Anecdotes & Reflections, Chinese Lessons, Mandarin Courses in Singapore

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Why are hundreds of Harvard students studying ancient Chinese philosophy?

This is an article published in The Atlantic, Oct 8, 2013.

Below are some interesting parts of it:-

"His (Michael Puett's) lectures use Chinese thought in the context of contemporary American life to help 18- and 19-year-olds who are struggling to find their place in the world figure out how to be good human beings; how to create a good society; how to have a flourishing life. 

"Puett tells his students that being calculating and rationally deciding on plans is precisely the wrong way to make any sort of important life decision. The Chinese philosophers they are reading would say that this strategy makes it harder to remain open to other possibilities that don’t fit into that plan. Students who do this 'are not paying enough attention to the daily things that actually invigorate and inspire them, out of which could come a really fulfilling, exciting life,' he explains. If what excites a student is not the same as what he has decided is best for him, he becomes trapped on a misguided path, slated to begin an unfulfilling career. Puett aims to open his students’ eyes to a different way to approach everything from relationships to career decisions. 

"He teaches them that:  

The smallest actions have the most profound ramifications.

Decisions are made from the heart. 

If the body leads, the mind will follow. "

the link for the full article

Hello I am here

Kelly - “I was entering this big shopping mall, pushing my baby in a buggy. I was holding the door  and people just passed by and I was holding the door for about ten minutes. Finally I had to say, ‘hello, anybody helps? I have got a baby.’ Then the people around noticed me and got embarrassed and said ‘sorry, sorry’ and came to hold the door so that I could leave.”

Sue - “I was walking along a narrow lane and met a girl. This girl simply ignored me and didn’t give way. I had to step aside and let her pass. I feel hurt.”

Monica- “There are not many people in my condominium. I rarely meet anyone at the basement car park. Once I happened to meet this Chinese lady at the car park. She looked me up and down and our eyes met. And then she averted her eyes aside with no expression. So I had to say ‘hello, I am here. Good morning.’ She was surprised and had to said ‘good morning’.  I feel so hurt.”

I feel sorry for all the unpleasant occasions. I will not try to justify all these. Anyway Chinese are not known for politeness, not yet. My explanation will only help you to understand the reasons and feel less hurt.

China is a crowded country. There are way too many people. We have learnt to ignore strangers and are very insensitive to the people surrounding us.

In Kelly’s case, since there were non-stopping flows of people coming in and out, if she had let go the door, someone would have immediately hold it. She was unlikely to bang anyone by letting go too quickly.  So the people did not realize that Kelly had been holding the door as a courtesy and for quite a while. They might have thought she was holding for her family to enter. They did feel sorry when they realized what was happening.

Similarly, in Sue’s case, the girl might not realize that she was blocking the way and should have given some room for Sue to pass. Chinese are just so used to blocking and being blocked but it was the least likely that the girl was trying to show contempt to Sue.

In Monica's case, the Chinese lady was neither friendly nor natural. But that is something some Chinese might do. We have friendly and unfriendly people too.

In China, greeting strangers is uncommon. They will remain cold and aloof until they start exchanging a few words. Eye contact does not really count. (But looking people up and down is not considered as a good practice. ) But once two strangers start talking, they will soon warm up and keep the conversation going for a while.

Once I mentioned to some Chinese about how the no-greeting-to-strangers practice upsets the westerners, they were quite shocked and said “ooh, we have never realized that!” Then they laughed and commented, “wouldn’t it be too tiring if you greet every stranger along the street?” I guess no if you greet 30 a day but yes if it is 300 and with some content.

If you want Chinese to warm up and the ice melt, start chatting a bit with them.  But if they are not someone you would care to chat with…you can ignore them, too.

Still, if you smile and greet a Chinese you don’t know, how would they feel? In most cases, they will feel pleased. But  "haven’t you heard about cheats who will greet you with all smiles it will do no harm to be a bit cautious…"


When to give hongbao (angbao) the red pack?

Hongbao (Angbao in Hokkien), a small red pack filled with some banknotes, is a token of good wishes for Chinese. The idea is for those who fare better to give those in need. During Chinese Lunar New Year, Chinese will give Hongbao to their kids and friends’ kids or a kid in your neighborhood whom you like. Usually the kid is supposed to wish you happy new year before you give the hongbao. Chinese also give their parents hongbao, if they need money. If your parents fare quite well, you don't need to give. Employers will give to their employees to express good wishes.  The amount of money in hongbao depends on how close the relationship is and the local practice.

