On your first day in China, the director will hand you a script. And you would do well to follow that script, at least until you have all your lines memorized, or until you've learned enough of the language to improvise.
But improvise at your own peril. In my experience, deviating from the script only ruffles the feathers of the other actors, and actors are a delicate bunch. For them, the script is fixed and immutable. People change but the script does not. Not much, anyway. The script may mutate ever so slightly over the course of thousands of years, but I have run into some Chinese dudes at the park who were at least a thousand years old, and they followed pretty much the same script that my students do.
The script looks like this:
Chinese Person: Hello.
You (The Foreigner): Hello.
CP: Hey, your Chinese is really not too bad!
You: Oh, pshaw. My Chinese is lousy.
CP: What country are you from?
CP: Are you a teacher or a student?
You: A teacher.
CP: Do you teach English?
CP: How much money do you make?
You: 1,500 bucks a month.
CP: US dollars?
You: No. Chinese RMB.
CP: Impossible! That's not enough money!
You: I know. But I'm a volunteer.
CP: A what?
You: A vol-un-TEER.
You: A vol-UN-teer.
CP: ... I don't understand.
You: A VOL-un- ... teer?
CP: Oh! You mean a VOL-un-TEER!
CP: [shaking head] Not enough money.
CP: How long have you been in China?
You: About a year.
CP: Have you gotten used to Our China?
CP: Do you like Chinese food?
CP: Are you married?
CP: Do you have a Chinese girlfriend?
CP: You should get one.
You: Maybe I should.
CP: Do you think Chinese girls are beautiful?
You: Yes. Very beautiful.
CP: You should get a Chinese girlfriend. Then you can stay in China forever.
The above questions may come at you in a variety of accents, or in a slightly different order - but the script almost always begins with Your Chinese and Your Country of Origin, moves on to Your Job and Your Puny Salary, Whether or Not You Like China, and then, finally, Whether or Not You're Planning on Anchoring Yourself Via Ye Olde Ball and Chain to China Forever.
Other acceptable topics include the prosperity of America relative to China, the amount of time it takes to fly from China to America, the different places you have visited in China, and the length of Chinese history relative to our own negligible ancestry in the West. But these are not usually included in the script.
I am well acquainted with the script by now. I can recite it in my sleep, and sometimes I catch myself doing so. It's not that my Chinese is all that good - in fact, it has been languishing as of late. But I have mastered the script. At the very least, I know my lines. And that is because I have the exact same conversation countless times every day. That, incidentally, is the biggest reason why my Chinese is languishing: I am rarely allowed to deviate from the script.
About six months in, I threw away the script and started to dabble in deviation. If someone asked me where I was from, I would say "Nanchong," and laugh in a disarming enough way. And the conversation would drop like a dead duck. If someone asked me whether I liked Chinese girls, I would chuckle and say "Not really. They only seem to want me for my money." A dead pelican. "Have you gotten used to life in China?" "No, actually. It's kind of crowded, rather noisy, and people bother me all the time because I'm a foreigner." A dead ostrich.
The Chinese conversation is all about achieving the most harmonious pitch possible. Deviating from the script is like playing in the wrong key. In the West, our conversations are more like fugues. There are melodies and countermelodies, inversions and key changes, dissonance and consonance, agreements and disagreements. When you're talking to someone in China, you need not be interesting, but you must strive to be agreeable.
Questions like "Have you gotten used to life in Our China?" do not ask for an honest answer. If you say anything other than "Yes," you are sure to make your interlocutor very uncomfortable. Likewise with questions about Chinese members of the opposite sex, Chinese food, and China in general. You must express unflinching admiration for all things Chinese. It isn't necessarily that the Chinese are blind to their own flaws. Often, a Chinese person will observe that His or Her China is much poorer than Your America, but because it is the Chinese person making the observation, it is safe for you to agree. The most important thing is not political orthodoxy, but avoiding conflict, upholding the opinions of the person you are talking to. Above all else, you must be agreeable.
What happens when you're not? The conversation dies a sudden and awkward death. The other day, a cabbie asked me whether I made more money in China or in America. I laughed and said, "America, of course." Wrong answer. He fell silent. I tried to qualify the remark by adding, "You see, I'm a volunteer here. I don't make any money at all!" But it was too late. I had slighted His China with that inadvertently smug-sounding "of course" - I had lost him, and he didn't say a word to me the rest of the long cab ride home until he blurted out the fare. He didn't even say goodbye.
The same thing happened when I was asked for my thoughts on Chinese girls, and made the mistake of alluding to their avariciousness. I had been asked a question, so I decided to give an honest answer. The dude I was talking to nodded, looked down at his shoes, bid me farewell, and made his escape.
We follow a script in the West, as well. I'm not denying that. Very few people in your life really want to know how you're doing: the only real answer to "How are you?" is "Good." When talking to a stranger in the West, if you start all of a sudden unloading baggage about your ex-girlfriend, you're liable to be abandoned for a more appealing corner of the room. There are social penalties for throwing the script out the window. But the Western script is just a framework. It is the rhythm section, over which we improvise according to our whims. In China, the rhythm section is the music - and in that respect, it is conversational muzak. To my ears, at least.
It puzzles me, the script. I don't enjoy following it, least of all because I have to act out the same scene ten, twenty, thirty times a day. But the script is not something that changes, and it is not something any of us laowais can hope to change, not even by playing our own Ornette Coleman free jazz tenor solo over the muzak. The Chinese script is something that must be gotten used to. And at least in that sense, to answer your question, Mr. Cabbie, I suppose I have gotten used to Your China. I'm not quite cozy enough to live here forever, reciting the same script till I'm dead - but I suppose I'll just keep that to myself now, won't I?
[exeunt Mr. Panda, passenger side door]