By Antonio Graceffo
On my first night of wrestling training, after the warm up and exercises, the coach ordered everyone to go put on their wrestling jackets. While I was putting mine on, the coach said, “An Dong Ni is a foreigner and doesn’t have a wrestling jacket.” I was standing right in front of him, putting it on. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, no one pointed this fact out to him, till finally one brave girl spoke up. “Look he’s wearing a wrestling jacket.” So the teacher asked me, “Where did you get that jacket?” It has the name of my master and my wrestling club in Beijing written on it. I was going to point that out, but instead, I said, “Beijing.” Sp he repeated, slowly, like he was talking to Hellen Keller “Where d-i-d y-o-u g-e-t t-h-e j-a-c-k-et?” To which I replied, “B-e-i-j-i-n-g.” The teacher looked lost, like he wanted someone to translate. “I guess he doesn’t understand the question.” He concluded. “I got it in Beijing.” I almost yelled, under my breath I added, “I told you twice already.” Then, I added “My sifu gave it to me.” He didn’t look convinced that I was wearing a wrestling jacket, but he decided to go ahead with the training and see if we could order one for me in the morning.
Before and after training each day we have to stand at attention, like in the military, “eyes right, front, parade rest, attention, cover, recover…” Then we have to count off. After that, the teacher puts us at parade rest and talks to us for a few minutes. During his talk, he asked me, in front of everyone, if I was married. I said, “no.” So he repeated the question. “Are you married?” And I repeated the answer. “No.” So, he told the group, “He doesn’t understand the question.” This pisses me off. In this culture, everyone is expected to do the same things, like getting married, for example. And it is such a given that everyone does what the culture dictates, that they even reject information to the contrary. So, I spoke up, “I was married, but now I am divorced.” I really think it’s no one’s business, but I wanted to be clear that I had both heard and understood him.
In all cultures, people tend to hear what they expect to hear. But in Asia, I find it a bit more extreme because the culture dictates that there are certain expected behaviors, as well as expected responses. This can be very frustrating for a language learner. You heard the question. You answered it. Then they ask again. And then you think, I must not have understood and that’s why they are asking again. So, they repeat it, but it sounds like the same question again. And you go in circles.
Another dimension to this phenomenon is that people often jump in to translate for you, and they make the situation even worse, because they aren’t working from the actual answers you are giving but from what they believe the correct answer should be.
The other night, in the elevator, after wrestling class, this girl wrestler asked me, “Do you like China.” She is always chatting me up, being friendly, but she inevitably, through no fault of her own, presses my buttons. She had no way of knowing I hate the “do you like China” question. The way I deal with it now is by saying, “Yes, I do. Do you?” Then I go around and ask each Chinese person in the room if they like China. I think it’s funny and Chinese people just think it is insane to ask them if they like China. The answer is so obvious, that they can’t even say it. I usually have to ask several times in order to get an answer. On that night, I said, “Yes, I do.” Then I immediately asked the Chinese guy standing next to me. “Do you like China?” Before he could answer, the girl butted in, “The foreigner is asking you if you have ever been to another country.” “No, I am not.” I interrupted. “I am asking if you like China.” Once again, the girl jumped in. “The foreigner is asking you if you would ever change your passport.” To which, the guy answered, “No.”
Now, what had started as a very small joke was turning into something ugly. I don’t like to be controlled, put down or insulted. I said to the guy, “I didn’t ask that. I asked if you like China.” Once again, the girl began to explain what I mean, when I cut her off and said, “You asked me if I liked China. Now I am asking him if he likes China. What’s the problem?” She looked both confused and frightened. The boy timidly answered, “Yes, I like China.”
The whole incident left me really angry. I use my funny questions as a way of breaking the ice and making friends with people. Also, by asking everyone the same question they ask me, I am showing that we are all the same. Why does it make sense to ask me if I like China but not to ask others? If you do that, then you are separating me from the group, rather than including me. But now, people saw me get angry. And in China, they NEVER try to understand what actually made you angry. They only know that you are angry and will steer clear of you. This exact pathology could play out ten more times and no one will ever come up with the theory, “Maybe he gets angry when we butt into his conversations and translate.” Instead, they will only understand, don’t talk to him he hates elevators.
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at amazon.com. The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army. The book is available at http://www.blackbeltmag.com/warrior_odyssey
See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on http://www.blackbeltmag.com
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