If you are a manager and would like to follow the local practice, you may give out hongbao to your team on the first day back to office after Chinese New Year. In Singapore, the amount in the hongbao for this occasion is S$8 to S$20. If one employee is particular helpful, you may want to put hundreds or thousands depending on how you feel. I know some successful stockbrokers once gave tens of thousands of dollars in one red pack. Nice.

If your colleague gets married and invites you to his/her wedding, you are supposed to give a hongbao at the wedding at the entrance. If he/she doesn’t invite you, you can  keep your money. Ask other colleagues for an idea about the amount you should put into the wedding hongbao. Usually it is S$60 if the wedding is hold at a moderate hotel and S$100 for a more expensive venue. If you are the boss of the bride or bridegroom, you are supposed to give more. Engagement does not involve red packs. Remember if you are to get married, you are supposed to receive hongbao, not to give. 

If you get a hongbao, you should not open it in front of the giver. 

In China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, people give hongbao when friends or relatives or any important people with social connections give birth to a child, celebrate their ‘big’ birthdays such as 50, 60 or 70, or celebrate thier kids’s marriage. Sometimes the amount people are supposed to put inside the hongbao are very alarming even devastating. So next time when you or your child get married, remember to invite those who invited you and burnt a hole in your wallet. You have to revenge and get your money back.


You should register but you can’t register

“My daughter and her Yale schoolmates went to an orphanage as volunteers. The first two days were great. On the third day the police came and said they could not work there. My daughter and her schoolmates said, ‘No, we are not working here. We are volunteers. No one gives us money.’ For three days the police were there. Some started chatting with the volunteers and said you should register you know. The volunteers were happy and said, ‘Great! We could do that’. But the police then said ‘No, no, no, you can’t register.’ Any way the volunteers had to leave in three days.”

The explanation here is that we need to know whether the policeman expressed his personal opinion or an authoritative request. It’s pretty clear that the policeman said “you should register”at a moment of empathy. It is always wise to comply with the authority.

What the policeman suggested was also about right procedure and timing. He was saying that It was wrong for these students to come without any prior approval from the government. Now it was too late. 

How long would have the government approved if they had registered beforehand? Not very long I think. Maybe it was just 5 days. 


Sell your kidney and buy an iPhone

Recently I told this story about iPhone to two clients. I had to swear all I said was true before they believed me.

A 17-year-old boy in China had been dreaming of owing an iPhone. Although every single person out of 1400 Chinese is a multi-millionaire,  according to Hurun Report compiled by Rupert Hoogewerf, this boy unluckily belongs to the majority – the people who can’t afford an iPhone.

What is special about the boy was that he decided to turn his dream into reality no matter what it would cost – even if it would cost his kidney.

He spotted an advertisement on a newspaper, saying healthy kidneys were wanted. So he replied and eventually travelled far to get one of his kidneys transplanted to a patient. The price was 35,000yuan.

He fulfilled his iPhone dream but that was not the happy-ever-after. It turned out that the kidney left to him was not healthy and can barely maintain his life.

The illegal transaction was exposed and 7 men were imprisoned and had to pay the boy extra 1,479,666 yuan as indemnification.

The boy got an iPhone, an iPad, the rest of the money, and a life long imprisonment in illness.

A SaleLand survey discloses that three percent of the 550 respondents said they   would happily ditch their current love if they got the newest iPhone in return.  SaleLand spokesman called this ‘unexpected’.

What if a kidney?


Gifts not opened

"My Chinese friend didn’t even look at the present I gave her."

It’s considered as impolite to open a present immediately or in front of the gift-giver. Why?

There are a few possible explanations; firstly, Chinese people don’t want to appear greedy (even if we are); secondly, we don’t want to make the present-giver lose his/her face if the present is lousy or if we don’t like it; thirdly, it can indicate that I appreciate the relationship, not the present and I am grateful whatever you give me; finally, it may be a secret between you and me and I don’t want to make it public! 

Do Chinese eventually look at what you give? Of course! we will look behind you. We do appreciate this friendliness as much as everyone else does although we may express a bit differently from others. We are grateful and will remember by heart. It just takes a bit longer time for you to notice. 

Traditionally, the Chinese should decline a present a few times before accepting it. They may also truly decline it if they think the relationship is not that close or the situation is not appropriate. 

The ritual of offering a gift thus may become very tiring because of all the declining and insisting. So some people may choose not to mention it at all if they are visitors and simply leave the present at a corner. Be rest-assured! The host will find out soon and may either call to say thank-you  or give something back to express their appreciation.


