Walking up to my apartment’s main door late one evening, I dug around for my key.
“Ohh,” I heard behind me. An older woman was walking by with her groceries, eyes wide. “Foreigners are so strong,” she said in heavily accented Mandarin.
I was a bit baffled — it was only a backpack. She shuffled off, shaking her head, and I headed inside.
The next day, I mentioned the interaction to my Chinese colleague.
“You were wearing a skirt, right?” she asked.
“Yeah, I mean, it was 65 degrees!”
“Yes, but in China, that’s still too cold for clothes like that. You foreigners, though, you wear so little, even in such cold weather! Very strong — much stronger than us Chinese.”
Uh, sure. Then every Coloradan in early spring is tough as nails.
This was two years ago. Since then, I’ve hear this compliment many times, and it’s a relatively sincere one. Wearing clothes I deem perfectly suitable for the warming weather demonstrates my strength, just as saying, “Ni hao” (“Hello”) demonstrates my vast command of the Mandarin language.
China is a land of many compliments that doesn’t particularly like to be complimented. Folks say something nice and then expect you to deny it. “Oh, you’re so beautiful!” is another very common comment. In return, you should look down and repeat, “Nali nali” (“Not at all”). “Wow, you speak such great Chinese!” “No, my Chinese is terrible!” I should insist, in Chinese no less, thus ironically demonstrating my actual language competency.
It’s a complicated social dance, and one I’m not a fan of. It takes its toll — you start being skeptical of any and every compliment.
“I don’t believe any compliment I’m given anymore,” Manfriend explained, when I asked him what he thought of this cultural quirk. “I know it’s not malicious, but it’s not sincere either.” For a man who’s lived here about six years, the perceived falsity had worn thin. His Mandarin is excellent — ordering a coffee is nothing worth praising him for.
And after more than two years here myself, it’s nothing I’m too fond of. I’ve put in so much effort to improve my language skills. It’s a well-intentioned gesture, yet it feels patronizing when I genuinely want to do better.
Frustrated over another round of complicated linguistics, I paused during a Chinese lesson. “I still can’t get a handle over these sounds,” I told my teacher, pouting.
“Alex, trust me. Your pronunciation is so much better. Your tones, too,” she insisted. “If your confidence matched your pronunciation ability, you’d be doing so well.”
I was stunned. After hearing how great my speaking was from everyone, baristas to shopkeepers, here was a compliment so sincere, I didn’t know what to do.
“Really?” I mumbled.
“Really, you’re doing a great job.”
“Well,” I said, smiling, and we pressed on with the lesson.
Now that’s a compliment I’m happy to take.