My lovely Chinese wife came to Sweden with her family at age seven and grew up here. This has given her an unusual level of bicultural competence. I like to quip, lewdly, that she’s a dual boot machine with two operating systems and the most awesome hardware, man. She’s like this typical bright Swedish middle-class chick who somehow happens to know everything about China and looks like an Imperial princess.
So I can’t really say that we have grappled with and overcome our cultural differences. She pretty much does that for me on her own. But there are some details where our different upbringings do show. Having read Vinlusen’s recent blog entry, my wife encouraged me to write a few words about manners in the home.
An American acquaintance with a Chinese wife once complained to us, “I really wish she would quit ordering me around”. That made me laugh. What this is really about is that the Chinese don’t use polite figures of speech with their families. Indeed, they may be offended by them as such phrases mark an unwanted distance. You don’t say “Please pass me the salt” to your mom, you say “Pass the salt”. My wife does that all the time with me, straight imperatives, and I often complete the sentence for her with a joke to soften the impact of what I can’t help but perceive as rudeness. She’ll say “Pass the salt” and I’ll pass it, replying “…or I will cut your balls off”. Then we’ll laugh.
My wife once made the mistake of translating a Swedish figure of polite speech when talking to her mom in Chinese. She said, “Could you pass me the salt?” (OK, maybe it wasn’t the salt that one time.) Her mother reacted really badly, as the connotations of such a question in Chinese, when directed at your mom, is basically “Tell me, are you at all capable of passing me the salt, or are you an invalid?”.
In the kitchen, my wife really doesn’t like it when I apologise for pushing her to the side when I need to get something out of the sauce pan cupboard. The correct way to do this in the intimacy of a Chinese family situation is to shove her gently out of the way without as much as a grunt. Apologising puts her on the level of a cleaning lady.
But she tries to remember my Swedish manners, and usually she gets it right. She knows I really need to hear please, thanks and sorry sometimes or I’ll feel mistreated. But every now and then she gets it backwards to comic effect. Once she tried a half-remembered “Would you be so good as to pass me the salt?”. It came out as “You may pass me the salt…” Then she hesitated, clearly feeling that she’d dropped some part of the phrase. So she finished it, ” … if you’re good”.