The Red Pajamas
Every visitor to China forms their own unique opinion, and foreign-born residents tend to fancy themselves “China experts” within the space of a couple of months or so. As they stay longer, their authoritative claims of understanding China tend to become less assertive. Observations made by foreign visitors and even longtime residents are invariably tainted by their own expectations and cultural backgrounds.
I am no exception. I have revised my understanding, or rather misunderstanding, of Chinese people, society and culture over and over again.
I enjoyed pondering the sights passing by the window of the train taking me from Guangzhou to Beijing on my first visit to China in October 1975 as a scholarship student.
China was not a rich country. Dried mud supplemented bricks as building material in villages. The cities were over-crowded with a steady flow of people on every street, either on foot or bicycles. The only sharp or shining colors to be found were on red flags and banners.
People dressed simply. I remember thinking that the green, blue or gray outfits might be economical. They could be mass-produced and didn't require any expensive materials.
Rural roads were narrow and seemed to facilitate more horse-drawn carts than trucks. Some people rode bicycles, but not as many as I had expected. Three-wheeled vehicles and tractors were common. That preserved resources, I thought. They didn't seem very safe, though. Overcrowded buses shuttled down streets, but hardly any sedans could be found.
I don’t think anyone at that time imagined that China's streets would soon be filled with private cars. I didn't either. The concept of private cars starkly contrasted with the egalitarian ideology of the Mao era before reform policies were introduced at the end of the 1970s. Besides, I guessed that there were not enough resources in China for the wasteful mass consumption of the Western world. It was inconceivable that car traffic would ever supplant the flow of bicycles in Chinese cities.
Have You Eaten?
It took some time to adjust to the most common greeting, which involves asking whether the other person has eaten: Chi fan le ma? Gradually, I realized that this kind of greeting, which remains common in Beijing, is primarily reserved for people you know.
People you don’t know should be greeted by stating that they are good: “Ni hao,” which literally means “you are good.” It sounds like an answer to the English greeting “How do you do?” or “How are you?”
Greeting friends does not necessarily have to relate to eating, however. Other personal questions are just as acceptable. If you see a friend coming out of a shower room with wet hair, you can ask if he has showered. Upon meeting someone exiting his front door in the morning, you can ask if he just woke up.
It used to be polite to tell people that they have put on weight, but with changing lifestyles, most would probably prefer to be informed that they have lost weight. The point is to show personal concern.
Asking about family is normal. Your family relations define who you are. Information about brothers or sisters is invariably followed up with question about their age: “Are they older or younger than you?” I am the oldest of four children in my family. This factor seemed important to my Chinese friends.
It took me years to understand this obsession with age. Gradually, I came to realize that the age order is crucial in Chinese culture. Older siblings have the responsibility of protecting and guiding their younger sisters and brothers, who in turn should show respect for their elders and follow their advice.
Boiled Water or Tap Water
Upon arriving at my school, I discovered that as a scholarship student, I got my own wash basin, washing board, water cup, thermos and bedding. These were valuable items and I would have to return them after finishing my studies.
A Chinese student who had been studying English for a year showed me around the premises. I asked him about the drinking water. Would I be able to drink the tap water at the dormitory?
My parents had not expressed any specific worries about my adventure to China to study, except for the distance and the drinking water. We drink water directly from the tap in Iceland. I asked my student guide if it was okay to drink the tap water at the school. He took me down to the boiling room, where residents could get boiled water directly from the boiler 24 hours a day.
But he didn’t understand my question. We went up to the washing room and I asked if the water there was drinkable. He looked puzzled. Sure, it would be drinkable, but hot water was only available in the afternoon, and it was still not really hot enough for drinking.
I specified cold water and repeated the question. Would I be able to drink cold tap water? My friend was at a loss. Why on earth would I want to drink cold water? Maybe it was possible. He had never tried it, because it was not as good or healthy as hot water.
It was interactions like these that helped me understand that most cultural differences had nothing to do with politics.
A couple of weeks after arriving at Beijing Language Institute (later renamed Beijing Culture and Language University), I got a Chinese roommate, Xiao Zhao, who was studying English. We were expected to help each other with our studies. His English was basic and my Chinese almost non-existent. In the beginning, we relied on dictionaries for communication.
My mother had sent along with me a pair of bright red pajamas. She insisted that she got them for a good price, and that the color had nothing to do with politics. As I changed into my pajamas in the evening, I noticed my roommate watching. He didn't wear pajamas. He would just put on more clothes if it was cold.
It seemed to me that he was smirking; in fact he was trying not to laugh. Finally, I asked why he was laughing. He responded by asking if I was going anywhere. If not, why was I changing clothes?
I thought he had a point. There was no need to dress up to sleep. Anyway, my mother was nowhere around to check up on me. So, I stopped changing into pajamas in the evening.
When I reviewed this episode in my mind four decades later, I eventually realized that I had misunderstood the mirth of my roommate. Red is a festive color in Chinese culture. My bright red pajamas had exactly the same color as traditional Chinese wedding costumes. No wonder my roommate found it funny.
The author is an Icelandic diplomat who studied in China in the 1970s. He is also the author of the book Nineteen Seventy-Six.