Eye contact and small talk. In a lift.
Not something that happens much in China. Here, strangers don’t usually make eye contact unless they get caught out having a sneaky glance. I’ve seen this, though less frequently, in Western settings too. Perhaps being in the company of a smiling foreigner has emboldened the local to make small talk without the fear of losing face. People from all walks of life will chat to me if there are is no-one else around. Add another couple of locals to the mix and they become frigid, looking ahead glacially or at a crack in the floor.
Here is a collection of the most commonly asked questions from the local Chinese, to me – a foreigner. Some of these questions are asked surprisingly often. Bold italicised texts represents the questioner, my answers are written in standard font.
What do you have for breakfast? Cereal, you? Oh we have congee. Sometimes buns and yoghurt.
Do you like Chinese food? Yes, it’s very nice. Do you like Western food? No. It has no flavour. (spoken mainly by adults – kids here seem to love pizza and fries)
Have you eaten? Not yet. What? How come you haven’t eaten yet? You must be famished. Oh no, it’s okay – I had a sandwich before. A sandwich? You poor thing!
Are you going to drink anything with that sandwich? It looks so dry. Actually there’s margarine and relish inside my sandwich so it’s not too dry. (unconvinced) Hmmm.
Are you used to China? I’ve been here a while but there are some days things can get a bit tough. (nervous laugh) Ha ha.
China is pretty great isn’t it? It certainly is a big place. I guess you could say some things are great.
How much do you make a month? Polite smile and noncommittal reply given here but thinking “more than you buddy.” Actually there are a lot of rich people here now, but they wouldn’t ask such a rude question.
She’s very quiet (older woman referring to my younger daughter). Can she speak? Yes she’s over 2 now – she can speak three languages. Three languages, good Lord – she’s a genius!
Questions asked outside of the elevator:
What sort of car do you drive? A Toyota Crown. You? A BMW 7 Series. My wife drives a Tesla. Ouch.
How much do you make a month? Here we go again. (This question is answered several times a day in the rural areas and perhaps once or twice a month in the city)
Do you like Japan? Yes, I like Japan. Why? We hate Japan. I drive a Toyota and eat sushi. Japanese people seem very polite and friendly. The cities are clean. By the way, what car does your father drive? A Honda.
How long to drive from China to New Zealand? You can’t actually drive to New Zealand. Why? Because there’s a bloody big ocean in the way. Oh. (Admittedly a gardener asked this question)
Don’t you need something to drink with that sandwich? No thanks. Here let me get you some ketchup. No, it’s okay. (fetching ketchup) Oh, don’t be so polite!
You’re only wearing one layer of clothing? Yes that’s right. How come? It’s 28 degrees outside. Yes but there’s some wind. Oh I’d call that a warm and gentle breeze.
Are Western meals difficult to prepare? No, not really. Chinese food can be very difficult to prepare, especially when compared to Western food. You guys have hamburgers every night, right?
And so ends another episode of Lift Digest, where some questions were deliciously innocent and some were….. rather hard to swallow.