The Many Meanings of “No”

I had a fussy moment yesterday.  (You’re not surprised?!!)  Being closely related to being cross-cultural in nature, I’d call it a "TIC [this is China]" moment. 
 
Sometimes when expats get really fussy for no reason, we say that we had a "TIC Day" [i.e. "This Is China day"].  It helps to have a "significant other" to help smooth out one’s ruffled feathers after such a day.  Many times at the end of such a day, one’s spouse or close friend will say, "You’re just in a bad mood and had a day.  Blow it off." 
 
Admonishments from a close friend, telling us frankly that the anger is out of proportion to the event, can provide a useful reality check.  Otherwise, the frustration from having things go wrong in a confusing and alien environment could lead one to think the level of frustration, all out of proportion to the actual offense, was an indication either of insanity or that one is completely unsuited to an overseas assignment. 
 
Fortunately for me (and my family), my TIC moments have occurred with decreasing regularity over the past year.  Now, I have enough knowledge of cultural differences to at least not be so baffled so much of the time.  I can communicate better in the local language, so there are fewer confusing moments on account of lack of communication.  And also, I don’t feel so overwhelmed by them when they do happen.  But still, TIC moments and days do occasionally happen.  I’ll describe the one yesterday. 
 
I needed to go to a very large, very well-known hospital in Hong Kong for a medical test.  My doctor gave me a business card that had the name of the hospital on one side and a map on the other, and he told me roughly where it was.  But I had never been there, and I didn’t want to make any huge mistakes and get lost. 
 
When I arrived at the train station in Hong Kong yesterday, I asked the Customer Service people at the desk how to get to the hospital.  A very helpful employee told me to take the metro to Causeway Bay exit, then to find the trolley stop and take the trolley to Happy Valley.  Once there, I couldn’t miss it, she said.  When I got to Causeway Bay, I stopped again and made sure I took the correct exit out of the metro station, and I got more detailed directions how to find the Tram stop and how to know when to get off.  I found the tram and then rode it to the terminal station, which was where I was supposed to get off.  The map on my business card indicated I was only one intersection away from the hospital, but there were some other side streets.  I wasn’t sure if those streets were on the map, and it looked like the map didn’t exactly match where I found myself standing.  
 
I felt a bit disoriented.  Should I walk to the right or to the left?  How far should I walk?  Should I turn down one of the side streets or at the main road?  Stopping at the exit, I asked the Tram driver for help.  Since we were at the terminal station for his tram, there wasn’t any rush.  I showed him my card with the map, showed him the spot on there that marked the tram stop, and asked him where the hospital was.  He brushed me off, indicating that he didn’t know.  I could tell that he didn’t really look at the map on the card I was pointing to. 
 
I had a hunch that his "no" didn’t really mean "no," it meant instead that he didn’t want to be bothered.  Or something.  When this type of thing happens, one has to be a sleuth to figure out what exactly it does mean. 
 
The first time this type of experience ever happened to me in China, I remember exactly where I was.  In the airport in Shanghai, I wanted to buy an English language magazine to read on the plane.  I went to a book store employee and asked if they had any English language magazines.  At that time in my language development, I was carrying a phrasebook.  I looked up the word for magazine in my phrasebook and showed it to him.  "Meiyou [don’t have]," he replied, nodding his head back and forth, before he went back to his job.  Very disappointed, I was walking out the exit when I walked past an entire shelf of English language magazines.  I was so upset that I called the employee over, dragged him to the stock, and said, "You do have English language magazines!"  Just then, a store manager was also walking by and asked if she could help me.  I told her that her employee had just told me that they didn’t have any English language magazines, when here was a whole shelf of them.  She replied that he didn’t speak English and perhaps he didn’t understand.  I replied to her, that in that case he should tell me he doesn’t speak English and get some help, not just blow me off.   
 
Since then, I’ve experienced many times that the answer "No" often doesn’t really mean "No."  It can mean, "I don’t know," or it can mean "I don’t have time to look it up," or it can mean, "I don’t want to be bothered," or it can mean, "I don’t understand the question."  David and I have learned that to get to the truth of a matter, we actually have to make some strong effort at times.  We do this using various techniques which could be labeled as "active listening."  We ask, for example, "Do you know that you don’t have it, or do you do you just not know where it is in the store?" Or, "Do you just not have it now, or is it that you will never be ordering it again?"   We also try to clarify whether it’s a language issue:  "Ni mingbai, ma [Do you know what I’m saying]?" Or "Ni ting dong ma [Do you understand]?"  When given the opportunity, the person usually will clarify exactly why they answered the way they did.  E.g., "We used to carry this item, but it has been discontinued now."  
 
Well, when the driver told me "no," I just shrugged and set out to figure out on my own where the hospital was.  But the answer was so obvious that the only explanation for his ignorance was that he had made no effort whatsoever to understand my question. 
 
When I figured out,where the hospital was, I got pretty angry because it was so obvious. There was no way the driver didn’t know.  He was just blowing me off.   Just up a block or so in front of me, I could clearly see the fifteen (or so) storey building, clearly marked with a big red cross on the front.  Moreover, later on I also noticed street signs all over the place with arrows and pointing ahead for "hospital."  It wasn’t that this guy didn’t KNOW where the hospital was.  He just didn’t care to help. 
 
I’m glad I had enough savvy to find it on my own.  For me personally, the consequences of his indifference weren’t so severe, and I could make it without his help.  After all, I now speak some Chinese, I had a map and can read it, and I am able bodied.  Unfortunately, some people who might need his help might be none of the above.  They might be sick or even have an emergency, not have a map, and not really be able to get there without asking help from another human.  I’ve been there.  Navigating the strange streets of a new city in an alien land, where I didnt speak any of the language, there’ve been times when I was extremely grateful for the kindness of strangers who somehow materialized from nowhere to meet the need. 
 
In light of his indifference, I did get angry.  It wasn’t that he didn’t know.  It was that he didn’t care to help me.  Most English speaking people whom he shrugs off in this way probably wander off, still dazed.  He never gets any feedback from them. 
 
When I figured out where the hospital was, the driver was still sitting in his tram.  After all, as I said, it was his terminal station.  He had to wait five minutes or so before heading out again.  Even though my language skill isn’t totally great, I went back to him and said in Mandarin, "Don’t tell me you don’t KNOW where the hosptial is.  JUST SAY YOU DON’T WANT TO HELP ME." 
 
In this respect, Hong Kong is probably no different from any other big city in the world.  People fail to help others all the time.  But hey.  At least be honest about it.  Don’t try to make yourself feel better by trying to uphold the myth that you didn’t KNOW when the truth is more like you didn’t want to be BOTHERED. 
 
We Americans are sometimes criticised for being too honest when it comes to feelings.  It’s "easier" just to say less, to communicate less, and avoid all the messy complications that being in relationship with another human being entails.  On the other hand, failure to be honest also enables an undue amount of denial when it comes to moral responsibility.  Sometimes a little guilt can help correct the rudder on a ship.  The feedback we get from guilt, when we feel guilt, enables us to act in such a way that we don’t feel guilty the next time — it helps us improve. 
 
Of course I’ve learned that it probably will make no difference.  My little venting probably had no effect.  But perhaps, just perhaps, the next time somebody asks him for some very minor assistance, he’ll make a more conscious decision about whether he really doesn’t know . . . or if the real issue is that he doesn’t care.  In my mind, there’s a big moral difference between the two.  I hope he chooses to care what happens to another human. 
 
And that, my dears, is my rant for the day. 
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