Having never traveled to the Far East- most Westerners experience with the ancient and enchanting country of China are confined to the printed pages of an old, tattered middle school textbook or the buffet line at the local Won Ton Lo Chinese-American restaurant. The school textbook pages often depict just the “silk and swords” version of the Middle Kingdom of yesteryear where one dynasty begins, one dynasty ends, one dynasty begins, one dynasty ends, one dynasty begins- ad infinitum. Residents of some of the larger, metropolitan cities of the West are able to experience Chinese culture to varying degrees as they have Chinese settlements. If one is lucky to be raised in a large Western metropolitan city like Chicago, London, Vancouver or New York City- then they can stop by “Chinatown” and attend the annual Chinese New Year festival and witness all the fireworks and lion dances. But with over 5,000 years of civilization- there is obviously much more China- then silk and swords, fireworks and fortune cookies.
“Modern-day Marco Polos” who set sail for today’s China meet and greet a kaleidoscope of change almost impossible to keep up with- Chinese tour brochures are often outdated soon after they are printed. It was American humorist Will Rogers who once said, “Trouble with me is I had been in China too long. If I had stayed a couple of days, I would have a better idea of China…The more you see, the less you know”. Will Roger’s statement from long ago may still be true. Even as China opens its doors to the Western World, China is still a mysterious, intriguing, yet faraway place that few people know and few have been to and changing faster then time-lapse photography.
Children of the Western World might read all about one of their favorite new seven wonders of the world in China in their textbooks- the miraculous Great Wall. The Great Wall, that slinky serpentine and marvelous monolith is miraculously cemented together in sections with egg whites and gluttonous rice- and still stands proudly today. Sadly, to the “laowai” or foreigner - great wall can have a second less then uplifting meaning. Having little or no knowledge of Mandarin or Cantonese the “Great Wall” represents a “Great Wall and Barrier to Communication” to many new arrivals to Mainland China- a forbidden city of culture differences the foreigner cannot pass. The lack of understanding between the customs of the East and West separates the two cultures unnecessarily. (For example, in the West, natives would prefer to eat egg whites and gluttonous rice- and lots of it- and not use food for building materials). Yet, Great Walls, Forbidden Cities and Culture Shock of China need not scare the newbie foreigner even though it seems the Western media might lead one to believe otherwise.. The American weekly “Newsweek” magazine ran a 20 page article a few years back entitled “Who’s Afraid of China? Most Everybody”. Not exactly the most diplomatic approach to positive foreign relations. China can be warm, wondrous and inviting if you approach your visit with patience, persistence and an open mind.
China is a proud multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious country with 1.4 billion people- host to nearly 1/5 of the world’s population. The Chinese have a long and storied history that they are quite proud of dating back 5000 years and a language comprised of 50,000 characters called “pictograms”- individual symbols for ideas and pictures. The dialects in China are as numerous as the 56 ethnic groups including the Yi, The Urgyr, the Miao, the Hui, the Zhaung, the Lisu, the Dour and the Yao to name a few. (Wow! I didn’t know former NBA basketball star and Shanghai native Yao Ming had his own tribe the Yaos- I bet there are thousands of them).
Getting along with the Chinese is actually quite easy. Novice or newcomer, backpacker or businessman- all you need to know is one five letter word. Once you know the secret password in China it won’t matter if you are in Urumqi, Tianjin, Hangzhou or Xi’an, you will find your way around with astounding ease. Frequent utilization of this five letter magic masterpiece is THE time-tested and foolproof way travel. Skip the rote memorization of Chinese travel phrases and throw out your “Learn Chinese in 100 Days” tapes- all you really need in China is to listen closely for a five letter universal greeting that acknowledges foreigners, friends, strangers and passersby alike:
That magic word is “Hello”
“Hello” can have an infinite variety of meanings depending on the time, inflections and the context of what is being said. The word “hello” in China can run the full spectrum from sad or glad to approving or apprehensive to serious or serendipitous. Just listen for the word “hello”. Similar to an ad for Mastercard: “Cost of a Mandarin Chinese Class- 1000 US Dollars. Cost of flight to Beijing 700 US Dollars. Learning to Communicate with the word “Hello”- Priceless.”
