SAY WHAT? Beijingers need to mind what they ask foreigners according to a new set of rules
That old standby conversation opener between strangers may not cut it in Beijing right now. "Lovely weather we're having," is possibly the last opening line local residents would want to use on foreign visitors streaming into the city for the Olympics. The reason is simple. Beijing's skies have hung thick and gray for days and unless the nature of the question was sarcastic, it would not be an option.
In fact the options are looking decidedly limited. As part of the campaign to educate and inform locals of the correct etiquette to adopt when communicating with foreigners, Beijing's Dongcheng District recently issued a list of conversation taboos.
Out of the question are asking the following: 1) How old are you? 2) How much money do you make or intend to spend? 3) Are you married (or anything about the person's love life)? 4) What are your religious beliefs? 5) What are your political views? 6) What do you do for a living? 7) How is your health? 8) Any question about personal experience.
These questions were posted around Dongcheng on posters bearing the Olympic logo. The district takes in the most popular tourist areas of Beijing, including Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, always teeming with foreign visitors.
They were quickly dubbed the "8 Don't Asks" by the media, who often have a sense of humor in these matters, and raised some controversy in chat rooms and blogs worldwide.
Some comments say the list is a form of censorship and designed to prevent people from exchanging political views with foreigners. A warning to zip up.
I find that odd, as hundreds of thousands of foreigners already live, work and study in Beijing. If views of any kind were to be exchanged, I don't think local people would wait exclusively for this three-week period to sprout forth.
But by far, the majority of opinions I saw were that the list is a genuine attempt to avoid cultural clashes.
"It's normal for Chinese to ask people they just met such questions, but foreigners respond negatively to such questions," Beijing Municipal Government spokeswoman Wang Zhaoqian told a media conference on July 8.
"By educating locals, we hope that they will become more socially sensitive when communicating with visitors," she said.
Having lived in China for many years, the questions I am most often asked when traveling around the country are: 1) "Where do you come from?" 2) "Do you think China is better than your country?" 3) "How much money do you earn?" At a squeeze, throw in 4) "Are you married?"
Admittedly, questions 2, 3 and 4 do rattle my cage to some extent.
I guess the bottom line is posters like these are genuinely designed to improve the etiquette of Beijingers when communicating with foreigners. Its part of the other campaigns of learning English and cleaning up bad behaviors that are meeting with some success around the city.
One person's "propaganda" is another person's sincere attempt at a goodwill gesture. A reminder to the Chinese people of cultural boundaries. These questions should not be seen in any other context.
Having said that, there is one thing that bothers me and that is the last of the eight questions. The first seven have pretty much shut down any probing into one's background, or foreground for that matter. But I can't quite figure out how asking about a person's personal experiences can be seen as offensive. Perhaps I'm being naive on this one. One would imagine the personal experiences would relate to life/travel or experiences in China (however brief those may be) as opposed to having any salacious connotations. This could in fact be a good question to reach out and break down some of those cultural differences that the poster is designed to facilitate.
As the poster says, ultimately "A Smile Is Beijing's Best Business Card." But we have to bear in mind that, after having smiled at their new foreign guests, local Beijingers should then say something. With their new "8 Don't Asks," they might end up scratching their heads with not much left to talk about. That couldn't possibly have been the intention in the first place now, could it? The author is a South African living and working in Beijing