That elusive Chinese word
In Mandarin, there are a hundred ways to skirt an unpleasant negative.
The three Americans in my Chinese language class shot one another quizzical looks. We were in our first month of Mandarin study at a university in Taipei, Taiwan, and all we wanted was a straight answer.
Teacher Huang, a cheerful devotee of Hollywood movies and hot-pink tennis shoes, had presented us with the following scenario: A man walks into a camera store and asks, "Which camera is cheapest?" The store owner holds up a German camera and says, "This one is nice."
From this non sequitur, we were meant to infer that the German camera was cheapest and say so in Chinese. "But," we protested, "the shop owner never mentioned a price!"
Teacher Huang rolled her eyes in exasperation. "You Westerners always want things to be so ... clear."
Yes, I'll admit it: I'm an American, and I like a direct response. I like to know "Why?" or "Why not?" I need unmuddled feedback so I know where I stand in places where the signposts of life might lead me astray.
But the Chinese take a different view. Clarity takes a back seat to smoothing over conflict or saving face, and, as I found during my year-long stay in Taiwan, there are a hundred ways to skirt an unpleasant "no."
In fact, there is no such word in Mandarin. To express a negative, the Chinese place the particle "bu" in front of a verb or adjective, as in bu yao (don't want), or bu hao (not good). To say you didn't like the latest Ang Lee film, a single word won't do.
Taiwanese acquaintances lobbed every conceivable variation in my direction.
When I asked my language partner if she could reschedule our weekly meeting for another afternoon, she came back with, "Bu fangbian" ("Not convenient.")
After a week of ominous weather reports, I asked my neighborhood 7-Eleven clerk if the typhoon would arrive on Saturday. "Bu yiding" ("not certain"), she said with a shrug.
Following a weekend trek in the hills outside Taipei, I asked a fellow hiker if I should turn east to get to the main road. "Bu qingchu" ("not clear"), he hedged.
I learned to decipher these equivocations by reading tone and body language, as Teacher Huang had advised, and I gave up on follow-up questions altogether. They drew pained looks. Instead, I settled for uncertainty; it was part of the foreigner's lot.
As my Chinese improved and I could chat with taxi drivers and Starbucks staff, the word "no" disappeared from my toolbox. Thinking in Mandarin required split-second selection of one of many nuanced options that would least offend. I embraced the all-purpose bu zhidao (don't know) – and let the chips fall where they may.
I had learned to sidestep in another tongue but, I reassured myself, my American affinity for directness remained intact. I resolved to fight creeping cultural erosion with a new year-end goal: I would coax an unvarnished negative out of at least one Taiwanese, or better yet, a defiant contradiction.
Opportunity arrived a week before my return home. I joined a group of local friends at a restaurant offering the spicy dishes of China's Shaanxi province. I was savoring a tender lamb skewer dusted with cumin and sesame seeds when I saw my opening, an arrow aimed straight at the food-obsessed Chinese heart: I proclaimed the place the best restaurant in Taipei.
Edward, the 40-ish, shaggy-haired engineer to my right, nearly came out of his chair. "No way! Where else have you eaten? I can show you better."
I dropped my head and laughed in relief. Finally. Debate ensued, and I allowed that there were probably other restaurants just as good.
But the moment would have been more triumphant had I not discovered that Edward had attended graduate school in the US for five years – plenty of time to absorb our unartful Western ways.
And his knee-jerk "No way"? It wouldn't have flown in Mandarin. For my benefit, he uttered it in English.