Hello from a parent in a foreign language bookstore means “please let our son practice some of his newly learned English phrases, Mr. Foreigner”
Hello from a street vendor in an open market means “please come buy something in my booth, Mr. Foreigner”
Hello from a street vendor after leaving an open market means “Mr. Foreigner, why didn’t you buy anything”.
Hello from a teenager at McDonalds wearing a shirt with English across the front and carrying a basketball means “I really like your Western ways, Mr. Foreigner”
Hello from a neighbor in your apartment complex that you see at the same time everyday means “Welcome to the community, Mr. Foreigner”
Hello from giggly school-age girls while running means “we just learned some English today but we are too embarrassed to try it on you, Mr. Foreigner”
Hello from a stranger who walks beside you for two blocks without asking means “Mr. Foreigner, do you want a massage, a taxi or a suit?”
Hello from a good Samaritan in a restaurant as you walk out the door means ”Wait a minute, Mr. Foreigner. You forgot your glasses and umbrella”
Hello from an angry young man followed by muttering in Chinese louder and louder means “Why don’t you try learning some Chinese, Mr. Foreigner?”
Hello from the man down on his luck that you unintentionally pass means “Mr. Foreigner, can you spare 10 yuan?”
Hello from a nice woman with a searching look means “I wish I knew more English to talk with you, Mr. Foreigner”
Hello from a young couple followed by a few English sentences actually is closest to its original meaning of a greeting upon the introduction of two parties.
Hello from a beaming mother with her newborn waving her daughter’s chubby little pink hand means “my baby is too young to speak but if she could she would say “hello” to you, Mr. Foreigner!”
The word “hello” is the ultimate icebreaker in conversation For one, 90% of the Mandarin speaking, non-English speaking, Chinese mainland citizens possess this valuable word in their verbal repertoire of English. With an estimated population of 1.4 billion in China and 9 out of 10 citizens knowing the word “hello”- then it stands to reason that approximately 1 billion citizens in the People’s Republic of China can say and use “hello” on a regular basis. Confucius once said “A Journey of 1000 Miles Begins With a Single Step”.
“Hello” is that first step.
There are approximately 600,000 foreigners living and working in China. By virtue of
trying to assimilate to this wonderous and mysterious culture of the Far East
600,000 foreign experts have already said “hello” to China
And China is saying HELLO back.
The first introductory “Hello” came under the tutelage of Deng Xiaopeng in 1978 as China opened its doors to the Western world. China opened its borders establishing diplomatic relations with its 14 neighbors including Nepal, Vietnam, Pakistan, Russia, India and Tajikistan -to name a few. Seems China establishes or strengthens diplomatic ties with a new country on a weekly basis. China’s quest toward modernization and globalization continues today under the new leadership of Xi Jinping. In the spirit of friendly cooperation toward China U.S. President Barack Obama recently signed the “100,000 Initiative”- a pledge to send 100,000 U.S. Students to study in China.
The second introductory “Hello” came at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. On the official Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Website- the essence of the Olympic Games and Olympic Spirit was captured quite well with the and the “One World-One Spirit” slogan: “…Unity, Friendship, Progress, Harmony, Participation, and Dream. It represents the wishes of all people all over the world inspired by Olympic ideals to strive for a bright future of Mankind”. The pomp and pageantry of Zhang Yimou’s Opening Ceremony was a clarion call to the world that in China - the best is yet to come.
The third“Hello” arrived at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. 189 Countries participated
in China- the most ever at a World Expo. Obscure and exotic locales like Oman, Sri
Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal showcased the best their countries had to offer. Spices and
sultans. Camels and Caravans. Princesses and Persian rugs. Every pavilion featured an
authentic experience from each participating country. Ferries on the Huangpu River
provided seemless transporation between the pavilions.
Not bad for a country for a country with a 5,000 year history that just opened to the west
just 35 years ago.
Isn’t it all quite ironic? Very ironic, indeed. The Great Wall of China which was originally designed to keep foreigners out is now the main reason they come to China- 10 million visit the Great Wall every year.
The imaginary barriers between East and West will continue to fall under Xi Jinping and the New China will be the 8th wonder to the world for all to see.
All you have to do is remember to say “hello”.
Jeff Walsh is an English Teacher at Jilin Normal University in Siping. Walsh is originally from Chicago, U.S.A.