Chaos TalkRelationships lost in translation.
Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared, in edited form, in the November 2011 issue of NewsChina.
“You’ve hurt me. Do you know I’ve already folded three, four hundred stars for you? My friend tried to introduce me to some guy but I refused. I didn’t realize it before but I like you. I like only you. Will you be my boyfriend? I cannot just be a normal friend to you anymore. Either accept me or I will leave.”
This was the first time to my knowledge I had ever hurt a girl, and it was an experience I was not quite ready to take responsibility for. The Chinese place great emphasis on grand gestures and confessions. To many girls, you are not officially in a relationship until you make the ultimate confession and ask her formally, “I like you. Will you be my girlfriend?” It doesn’t matter if you’ve already had sex, or if you’ve never said a word to each other. The act of confessing, the grand, sweeping scale of expressing your feelings which have been so deeply bottled up, is the only way to consolidate a relationship.
To an American this idea might appear inimical; talk is cheap, actions are real. When you pay attention to a girl, when you ask for her phone number, when you take her out to dinner—this is how Americans say “I like you.” Conversely, when someone only calls when they’re drunk, when they only hit you up for sex, when they haven’t introduced you to the rest of their friends; these actions also clearly delineate the nature of your relationship.
To most Westerners there is no need to be so painstakingly clear cut about things that are plainly obvious. There are no brazen, under the stars, confessions. Even the use of this word “confess” seemed antiquated, dramatic, and old-fashioned when I first heard my Chinese friends use it to describe how their relationships began. “We were just friends, but one day he confessed himself to me. After that we were boyfriend and girlfriend.”
What is it about the act of confessing that allows Chinese people to mentally enter into a relationship, at times willfully ignorant and absent of any significant action or contact? My temporary American roommate skyped with a Chinese girl eight times. After their first real life meeting they had sex in our apartment shower while a mutual friend waited in the living room.
My roommate had told her many times in the heat of the moment that he liked her. Then one day in Sanlitun, while they were walking together on the street, he answered a phone call from another girl. This other girl was just a friend, and he was simply having a normal conversation with her, but the way he ignored his companion must have carried some weight. The present girl became angry and began to scream. “I thought you loved me!” She proceeded to chase and berate him as he, mortified, walk off to the nearest subway station.
This poor girl is not crazy and my roommate is not a horrible person; they are just both victims of a cultural misunderstanding. Could something like this happen in America? Probably. But my wager is that one would be hard pressed to find an American girl that didn’t fully comprehend the nature and extent of her relationship with a guy, purely based on their past actions together.
Culturally rooted misunderstandings often cause scenes like this. When one party expects much more than the other party is willing to give it often leads to heartbreak and anguish. There are many things men like. I like Italian food, I like beer, I like movies. When I say I like a girl, it usually means I would like to have sex with her. It sometimes means I would like to date her, and it even more rarely means “I love you!” In China, this “like” is not so casual. It is a big thing to “like” someone. When you say “like” in China, you better be ready to live with the consequences.
There is a word in Chinese called 乱说 (luàn shuō), the literal translation is “chaos talk,” but it generally means to make irresponsible remarks. To a foreigner this can be quite a dangerous and sensitive issue as we are not always fully aware what kind of talking is irresponsible. Americans talk about a lot of things. We are sarcastic, we lie, and we are insincere. We put on many faces to many different people depending on the social situation and the way we want to present ourselves. Americans are naturally attuned and groomed from an early age to filter out this bullshit. We sometimes take it for granted that others can do the same.
In China, not so. There is very little sarcasm in the average Chinese conversation. There is very little subtext or misunderstanding. Chinese is blunt, straightforward, and to the point. Perhaps this is why the candid and direct “I like you” confession is that much more important to a Chinese relationship.
As a kid I had to learn many of these linguistic and cultural differences the hard way. I was always the butt of jokes and taunts when I first moved to America because I had no sense in determining when peers were pulling a fast one on me and when they were being sincere.
“Is our bus late?” I would ask my neighbor while waiting after school the first day.
“No, it only comes on Fridays, you should walk home,” he replied.
I believed him and began to walk home, only to realize halfway down the street that the rest of my friends were laughing at me.
As Americans we grow up organically learning these subtle jokes and quips in the schoolyard. As a culture we are hypersensitive to falsehoods and insincerity. Perhaps this is why Americans value action over words. Perhaps conversely, this is why Chinese place as much emphasis on words as on action. To say something in Chinese is to mean it. There is little innuendo, pretense, or sarcasm. People say what is in their hearts and they stick to it. If you don’t, you are just a bad person or a liar. I find this way of communicating at times both refreshing and frustrating.
When I casually told my friend that I liked talking to her, I had no idea that my words would eventually break her heart when I could no longer live up to those expectations. When a person chooses to endear themselves to someone, it is at that same moment that one also chooses to hurt them. If you cannot continue to live up to the expectations you create, you will ultimately let someone down.
Perhaps I am partially to blame for making irresponsible remarks and being insensitive. I have been on the other side of this as well. When I thought I had made it obvious that I was into someone, they simply brushed it off because a heartfelt confession never left my lips. Things aren’t codified unless you express them in words. Feelings, emotions, actions; they are all just dust waiting to be caught in a beautiful slew of passionate poetry and long-winded platitudes.
In America, what we say is just filler in anticipation for what we will one day do. In China, what you do is largely a pretext for what you will one day confess.