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Zhibo: Cultural Differences and Naughty Humor

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Zhibo is a weekly column in which Beijing-based American Taylor Hartwell documents his journey down the rabbit hole of Chinese livestreaming app YingKe (Inke). If you know nothing about the livestreaming (直播; “zhibo”) phenomenon in China, start here.

Back in college, I was firmly in the eye-rolling camp when it came to (what I perceived as) over-the-top cultural relativism. You know – when a professor tells you that you can’t call a blowgun a *primitive* weapon because that’s insulting to 6th-century Peruvian hunters despite the fact that your point was how incredible it was that they could take down animals with one of the earliest ranged weapons in human history and IF YOU CAN’T USE THE WORD THAT LITERALLY MEANS “EARLY IN HUMAN DEVELOPMENT” OR “THE FIRST OF ITS KIND” TO DESCRIBE A [email protected]#KING BLOWGUN THEN WHAT THE ALMIGHTY GOSH DARN IS THE POINT OF LANGUAGES AND/OR DICTIONARIES, PROFESSOR?

Just to throw out a completely random example …ahem.

Moving right on past that *hypothetical* example, I’ve come to realize that living in China has pushed me in a much more relativistic direction.

I’m not ready to bow towards Franz Boas’ grave and proclaim that no two cultures can ever be judged side by side, but I am very much warmed up to the idea that things should be examined in their own contexts. Or more specifically, I’m getting increasingly annoyed at people who assume that anything they don’t understand or agree with must naturally be the result of some deep cultural difference as opposed to, say, their own misunderstanding or disagreement.

Let me back up and explain how any of the above has anything to do with Chinese livestreaming.

There’s a point on its way, promise

As I’ve mentioned before, trolls don’t really pose much of a threat on Inke. There aren’t that many of them and their insults are rarely creative or genuinely hurtful. My usual reaction to a troll in the streaming room is to poke fun at them rather than hitting the “blacklist” button. But whenever someone starts throwing around insults, the same flurry of well-meaning comments always pop up:

You don’t need to respond to them!

 Don’t answer this kind of person!

 You should block them!

Again, all well-meaning. I’m genuinely touched that there are so many nice people who want to *defend* me from trolling. But that being said, I’m not a small child and they are neither my mother nor my bodyguards. I am aware of my options when dealing with trolls – and on occasion, an over-abundance of messages telling me that I don’t need to respond can come off a bit patronizing. My reaction is usually to say something along the lines of: “Thanks guys, but I got it. I really don’t need all these bodyguards, mmk?”

So far, so good

Thus far, none of this is a problem. Trolls are a normal part of the internet and the people offering their protective suggestions are all nice and well-meaning; and we can argue all day about exactly how much of a jackass I’m being by making fun of their well-meaning comments.

No, the problem arises when someone informs me that actually, I didn’t understand what the commenters meant. You see, they were just trying to help, but you (me), didn’t understand the Chinese, ya see?

In the rare cases that I decide to engage on this rather than immediately letting it go (like a smart person), I try to make the following point as clearly and sincerely as possible: I understand the messages and I appreciate them; my point is simply that I don’t need everyone to tell me that I don’t need to respond to the trolls because I see trolls all the time and I can handle myself.

 This is always a mistake. Without fail, I always get this response from at least one commenter:

啊,他不懂,这是文化差异。

Ah, he doesn’t understand, this is a cultural difference.

And just like that, we’ve reached full-blown [email protected]#k you.

I will admit – for all that livestreaming has helped me to improve in the realm of “not getting all worked up over trivial BS,” this message never fails to push my buttons. First off, you’re talking about someone right in front of them, which is pretty hackle-raising all on its own. But much more importantly, [email protected]#k off with this “cultural difference” stuff. I made fun of you, you didn’t like it, and now you’re leaning on the excuse of “gosh dang those foreigners sure are different” rather than actually THINKING for two seconds about why telling someone that they “don’t have to respond” to a troll might be a bit patronizing.

75% of the people in the comments get why it’s annoying, so how the hell does that square with your version of the world where all foreigners think one thing and all Chinese people think another?

Sun’s getting real low…

?So that’s the red-mist-descending-over-the-eyes-like-a-murdeous-veil reaction.

But then, while pondering such as back-and-forth after the fact, I usually have a different reaction: what if he/she’s right? After all, there’s a case to be made that Chinese people (that means modern citizens of the People’s Republic of China, not some irrelevant skin tone or people of some vague ethnicity) ARE less independent as young adults than the average American.

It’s not particularly controversial to claim that American culture prizes rugged individualism while Chinese culture has a focus on the family unit and the community. I’ve seen a lot of the famous Chinese tiger-mothering when it comes to schoolwork in my time here, but an equal or greater amount of the less-famous Chinese parental coddling: parents and grandparents insisting on opening every candy wrapper and bottle, physically pouring water down the throats of children who are old enough to know when they’re thirsty, bundling perfectly comfortable 10-year-olds (with working hands) into additional layers because the classroom seems a bit chilly, etc.

