Chinese have a regular compendium of questions for their foreign guests, and you may hear them from friends over dinner, or even from strangers who approach you on the street. Part conversation starters, and part pure entertainment, here is the short list of inquiries to be prepared for.
1. Do you know about Yao Ming?
Oh yes, I do. Chinese love their homegrown hero, and want to make sure you haven't missed him. Yao isn't the only NBA star they follow though, as most Chinese boys learn about the NBA superstars from ten years-old and up. Basketball fanzines abound and young men are on a first name basis with most stars. For this reason, you might also hear, “Do you know Kobe?” or “Do you know LeBron?”, or even, “Who in your opinion is better, Kobe or LeBron?” You can tell your hosts, “Well, Kobe's a better all around player but I give it to LeBron on offense.” From there you can move on to the merits of Carmelo Anthony.
Furthermore, you can even surprise your hosts with your own questions, like, “Do you know Ding Junhui?” (youthful Chinese snooker phenomenon) or “Do you know Wang Hao?” (recent Chinese table-tennis champion) You don't want to take the spotlight off Yao though.
2. Do you like China?
his question seems deceptively simple, and it is tempting to answer with the obvious polite praise. However, many Chinese are secretly sick of the polite answers, and if they hear them, will be wondering what you really think of their country and why you don't tell them. I've even had Chinese people, after hearing how much I enjoy myself here, turn the topic around to China's problems. “But don't you know China has many pollution problems? And what do you think about corruption?” You many be forced to be a commentator in such an instance.
Many Chinese are perfectly comfortable talking about their country's difficulties, as long as it stays away from push-button issues. Complaints about corruption and pollution abound, and some of them are just as tired as you are of the censorship in their media. In these areas, you can gripe together and bond. Other more sensitive areas, such as Tibet, the island-formerly-known-as-Formosa and multi-party political systems will most often reach very nationalistic ears. That is not to say never to speak about them, but simply that ninety-five percent of the time any idealism on your part will not get you far.
3. What do you think of ____________? [current President of the United States]
Despite regular coverage by the state's Xinhua news agency, many Chinese are just waiting to hear what an American or any other Westerner thinks of the most media-covered world leader. Don't be shy about giving them your analysis, as you are providing them with unique sociological insight as well as with entertainment. Beyond associating Bush with Iraq and Obama with “change,” only a small minority of Chinese delve deeply into Western politics. Perhaps that's for the better.
4. Did you watch the Beijing Olympics?
The Olympics in Beijing were China's chance to show their best face to the world, and they will be talking about it for some time. In fact it was talked about here for years in advance, as the preparations, including building enormous new sports centers and efforts at environmental cleanup, were started soon after Beijing was chosen. It is still a point of national pride for the Chinese.
If you were in China, and not in Beijing, you could have seen the games from nearly any restaurant and even small shops. You could hear them in the train station. I caught the end of the basketball tournament while walking out of the supermarket. Nearly all Chinese watched them. Despite the political protests during the Olympic torch relay, Chinese enthusiasm was never dampened.
5. How's the economy?
With the world economic crisis in effect it's the question that everyone's asking, and the Chinese are asking it too. Chinese are often very knowledgeable on this subject and I’ve been quizzed about individual companies. You may not be able to give stock market updates or relay recent fluctuations in unemployment, but a general idea of the strength of your currency or any major business collapses will keep the conversation going. And why not keep it going, since misery loves company. Although the official Chinese prediction is for an economic turnaround, about 20 million workers have lost their jobs here. Twenty million, by the way, is near the population of Sri Lanka.
6. How can I get a visa to ______________? [random country]
I've actually been asked multiple times about how to get visas to my country, and to other Western countries as well. Although the Chinese are quite proud of their long history and their civilization, they also love to get on a plane and study or work overseas. According to some estimates, there are over 40 million overseas Chinese. Unfortunately, few of us are compendiums of knowledge about our nation's visa process, so you may just want to send the questioner along to the consulate or the appropriate webpage and, if you wish, give them some advance warning on how strict the process can be.
By Thomas Ackerman, eChinacities.com
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