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The Middle Kingdom Blog




There are a lot of things about China that make sense. One is that the people often  use military time to schedule things. It takes the confusion out of the actual time when you can say 15:00 hours. Like the vastly superior metric system vs America's haphazard jumble of measurements, the use of Anterior Meridian and Post Meridian seems arbitrary and cruel when you think about it. Just sayin', America. You could learn a thing or two from Asians. (Also, the date above is the logical way to display dates).


吃苦  Chi Ku - Eat bitterness

This idiom is all about actual hardship and the Chinese value of endurance while still maintaining appearances in consideration of others at the same time. It has a lot to do with putting the greater good before your own selfish need to express frustration about life's hardships. I've heard it said in a more poetic form, swallow other's sorrow and live on bitterness. Drink the world's tears for breakfast and eat bales of bitter dirt  for lunch. Inhale the stale mews of the meek and meagre and imbible vinegar made from Ogre's sweat. You get the idea...Shut up already, no one needs to hear it. We're all in the same boat. Moaning about it just makes it worse.


Everyone has it hard, why complain so loudly and childishly? Empathy for others means swallowing your own pride and putting up with things you can't change. If you can change them, fine, do it with decorum. Go in peace and dignity, stop whinneying like a wounded animal.

Remember that while the USA's baby boomers were buying cars and hanging at the malt-shop on a saturday night, Chinese families were enduring actual famine. In the late 60's while the Boomers were exploring their navels and gazing out on an expanding universe, many Chinese were being carted out to the countryside to learn the true meaning of Communism.


Today, things may be changing (since the deprivations of the past are disappearing in the maw of a great dragon rising from previous ashes) but it's still the same in so many ways which are integral to the culture and cemented into a generation's path.


Thus, this phrase is now what parents tell their kids to do when it's time for piano practice. After all, their son or daughter is doubtlessly going to go out there and woo the world with their prodigal prowess any week now if they just keep pushing.




If you miss home, well just go pick up a paper (online probably). The South China Morning Post and other Hong Kong newspapers are strikingly Western in their freedom of speech. This is anti-thetical in some ways to the "eat bitterness" idea of the mainland and its emphasis on social harmony. Pointing out flaws and exposing issues (even sometimes possibly exploiting them) is very ingrained in Western thought and journalism. The worry about someone who might "lose face" or get embarassed over things that need to be fixed or words that need to be said is not the priority. The truth, unvarished, is what's important. If you can't talk about what's wrong how can you fix it or improve it?

So in most ways reading the SCMP is a refreshing reminder that somewhere there exists --even in China-- a place where facts trump faces.

On the other hand, one very obvious and admirable fact is that "saving face" for others and handling your share of sorrows in this vale of tears (as we all do without living all over everybody else) is one of the most important facts of life you can learn. Thus, all you have to understand about "saving face" for others is that, if you have a problem, just talk about it behind closed doors to begin with and see how it goes. Don't be all out in the street with your business at the first whiff of sour situations.

And remember, kids, if books are what you're there about but looks are what you care about, you need to learn the facts of life.



Yes, it's warm and interminably humid outside --everyone knows-- but take your hot water with a smile. Foreigners who come to China have to contend with what seems like a willfull lack of understanding of how things in the real world work. Yet it may just be the foreigners who get it wrong. Sure, they won't shut the windows or doors despite the fact that if you want to AC your house down into an artic frigidity and get tolerable relief from the humidity outside, you must not try to cool down the entire outdoors at the same time. That's a dad rule which any dad knows by heart.

So the hot tea or hot water the Chinese offer you when you sit down at a restaurant? When it's blazes outside? It makes no sense.

However, bear with me. They know that ice is cold, ok? Instead, it's not about that. It's about the appearance of hospitality and housekeeping. These are just nice gestures. They are meant to represent the fact that they can put themselves out for you. It builds harmony and guanxi, or personal relations and obligations.

I remember when I was in Beijing in 1994. Back then, in the teacher's dorm the school provided, hot water showers were not guaranteed. Hot water involved starting and stoking a boiler of some sort. Thus that when the supply was gone by nine am you were not gonna get another until the late afternoon when they could find the time to again light the fires. Not long ago, say only a generation ago, there wasn't the convenient electric hot coffee maker on their counter. Hot water when you could get it was a precious commodity. I recall that in Beijing people use to carry a giant red thermos painted with cherry blossoms everywhere they went, like the kids now do with their plastic disposable water bottles. It was a big deal to get it and keep it.

Also, of course, there is the health aspect of it all. Chinese medicine posits that people have quick metabolisms or slow ones, hot systems or bodily systems that run cold based on the Qi or life-force within. Hot water is said to be good for digestion and the healthy functioning of most body types and Qi levels. Thus, when you are offered hot liquids made from steeped leaves, just say thank you and don't snort to yourself quietly that they must be out of their minds. Maybe it's you who just doesn't get it.


 一 瓶 冰 水   Yi Ping Bing Shui - A glass of ice water
Now that the hot water gesture is understood, when you order your food be sure to ask for a glass of ice water with your meal. After all, facts are facts. It's just the way you ask which may make a great deal of difference in China.

health intensifies.jpg

Intense insensitivities in 10 Chinese cities

Kevin J Salveson is the founder of Ideas Million Dollar.

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