Why is it that when you study a foreign language, you never learn the little phrases that let you slip into a culture without all your foreign edges exposed? Every Chinese-language textbook starts out with the standard phrase for greeting people; but as an American, I constantly found myself tongue-tied when it came to seeing guests off at the door. An abrupt goodbye would not do, yet that was all I had ever learned from the awful books. So I would smile and nod, bowing like a Japanese and groping frantically for words that would smooth over the visitors' leaving and make them feel they would be welcome to come again. In my fluster, I often hid behind the skirts of my Chinese husband's graciousness.
Then finally, listening to others, I began to pick up the phrases that eased relations and sent people off with a feeling of mission not only accomplished but surpassed.
Partings for the Chinese involve a certain amount of ritual and a great deal of one-upmanship. Although I'm not expected to observe or even know all the rules, as a foreigner, I've had to learn the expressions of politeness and protest that accompany a leave-taking.
The Chinese feel they must see a guest off to the farthest feasible point - down fights of stairs to the street below or perhaps all the way to the nearest bus stop. I've sometimes waited half an hour or more for my husband to return from seeing a guest off, since he's gone to the bus stop and waited for the next bus to arrive.
For a less important or perhaps a younger guest, he may simply say, ''I won't see you off, all right?'' And of course the guest assures him that he would never think of putting him to the trouble of seeing him off. ''Don't see me off! Don't see me off!''
That's all very well, but when I'm the guest being seen off, invariably my protests are to no avail, and my hostess or host, or both, insists on seeing me down the stairs and well on my way, with our going through the ''Don't bother to see me off'' ritual at every landing. If I try to go fast to discourage them from following, they are simply put to the discomfort of having to flee after me. Better to accept the inevitable.
Besides, that's going against Chinese custom, because haste is to be avoided. What do you say when you part from someone? ''Go slowly.'' Not farewell or Godspeed, but ''Go slowly.'' To the Chinese it means ''Take care'' or ''Watch your step'' or some such caution, but translated literally it means ''Go slow.''
That same ''slow'' is used in another polite expression used by the host at the end of a particularly bountiful and delicious meal to assure his guests what a poor and inadequate host he has been.
American and Chinese cultures are at polar opposites. An American hostess, complimented for her culinary skills, is likely to say, ''Oh, I'm so glad you liked it. I cooked it especially for you.'' Not so a Chinese host or hostess (often the husband does the fancy cooking), who will instead apologize profusely for giving you ''nothing'' even slightly edible and for not showing you enough honor by providing proper dishes.
The same rules hold true with regard to children. American parents speak proudly of their children's accomplishments, telling how Johnny made the school team or Jane made the honor roll. Not so Chinese parents, whose children, even if at the top of their class in school, are always so ''naughty,'' never studying, never listening to their elders, and so forth.
The Chinese take pride in ''modesty''; the Americans in ''straightforwardness.'' That modesty has left many a Chinese hungry at an American table, for Chinese politeness calls for three refusals before one accepts an offer, and the American hosts take a ''no'' to mean ''no,'' whether it's the first, second, or third time.
Recently, a member of a delegation sent to China by a large American corporation complained to me about how the Chinese had asked them three times if they would be willing to modify some proposal, and each time the Americans had said ''no'' clearly and definitely. My friend was incensed that the Chinese had not taken their word the first time. I recognized the problem immediately and wondered why the Americans had not studied up on cultural differences before coming to China. It would have saved them a lot of perplexity and needless frustration in their negotiations.
Once you've learned the signals and how to respond, life becomes infinitely easier. When guests come, I know I should immediately ask if they'd like a cup of tea. They will respond, ''Please don't bother,'' which is my signal to fetch tea.