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Brief Goodbyes

June 2, 2010

In just about 24 hours, I hop a flight to head back to the U.S. for the first time since I came out here to Shanghai (and then I’ll be out there, working in Oregon, for the next couple months). I kept meaning to write some decent posts this week – at least one – before I left, but my mind is pretty wrapped up in my departure and can’t do any intelligent analysis for now.

So here’s a quick cultural note for y’all as I pack my things:

Chinese folks just aren’t into big goodbyes. At all.

I first noticed it when I’d talk to my grandma on the phone back in the day. We’d chat a little bit, exchange pertinent information and what-not, and then she’d reach some point where she decided that the conversation was finished, and she’d just say, "Okay, bye-bye," and before I could really say much of anything else, the conversation was over.

Of course, at the time I thought that was just an Ah-bu thing. She was a pretty eccentric character (and a little "up there" in age), so it seemed reasonable to think that that’s just what she did.

Except, well – turns out that that’s just kind of what everybody in China does, as well. No matter the age of the person I’m talking to on the phone here, as we reach the terminal stages of a conversation – the part where people in the States start leading into a goodbye – Chinese folks tend to just cut the bullsh–, say "bye-bye" (or the equivalent in Chinese) and hang up.

There’s no "okay, well – I should let you go," or "it’s been really great talking to you . . ." or "thanks for calling, let’s try to do this again" or any of the other million ways that U.S. citizens tend to wrap up a phone call. (*1) Something about the "American" culture just makes us have to make a bigger deal out of our farewells than is probably necessary.

And it’s not just on the phone, either. In the States, people make a big deal about "making sure I get to say goodbye" when somebody’s about to leave for a while. We send each other last, farewell e-mails after the last, farewell phone conversation after the last, farewell meeting. We escort each other to the airport or bus station or wherever – as do Chinese folks – but then have these awkward attempts to make the last thing – the last goodbye – really count (even though we likely just spent at least a half hour together on the way). It’s the reason I seldom let anybody take me to the airport when I’m going somewhere.

But here – in China? I’m leaving for three months? Well – a kind farewell, a handshake, and then we move on with it. That’s that. Meanwhile, the two foreigners (one U.S., one Australia) that I made a point of saying goodbye to? Lingered a bit. Said a couple things about how I should spend my summer, some more awkward exchanges about how the weather will be here versus there, etc. Did the "Hey – you’ve got my e-mail, right?" and other things that we English-speaking foreigners do to reassure the other person that we actually give a sh– that we won’t see them for a while, even when maybe we don’t really give a sh–. (*2)

The fact that we do things differently – like saying goodbye – isn’t all that amazing to me, of course. But what is interesting to me is the whole ‘Chinese-as-indirect compared to "Westerners" cultural tendencies’ situation, and how this particular difference completely turns things on their head.

Because how indirect and circumlocuitous do those "Western" goodbyes end up? I know so many people, Stateside, that – when I’m accompanying them at some sort of social occasion, and we’re leaving together – I have to notify at least a half-hour in advance of my desired departure time because it takes so long for them to say goodbye – to people that live in the same town.

In China? I want to leave in three minutes? No problem. (*3)

And I have to say that I much prefer it this way. It echoes my "No Goodbyes" post from when I left my middle school last summer – no need to be dramatic about it all, we’ll all live our lives. I trust that those that are close to me care that I’m leaving, and I don’t care that those that aren’t close don’t care, either.

Not to mention that it made my departure from China (or at least the lead-up, I’m still here for another day) much easier.

Does this make Chinese culture naively "better"? Of course not. There are plenty of U.S. ways of doing things that I still much prefer. But I’m looking forward to coming back and getting a fresh take on U.S. culture – getting a few days to view the strange cultural customs we U.S. citizens carry with us from a "foreign" lens. I’ve read plenty of books written by "Westerners" (usually white ones) making fun of all the "weird" customs of various countries they visit – so I’m looking forward to flipping it a bit. (*4)

So – as I get over my jet-lag and get my mind clear again after 20 hours of travel – expect some quick-hitting posts about "those zany ‘Americans’" and all the strange things we do. Stretch out our goodbyes in an almost ritual fashion? Check.

And with that – off I go, ready to leave on a Friday, travel for 20 hours, and arrive on a Friday. (*5)

Should be interesting.

(*1) Incidentally, these are all profoundly irritating to me, for some reason (even though I find myself doing it, too).

(*2) And no – it’s not because of the language barrier. I’ve made careful notes on how it plays out – in English AND Chinese – with my Chinese friends and compatriots.

(*3) There are always exceptions, of course, but I’d say that the "three-minute-or-less goodbye" is about 90% consistent, here.

(*4) Which is why I seldom comment on Chinese customs – because plenty of other foreigners do that a-plenty.

(*5) Someday I’ll write on how bad the current speed of travel is for our fragile human minds . . .

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