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Summer 2004:

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Opposites attract (5/26)

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Virginia Baptists arrive for 2002 SEP, Shanghai - Nanjing

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Inner Mongolia's grasslands

Baotou and Wudang Temple

Abby and Sarah in Xi'an

Discovering the Nestorian Pagoda

Eating Zongzi June, 2002

Mary Washington comes to China, Part 1
Part 2 May/June 2002

Xi'an May 2002
   
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Terracotta soldiers
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Links

www.amityfoundation.org

 

Opposites attract

From my earliest days in China, I began to notice that many customs in China were just the opposite of the same actions in the United States. I have come to jokingly say it is because our two countries are on opposite sides of the globe, and we have become mirror images of one another. I’m sure that has nothing to do with it, but over the years, I have collected a list of things that we and the Chinese do in an opposite way. I decided to put that list on the website and add to it as I discover new additions. Maybe you would be interested in my findings.

 

Names:

The first one, of course, is the way we write our names.

      China: The family name goes first, so that forms never have to say, “Last name first.”

       Furthermore, Chinese are not an informal people; the only ones who call a person by his or her given name are family members and close friends. So, if you want to use a person’s name, you must use the whole name, family name and given name, such as “Yang Zhu Lin.”

     America: Of course, Americans put the given names first and second, with the family name last, giving rise to the use of: first, middle, and last name. That phrase would have no meaning in China.

 

Titles:

Another opposite regarding names, is that of titles. In China, the title follows the name instead of preceding it as it does in English. For instance, use “Wang xiansheng,” for Mr. Wang, or “Liu tai tai,” for Mrs. Liu. A pastor is called with the title, “Pastor", or mushi as it is in Chinese, such as, Lin mushi, for someone named Pastor Lin. Chinese also have a term of respect for teachers for which there is no equivalent in English, and that is formed in this way: “Yang laoshi,” which means, literally, Teacher Yang.

Chinese do have one set of titles that come before the name. These are informal titles that are used instead of the first name but are less formal than using a person's entire name. These two titles are: "xiao," or young (literally 'small') and "lao," or respected (literally 'old.') For the surname, Yang, he could be called 'xiao Yang,' or 'lao Yang.'

 

 Addressing an envelope:

Another custom I noticed early, is that in addressing an envelope, the Chinese custom is opposite to ours:

      China : In China, an address would be placed on the envelope so that it begins in the upper left corner, with the ZIP code. The other lines follow, in descending order, with the name of the recipient being last. The return address is in the lower right corner.

      America : Of course, Americans start with the name of the recipient first, placed in the center of the envelope, and other lines placed in ascending order until the ZIP code is placed last, with the return address in the upper left corner.

      I believe that the American practice is based on the importance our culture places on the individual, whereas the Chinese practice could be based on the fact that they are a group-oriented society, or it could just be practicality, placing the items needed by postal authorities in the order in which they are needed. The recipient is last because that is the last piece of information needed. In this photo, you can tell that the upper left of the label contains the postal code, followed by the recipient's address and name. The return information is in the lower right.

 

Street addresses and street signs:

In any listing of addresses or on street signs, a further opposite is the way of writing it:

      China: The Chinese write an address with the city first, then the street name, followed by the direction, and then the numerical digits next, followed by the character that stands for “number.” Like this:

                  Jiangsu Province, Nanjing City , Beijing West Road, 77 Number

      America : In America, we would write that same address this way:

                    77 West Beijing Road, Nanjing, Jiangsu

Street signs also reflect that style: Street name, direction, and then the word for 'road.'

 

Directions:

Speaking of directions, we are also opposite in the way we write those.

      China:  Eastsouth, Eastnorth, Westsouth, and Westnorth

      America: Southeast, Northeast, Southwest, and Northwest

      I think you would get to your destination just as well, either way.

 


Signs at the Shanghai railway station illustrate this point. The lower sign, in Chinese, says "West South Exit."

      While it’s not an opposite, I think it’s interesting that when the Chinese name all four points of the compass, they start with the East, as in East, South, West, North, whereas I would say North, South, East, West. But, that may not be true for everyone.

 

Compass:

Did you know the Chinese invented the compass? When the Chinese invented the compass, they called it the “South-pointing needle.” Yep, you guessed it, the Chinese compass points South, and the American compass points North. The result is the same, but it’s an opposite way of looking at it. Perhaps you can see in the photo that the Chinese compass needle is pointed red on the south end, whereas the American compass points north. South is an important direction in Chinese culture; south is the direction in which the emperor faced, and in older times, the main guest at a meal was placed facing south.

As an aside, you might also not know that Chinese invented gunpowder, paper, and books. These are called the four great inventions, but they are not, by any means, all. In fact, scientist Joseph Needham spent much of his long and distinguished career documenting the hundreds of scientific principles first discovered in China .

 

Everyone loves a bargain:

Another opposite in which the result is the same is that of stating that an item is on sale, at a discount. The Chinese say that something is 80% of the original price. Americans say, “20% off,” meaning off of the original price. The result, again, is the same, simply expressed in opposite ways. They will often give discounts such as 2.5%, or 12.4%, whereas we usually use more whole numbers, such as 10% or 25%.


The "Tomorrow Book Store" is offering the newest books at 20% to 30% off, and specially priced books at 70% to 80% off.

 

Politics:

In politics, many Americans would consider China and America to be at opposite poles. This has the interesting result that in China, conservatives are left-leaning, and in America, conservatives are right-leaning.

 

Education reform:

In these years, China is busy reforming everything, including education. I find it interesting that in China, “Education Reform” refers to moving away from so many examinations, and in America, these days, it seems to refer to moving toward more examinations. Having taught teachers in China these past few years, and understanding the burden of the examination culture is to both students and teachers, I do not favor this trend in America, and hope the pendulum will soon swing back.

Royal colors: 

In China, the color YELLOW is a royal color. In the days of the emperors, only the emperor could wear yellow or use yellow for any decoration. In the West, PURPLE is associated with royalty, due to the difficulty of producing the dye, which made purple articles very expensive, so that only royalty could afford purple clothing. Have you noticed that, in a color wheel, Yellow is always shown at the center top of the circle, because it is the lightest color on a gray scale, and that the opposite color, formed by equal parts of red and blue, and centered at the bottom, is Purple, which is the darkest color on a gray scale.

Weddings: 

Another cultural practice in which our two countries have opposite traditions: Who pays for the wedding? In America , the bride’s parents traditionally pay for the wedding, while in China, it’s the groom’s family who must pay. In China , it is logical for the groom’s father to pay, because traditionally a bride leaves her family and becomes a part of her husband’s family. The tradition is that the generations live together, with sons continuing to live in their father’s home even after they marry, while daughters go out. In modern days, the young couples often live in their own flats rather than with the husband’s family, but the basic tradition remains. So strong is the tradition of the bride belonging to the husband’s family that the word for outside, “wai” is the first character in the titles for many of the bride’s family members. A child’s grandmother on his mother’s side is his “waipo,” and his grandfather is “waigong.” And on it goes for other family members on the wife’s side.