Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Toastmasters Ice Breaker Speech:
"Have You Eaten or Not?"

By Dan Li, TM

What’s your feeling when a Chinese asks you, "Have you eaten or not"? You would think maybe this guy wants to invite me for dinner. But what if it is not the dinner time, what is your impression? You might feel weird. And he keeps asking ”Are you busy recently?” you may feel uncomfortable now. And while you are still puzzled, a following question comes "Where are you heading to?" Finally, you can not stand and ask the Chinese guy, "Why do you care if I have eaten or not? Why the hell are you curious about whether I am busy or where I'm heading to? Are you monitoring me? You are nosing into my affairs."

Actually, this poor Chinese guy does not expect to get the answers from you either. These are just common greetings in China and Chinese people really do not mean to interfere. Most of the foreigners have been asked these kinds of questions again and again in China and they draw the conclusion: This type of greeting is just a part of Chinese culture. You may wonder why this kind of greeting is part of Chinese culture. I know that your common greetings would be “Hi!” “Hello!” “How are you?” “Good morning!” Or most of you would prefer to chat with some topics which have nothing to do with the privacy like the weather, politics or global economy. So because of the culture differences, you may not fully understand the greetings just like a fish in unfamiliar water.

Let me explain some backgrounds in China. About several decades ago, Chinese people lived in a very poor life and they could hardly feed themselves. Many people died of hunger. The best blessing to others was to have something to eat. So from then on, people have taken “have you eaten or not” as the ordinary greeting. This is the background behind the history and culture.

As we all know, different places have different cultures. Then what is culture? 'Culture is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another.' It is inevitable that the cultural difference has impact on daily life. And the differences can be observed anywhere at any time. In your daily life, the cultural differences show up from the moment the eyes are opened to the minute the dreams are invited.

In terms of culture differences, I still remember last time when Alvin answered Leighton’s question: I would choose to become a dragon. So at that time what was the image of dragon coming into your mind? I think most of you have watched the movies Lord of the Ring and Eragon. You may think dragons are just like dinosaurs, which can stand on the ground with feet and fly with huge wings. You may think they are fat and they lay eggs just like lizards. The dragons in western films can also spew fire. The fire can destroy everything so the dragons are not welcome at all. They even become the symbol of the devil or monster.

But if they are so ugly and how could Alvin want to become such a monster? Actually, in Chinese culture, dragons are imagined as something like snake and are flying in the sky for most of the time. The dragon is said to have the face of the horse, the horns of the deer, the ears of the ox, the body of the snake, the claws of the eagle and scales of the fish. We regard dragon as a kind of magical creature. Alvin also mentioned that Chinese regarded ourselves as the offspring of the dragon. Dragons are believed to be a very mysterious and capable creature which can fly, swim and can produce rain to make a good harvest for farmers. It is the symbol of luck and blessing.

There are so many things about China's 5,000 years’ profound culture and I really don’t know where to start. But I do appreciate your patience and I think I can cover more later. Let’s go back to the beginning conversational scenario, what do we do after greeting? Of course, we need to address. Let me recall an example 10 years ago. My friend Tan invited an American linguist Jean to his apartment for dinner. When the 50-year old foreign expert came in, Tan asked his 10-year old boy address Jean "Granny". I could feel that Jean was offended and unhappy at that moment. Later, this foreign expert told me that in her culture Granny means old, slow and incapable. And I told her that in our culture, we try to express our respect by addressing respectful words to improve receiver’s status and position. Granny is the designation young kids use show their politeness and respect. So one day, if my kid calls Edwin or Boom Grandpa, please do not feel surprised. Chinese use “title plus surname” to address our superior or elders rather than call them surnames, while the superior or elders call the addressers their names. The Chinese tend to abide by the polite principle of depreciating oneself and respecting others to show appropriate respect towards the persons being addressed.

There are also some other differences in addressing between Chinese and Western culture. First, we put the family name in the front of the given name to show the respect to our ancestors and we call the name together. Second, women do not change their family name after getting married. Third, we usually call a person’s title or position instead of Mr, Sir or Madam. Fourth, we would not give child the same or even the similar names as our ancestors. We try to avoid the same names as well-known leaders. And most of the names and designations have nothing to do with religion. Last but not least, young people do not call older people’s name directly.

Moreover, there are also some gesture and body language differences between Chinese culture and western culture. For an example, Chinese people usually shake hands... not hug or beso. I would like to ask you a couple of questions: How do you call people to come here? How do you show the direction for your guest? How do you count the number of people? How do you present your business card?

It is necessary to know the cultural differences between East and West. We can attain a more efficient and more effective communication. We can further the mutual understanding. We can avoid the stupid mistakes. Moreover, we should not only acknowledge the differences but also learn to gradually adapt them. We should integrate the new culture into our own.

These phenomena and examples are just a small part of the iceberg of culture. Want to see teh other beautiful parts of the iceberg? To be continued……

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