Actual Conversations I've Had With Chinese People
One afternoon my wallet was lifted by a pickpocket at the Scite Department Store in downtown Beijing. I reported the theft, and clerks called security. A slight, young Chinese man trying to act authoritative arrived 10 minutes later. He asked me a few questions, such where I lost it, was I sure it was in the store, and where I last saw my wallet. I said it was in my purse, then opened it up to show him the interior, which had a divider. He asked me if the wallet had been in the front compartment or back compartment. I asked him if it made a difference. He was clearly unhappy to have someone questioning his questions.
As we started walking towards his office, I asked him if I should call the local police station, and asked him where it was. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Where's the local station?
Him: It's the Jianguomen station.
Me: Where is that?
Him: It's in Jianguomen.
Me: But where?
Him: In Jianguomen.
Me: I'm asking you, where in Jianguomen is it?
Him: You can take a taxi there.
Me: I have no money on me. If you tell me where it is, maybe I can walk there.
Him: It's too far to walk.
Me: Could you tell me where it is? Maybe I can walk.
Him: If I tell you where it is, you wouldn't know anyway.
Me: How do you know? Maybe I'll know. Maybe I won't know.
Him: It's near Hanwei Plaza.
Me: Oh, I think I know where that is. It's that way? (pointing left)
Him: No, it's that way (pointing right).
Me: Oh, well I don't know it then.
Later in his office, he took down my information. After seeing my business card (stating that I'm the bureau chief of an American newspaper) he became a new person.
Him: If you like, I can give you the phone number for the Jianguomen station.
* * * * *
Sitting in a Beijing taxi one evening, I was chatting with the driver, as I often do. I mentioned that I'm not Chinese.
Him: Where are you from?
Me: I'm American.
Him: (pause) (confused) But your hair looks black.
* * * * *
I called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs one afternoon to ask my handler a question.
Me: Is this Zhang Hongtie?
Voice: He's not here.
Me: Will he be here this afternoon?
Voice: Do you need something?
Me: I'm with Cox Newspapers.
Voice: I don't think he'll be here this afternoon.
Me: Will he be in tomorrow?
Voice: (pause) I don't think he'll be in tomorrow.
Me: Is he on vacation?
Voice: Do you need something?
Me: Yes, I have a question. Is there someone there who can help me?
Voice: Go ahead.
Me: So I should ask you my question?
Me: And what is your surname please?
Me: Ni hao.
Me: My editor is coming from the U.S. next month and I'd like to know what I need to do to get him a visa.
Voice: Could you call back in two days?
Me: There's no one else there who can answer the question?
Voice: Is it urgent?
Me: I'd like to get an answer in the next day or two.
Voice: Could you tell me specifically your question?
Me: Well I just stated all of it. There's not much more to add. (I repeat it.)
Voice: Is he coming from the U.S.? Is he coming as a tourist? All these things we need to know.
Me: He's coming to have a look at China.
Voice: Will he do interviews?
Me: Perhaps he'll do some interviews.
Voice: Perhaps? Why don't you call back when you're definite.
Me: He'll do interviews.
Voice: He'll do interviews.
Me: Is there anyone else there who could answer this question?
Voice: Like who do you mean?
Me: Well, I don't know. It's just that your attitude is sort of ...
Voice: It's not my attitude.
Me: Oh. I'm sorry. I'm not familiar with China's regulations. Since he's an editor coming to do interviews, he can't come to China on a tourist visa, right?
Voice: I don't think so.
Me: So I'd like to know what kind of visa he should have and how we can get it.
Voice: You are ...?
Me: I'm Julie Chao.
Voice: Are you a Chinese person?
Voice: I'm sort of new here. Why don't I take down your phone number and I'll get back to you.
* * * * *
Several months later, my editor, Chuck Holmes, has arrived from Washington. A lunch banquet with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Kong Quan, has been scheduled. In the days before the lunch, I get a series of phone calls from my Ministry handler.
Phone call #1
Mr. Zhou: How many people are coming?
Phone call #2
Mr. Zhou: Are you bringing an interpreter?
Phone call #3
Mr. Zhou: What is the difference between Chuck and Charles?
Mr. Zhou: How many newspapers does Cox have? And do you have magazines?
Me: It has 16 or 17 newspapers, and I don't know how many magazines.
Mr. Zhou: It says in your editor's letter that Cox has 18 newspapers.
Me: If you already knew the answer, then why are you asking me?
Mr. Zhou: But I didn't know how many magazines it has.
Phone call #4
Mr. Zhou: You said Mr. Holmes understands French. Does he speak French too?
Phone call #5
Mr. Zhou: We don't have his birthday.
Me: Why do you need his birthday?
Mr. Zhou: The spokesman doesn't know old he is. Is he middle-aged? Or elderly?
Mr. Zhou: How is the reporting going? Which agencies have you interviewed? The spokesman would like to know on which topics he should prepare some introductions.
Phone call #6
Mr. Zhou: Since it's Friday, Mr. Kong says we should dress casually. No tie.
The Actual Lunch: Absolutely NOTHING of substance was discussed. As usual with Chinese officials, it was chitchat about the history of Chinese cuisine and other inane topics.
* * * * *
A Ms. Li of the Beijing Tax Bureau, Journalists Division, called me late one Thursday afternoon to inform me that I had to fill out a special form reporting my income over the last three years. And oh, it's due tomorrow (Friday).
Me: No way, you called my colleagues two weeks ago. You're giving them two weeks and me one day.
Ms. Li: Well, we've been calling you for two weeks and couldn't get hold of you.
Me: I know you have the journalists' directory. It has my cell phone, my fax number, my office number. You could've sent a fax. You could've left a message. My secretary is here. There are many ways to get in touch with me.
Ms. Li: We don't call people on their cell phone.
Me: Then why didn't you leave a message?
Ms. Li: This is very complicated. It's not something that can be explained in a few sentences.
Me: Then you can leave a message saying, "I'm the tax bureau, please call me at xxx."
Ms. Li: Well I'm calling you now.
Me: I don't understand. Chinese people just won't leave messages.
Ms. Li: That's right, we're not used to it.
Me: So you were able to get in touch with me, but you didn't. So this one-day deadline is unreasonable.
Ms. Li: OK, then you can have until Monday.
Me: That still might not be enough time.
Ms. Li: That's plenty of time. The form is very easy.
Me: You might think it's easy, but it may not be easy for me. I may have to get the information from America. It could take time.
Ms. Li: Have your accountant fill it out.
Me: My accounting company charges a fee for every service they perform.
Ms. Li: That doesn't sound reasonable. Why do they charge a fee? I've never heard of that before.
Me: (groan) You're right, but I don't set the fees. Why do I have to fill out this form anyway? You want me to report how much tax I've paid to you? If anyone has that information, it's you.
Ms. Li: The form is required.