No problem at all

“I have a friend, who works for an electronics related company in Europe. This company has recently bought another company in China. The European headquarter is quite happy about the work done by the Chinese engineers, but they do have some difficulties in cooperating.

There were many facets of this, here is one. The main office in Europe would like to be informed as early as possible about emerging problems - but as it is, they never hear anything from the China branch except that everything is going well, even when things are going wrong. It seems that the Chinese are afraid of losing face and hide difficulties from the main office for as long as possible, which is not what the company wants.

My theory is that this is about break down of communication, and cultural differences. Does anyone here have any ideas about how to solve the problem, so that the main office gets early warnings about problems, and the Chinese branch does not lose face?” (A question from a Chinese forum)

Answer: We have to be cautious about dismissing a problem as a cultural difference. There are cultural factors here, but it can be a problem of less efficient working style and a fear to take responsibilities. 

The possible solution is to explain that reporting problems does not necessarily lead to criticism or penalties; instead an early report will be awarded. The management may train the Chinese staff to identify what problems may arise and how to react. A close follow-up is necessary for being kept informed.

The management may also request regular reports about problems, instead of reporting only when problems come up. It’s easier for a Chinese person to follow the norm than being the first one to tell ‘secrets’.

Finally, it helps to establish a more private relationship with the China team by arranging drinks, dinners, outings, or even Karaoke sessions!  After that, they will feel more relaxed and easy to open up in business. Private and business relationships are usually reciprocal in China.


To get rich is glorious

"My Chinese colleagues asked how much my dress, my watch even my house cost."

Chinese people like to talk about money and talk about it openly. Questions about cost come up automatically and ‘naturally’. To most Chinese people, it’s just another topic to chat about. The motive can be curiosity or information gathering. If you get a good bargain, you may share where and how you got it. If not you may smile and say friendly, “I won’t tell you”.

This social behavior may be associated with the Chinese people’s blatant desire for wealth, which is a bit of tasteless to most westerners. The possible reason may come from history, in that most overseas Chinese people began their working life as coolies and later started their own businesses with the belief that money was essential for good lives and social status. While in China back to 30 years ago, when everyone is equal and equally poor, it is not a big deal to ask about income and cost. 

The west is also surprised by Deng Xiaoping’s quote, “To get rich is glorious.”  It is understood that Deng Xiaoping said that in late 1970’s, when most Mainland China leaders and the masses believed that money and capitalism were devils and it was shameful, even a sin, to be rich (different from the overseas Chinese’ convictions) and the rich and the once-was-rich were persecuted.

30 years passes and Deng's quote is no longer apostatical. Chinese people now check around for others' income and life to make sure they are not too far off.  It is a source of motivation for hardworking and a source of frustration too.  The Chinese may need a different quote now.

Which is the given name?

Most Chinese have three names and some have two. The first name is the family name. The second and third names are all given names and should be used together. The second names/middle names were originally used to identify generations when a big family formed a village (villagers were not allowed to marry within the village to ensure healthy offsprings).  The middle names followed a family name rule, which was usually one meaningful sentence expressing a wish for a flourishing family. Each generation would use one of the characters from the sentence as a middle name. The third name was given by parents. The middle name rule is only partially practiced now in some families who give all the sons or daughters the same middle names. It becomes more an individual choice rather than a social rule. 

The Chinese put family names at the beginning for the same reason as Westerners put given names first. In Greater China, family names are expected to be used to address one another. Given names are used only among family and close friends.  Family names are usually common and easy to remember but given names vary. It’s not uncommon for a Chinese person to know another’s family name but not the given name, which is unusual for westerners.

Singaporeans extend the use of given names to colleagues and acquaintances because of the influence of English.


What do you want?

If you ask an Australian “What do you want?” you will get an answer. If you ask a Chinese person the same question, you probably won’t get a proper answer. 

The explanation is that after the question is translated into Chinese, it may have a different meaning depending on the contexts. It is a good question in restaurants or shops (if you are the service person), but can be a threat in a meeting room.  If so, Chinese people will be too busy figuring out why you are offended to think about what they want. How do I know what they want then? Get them to talk about themselves and ask “do you want me to do this…and this?” They may start telling you or at least trying to work things out with you. To help them find out what they need is part of your job, isn’t it?


These are anecdotes and reflections our clients shared with us, and our answers to some of their questions.  They happened when our clients worked in their Asia-Pacific Offices in Singapore. Our clients’ jobs here involve lots of communication with clients, partners and teams in Greater China, India, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries in this region.