Could this sort of thing contribute to adults treating each other with a sort of motherly protection which I, as an American, find silly and unnecessary? I have no idea. I certainly see things every day that would support this theory: adult female friends holding hands on their way to the bathroom, co-workers rushing to you with hot water the second you so much as cough, an almost panicky reaction to finding out that you haven’t eaten anything in the past few hours, etc. Does this add up to a pattern? Am I being racist if I assume it does? Am I being blowgun-defendingly naïve to assume it doesn’t?

And just like that, we’re back here

Let’s pick a new example for the sake of my sanity. I’ve mentioned before that streaming on Inke involves a lot of being asked the same questions (where are you from, do you have a girlfriend, are you an English teacher, etc.) over and over again; so I tend to give a lot of snarky (but intended to be good-natured) answers. A typical exchange might go like this:

“Where are you from?”

“Oh, didn’t you know? I’m from the dark side of the moon, where all foreigners come from. That’s why my skin is so white!”

Now, there are a lot of people (both Chinese and not) who will be quick to tell you that Chinese people “don’t get” sarcasm – that’s it’s simply not a part of the culture or the language and that your best attempts at dry wit will be met with blank stares all across the land. Once again, I instinctively have two contradictory reactions.

  • Yeah, that’s a valid point. A lot of people in China simply don’t get intentionally ironic and/or sarcastic statements or deadpan humor, especially when employed by a foreigner. We’re all individuals, but there are real and measurable differences between different cultures and certainly between different languages… I guess sarcasm just doesn’t go over in China the way it does in America.
  • Oh, [email protected]#k off. You’ve met EVERY Chinese person and tested EVERY type of sarcastic joke on them? How many Chinese people have you tested this scientific theory on? Maybe ten? Fifty at most? Congratulations, professor – you’ve got data on something like 0.00005% of the population. And furthermore, who crowned you King/Queen/God of Derisive Irony? “Sarcasm” is a word that can be applied pretty broadly to a wide spectrum of humor, so what exactly is it that you’re saying Chinese people don’t “get”? Would it not make far more sense that the average foreigner-Chinese interaction tends to involve far less understanding on both sides simply because of the language barrier?

So, back to Inke: when I offer the deadpan response that I’m from space because foreigners are aliens or I’m just from 外国 (literally “out country,” commonly used to refer to anywhere outside of China) as a snarky play on the fact that the Chinese language lumps all foreigners together, most of the responses are something along the lines of:

哈哈哈你好逗

hahaha, you’re very…

逗 (pronounced like dough) is an interesting word. According to the dictionary, it can mean to “tease or play with,” to “provoke or amuse,” or simply to “stop.” In my experience, it is very commonly used to refer to the kind of jokes – or jokers, as the case may be – that we in America would refer to as snarky or sarcastic. Another common response I see to sarcasm is “你很皮” or “你很调皮,” which means you are…um…“naughty.

In an innocent way, that is.

[Side note: This is a word that often is used to describe kids and/or friends and serves as a prime example for how being unable to somewhat let go of your native language (and culture, I suppose) can really hold you back in a second language. Call me a cynical millennial scoffing at sincerity between bites of avocado toast, but I find it difficult to hear the word “naughty” in its original “what a rascally scamp” sort of context. Let’s see what the internet thinks… yup, Google agrees with me.]

But the point is, people use words for “teasing” or “naughty” to refer to someone making a sarcastic joke. Now I hope you’ll forgive me flaunting my classical education, but I believe this indicates that they get said joke, meaning that the assumption that Chinese people don’t/can’t/won’t get sarcasm is dumb and based on meaningless stereotypes and I win and whoever I’m fighting with loses.

It’s victory over the imaginary foes that tastes the sweetest

But of course, not everyone gets the joke. For every five or so amused reactions, I get one or two of these:

什么意思,我们不明白你的外国幽默式, or:

What do you mean, we don’t get your foreign sense of humor

It’s easy to dismiss these people as, well… idiots. After all, they’re straight-facedly (I assume?) telling me that “we” the Chinese people don’t get my “foreign humor” literally at the same time as (Chinese) people are filling up the screen with “hahahaha” and “you’re 逗/调皮 / funny.”

But then again, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t constantly frustrated by how often my attempts at ironic/sarcastic humor are met with blank stares in China.

But then AGAIN, I’m speaking a really tricky second language that I’m not all that good at, so a whole lot of what I say is met with blank stares in China.

I guess my conclusion is that everything is unknowable and I will never have any answers.

Dear God, it’s cultural relativism all the way down

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Taylor Hartwell
Taylor has been living in China since 2014 on the basis that he's already sunk too much into studying Chinese and can't stop now. When not staring at himself on his phone, he can be found writing, teaching and consulting at various schools and companies in Beijing. His Zhibo column runs every Monday on Radii. He tweets @TaylorJHartwell

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