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Life with Lavendar in London town

Monday, 21 September 2009

Mind your Manners

Over brunch the other day, I was discussing the best places to stop off between Australia and London with a group of friends. Several of the usual suspects came up. Singapore. Thailand. Japan. Hong Kong. The mention of the latter caused one of our group to screw up her nose.

I went to Hong Kong but I didn’t like it. It was too full on. I didn’t know where to go to eat. It was so confusing that I only had one meal a day.

We looked at her in consternation.

Really? You only had one meal a day?

You might think that we were being sympathetic but no.

Hong Kong is a food paradise. How could you go there and only eat once a day? I go there to eat! My tone was almost accusatory.

Another friend interjected before I could continue.

It can be quite confusing, he sympathised. It doesn’t help by the way the Chinese language sounds. It sounds like they are screaming at each other but actually, they’re just saying Hello.

That’s true, I verified, They may have sounded abrupt and rude but they were probably just asking you if you were hungry.

I’ve noticed during my time in London, that the word rude is commonly used in day-to-day vernacular. This comes as no surprise as the English are culturally defined (and stereotyped) as a society that prides itself on manners. Rudeness is seen as the eighth deadly sin. I’m not certain of the historical evolution of why this is so but methinks that Queen Victoria had something to do with it.

This is all well and good but manners are culturally specific and not always translatable. Growing up in a Chinese household, we did not use the word, please very often, nor spoke in modulated tones that were pleasant to the ear. We barked comments to one another, butted into each other’s sentences and spoke to each other in a volume that suggested we were in the midst of a busy marketplace rather than sitting next to each other at the dinner table. Chewing with your mouth open, burping, picking your teeth in public with a toothpick were all norms. Horrendous faux-pas from an English etiquette POV but perfectly normal for Chinese.

Straddling these two worlds of manners made for some interesting situations growing up. On my first day of high school, I heard my name being called by my form room teacher.

What?! I shouted out in response.

He glared at me with his beady blue eyes.

You do not say “What”, he replied icily, You say Pardon. He paused for effect.

What do you say?

Pardon, I mumbled, thoroughly mortified.Why had my parents never told me to say Pardon? We always said What! Sometimes we just grunted.

I caught on soon enough that I would have to modulate my peasant Chinese ways so as to appease the convict English ways of all my friends.

You’re so abrupt, almost curt, they’d accuse. And you never say what you really think.

Because I’m saving you face, I’d retort in my mind. Do you know about that? And do you know that when I gave you your birthday present you should have accepted it with both hands and not opened it in front of me you rude, ungrateful bitch.

I never thought it was fair that I had to adapt to their manners but that they had little understanding of mine. It was cultural imperialism at work in the playground. I had not yet learnt about the term, bi-cultural conflict, which would serve as a handy term to hang my angst on in my teenage years.

Along the way of acquiring mixed manners I’ve often asked myself why does it matter? After all it’s just a code of conduct that regulates us all in one way or another. Why can’t we be more experimental from time-to-time? Why must we frown if someone acts unexpectedly? Why must we judge?

These days my attitude to manners is much more laissez faire. I just can’t be bothered to be something I’m not so I just go with the flow. I can be the perfect guest or the rudest cow on earth, depending on which POV you are coming from and your own baggage.

But for now - thank you very much for reading my blog and please come back again soon. Have a nice day!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the difficulties of the bi cultural bit. Especially the non transferable nature of manners and customs. I think HSBC has a whole advertising campaign based on it. Being someone who has spent time in HK and China (as well as having a fair amount of Chinese friends/family), I personally find the Chinese concept of manners tricky. If someone offers you food and you take it, with out a 2 hour 'no you first', you're considered rude. If I don't tap my fingers when my tea is poured I am rude. If I try to pay/don't try to pay I am rude. In contrast as long as you don't spit at the dinner table and say 'Please' and 'Thanks' I think you can get by in most Western countries.