“Please… Enjoy my horrible dish!” (“請多指教小人的拙菜”)

If you ever happen to attend a Chinese immigrant’s dinner party, and when you are about to dive into to what seems like a delicious meal, chances are, you may hear the chef saying something like what the title suggested. The literal translation for the Chinese expression above is “Please advise me in this horrible food created by little me.” 

I bet this is very confusing for the westerners. For the sake of explanation, it is an expression of modesty. This kind of expression applies to any creative work, not just culinary, when a Chinese person presents to his/her guests and strangers. 

 

Statue of Confucius
Confucius (551 – 479 B.C.)
The ancient Chinese philosophers taught us to be humble: Modesty is a virtue — even when we know we’ve done good. Because, the more we are humble, the more we are to listen. The more we listen, the more we learn. The more we learn, the more we improve. 

The word “proud” (驕傲,)in Chinese, has a shared character “傲” with the word “arrogance” (傲慢.)  It makes sense because pride, when not curbed, can easily become arrogance, which is detrimental to one’s self-improvement. So we, the Chinese, have been taught from very young age to be humble at all situations, and to avoid any chance for ourselves to become arrogant. 

A very good example here: With the western influence, only the latest generations of Chinese people had begun to admit that they are proud of their children. Because, in the ancient Chinese language, one would refer his son as “犬子” –meaning “dog-son”– when conversing with other people.

In the western world, display of humbleness would often be mistaken as passiveness, weakness, cowardice, lack of self confidence, or even lack of self esteem  (“自尊”).  Thus, when the Chinese are modest about their achievements, they often do not get the respect they deserve. It maybe the reason why the Chinese government decided to show off during the opening ceremony of 2008 Olympics.

Here’s another related social interaction case:  When someone pays a Chinese person compliment, the Chinese does not say “thank you” but, instead, he/she says “I do not deserve this,” or say nothing at all, or play deaf. The reason is simple: With humility in their every being, the Chinese may feel that the praises would feed into their ego. And, in order to prevent themselves from becoming arrogant, they would shy away from the compliment. This reaction therefore could easily be wrongly perceived by the westerners, and the poor Chinese person could wear a hat as an “unappreciative jerk.” 

So when you see Chinese people being modest about their success, it’s is not them being dishonest, nor being unappreciative–It’s them being Chinese. 

The Chinese community, however, has been more aware of this cultural difference that caused them lots of missed opportunities. So there have been many discussion forums and articles written to inform everyone to accept compliments with gratitude. There are also warnings about being overly modest in a competitive situation, such as a job interview. 

By the way, the Chinese government’s grandiose display during the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony, and its lavish spending on new constructions for the event, is nothing short of an arrogant exhibition… In my most humble opinion.

References:

“Why do Chinese people humble when they hear words of praise” (中國人為什麼聽到讚美的話會謙虛?) 

Excerpt from “Not reconciling lost of competition to the witty: Wittiness is ability, understanding silence is wisdom.” (”輸給會說話的人不甘心:會說話是能力,懂沉默是智慧“) 

“The authenticity of modesty to progress of self-improvement” (謙虛使人進步的真偽與對錯)

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