizing, condescending, and offensive.
Most of us don’t really know why we find it so offensive, other than that we intuitively consider these things to be “none of their business!” and we feel like they’re invading our privacy. The social scholars say we find it offensive because it impinges on our general sense of autonomy and individual self-determination – non-negotiable, culturally sacred values for North Americans.
“Bad days” aside, most foreigners we know just politely and happily endure such conversations, and if it was particularly noteworthy, laugh it off afterward with friends. I’ve personally started taking a more pro-active approach and having fun with it (how Western of me! ;) ), now that I know what’s in the realm of likely conversation. As soon as they bring up something “personal,” I engage it like it’s totally an interesting thing to talk about; none of that sheepish please-let’s-change-the-subject squirming from this 大鼻子外国人! Except that I deliberately avoid giving certain bits of financial information with some people.
Some of our own experiences with 关心 talk have made it to the blog before (but I’m too lazy to go look up all the links). Most recently a friend of ours “got the treatment” from the old boys club at the bicycle repair corner in our neighbourhood.
Some of our best experiences with this are below: