A few years ago while visiting the US, I walked into a fraught lunchtime scene: Brigid was sulking, separated from the table where the other children in the family were happily eating. The family member in whose care I had left her that morning pounced on me with the explanation of what had occurred. Brigid had been served lunch, and the family member waited a moment to be thanked. Even after prompting, “what-do-you-say,” Brigid remained silent. For this offense, she was banished until I returned to deal with her.
The family member was understandably angry. I was embarrassed. At risk of exposing one of my weaker mothering moments, I admonished Brigid strongly for her ungratefulness. She was old enough to know better, I growled. My daughter looked up at me, tearful and baffled.
“Why would I say, ‘thank you’ to someone for giving me lunch? We’re not in a restaurant,” Brigid cried. “We’re with family!”
I recognized what was going on; she was culturally confused. The words for ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are discouraged in China among close relationships. I had once been more vigilant, in our earlier days in Shenzhen and Beijing, prompting the kids to say “qing” and “xie xie” with typically American frequency. I felt our cultural need to demonstrate thanks, especially to friends.
To Chinese ears these words sounded clumsy, creating needless formality and distance. The adults in our lives the kids had come to address as shushu or ayi always waved off these expressions of gratitude. I certainly never waited around for or prompted Chinese children to thank me like I would have in the US.
Brigid had by this time internalized this aspect of common Chinese manners, replacing my directives about thanking with bu keqi. It had gotten to the point, where I too had grown lax in policing the behavior even in our own household. When in Rome, and all that.
However, I knew that none of this would excuse Brigid’s ingratitude in this family member’s eyes. We were in America, where we were expected to operate according to American rules. There is no greater offense than rudeness, especially when it comes to interactions with family. It was the complete opposite of our daily Chinese life. Further, I guessed if I approached the affronted family member explaining that Brigid wasn’t really being inconsiderate, at least not by Chinese mores, I would sound as though I was trying to make lame excuses.
Instead, this all merely fed my aggravation with the situation. I knew Brigid didn’t entirely understand what she did that was wrong, but I had to enforce the discipline that had already been dealt. All I felt I could do was continue in anger. It wasn’t my finest moment, but the family member at least was mollified when she received a muffled “thank you” from an evidently chastened Brigid.
As I was sitting down in front of my computer to complete this column, Brigid came up to me and asked about my submission. I gave her the general overview. She barely remembered that day a few years back, but she did volunteer, “You know, the rules still confuse me.”
She went on, “I guess that must be why we say “xie xie” all the time now in China. It’s a good thing our friends have grown used to us doing that.”
Better safe than sorry. In China no one will be as offended by our saying, “Thanks,” as Americans would be by the omission.
This article originally appeared on page 14-15 of the beijingkids February 2016 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: StickwithJosh (Flickr)