Jul 16, 2012

By Zhizhou Zhu

When I first came to America, John, a nice gentleman who was about 60ish picked me and my friend up from the airport. My friend and I felt quite uncomfortable when talking to him, for we didn’t know how to address him. It was a complete dilemma: It’s hard to make it sound both respectful and close. My friend insisted in calling him “Mr.” even after he had known him for months. Though it sounded polite, I felt it was way too formal and cold considering he was like a family to us.

You might be wondering: why don’t you just call him “John”? It sounds casual and warm, doesn’t it?

In China, it is extremely rude to call someone’s first name if he is at your dad’s age or even older. You have to call him “Mr.” or “Uncle”. So guess what I did, I called him “Uncle John”, which sounds just right in both American and Chinese culture.

The Chinese culture is very hierarchical. Chinese show respects to the authorities, who always happen to be the aged people, the ones with most experience and wisdom. The authority in a family is always the parents, especially the father. There is an ancient saying in China: “when the father orders his son to die, the son must die”. What the saying describes is not the case in today’s China, and there are many better ways to show respects than death, such as addressing them respectfully. That’s why you will never hear someone calling his parent’s first name, and very rarely you will hear someone calling his supervisor’s first name in the business world.

Besides addressing people, in China there are many other ways of showing respect to the authorities. For example, there are rules when it comes to dining. The Chinese dinner tables are always round, and the seating is often set before dinner starts. At a family dinner, the family member that enjoys the highest status will sit at the “prime seat”, which is the seat facing the door, and the younger family members will sit around him. At a business dining, the host (who will also pay for the whole meal, in China, people usually don’t split the bills) will sit at the prime seat, and the prior guest will sit at his left hand side and the second prior will sit at his right hand side.

Nowadays, many of these traditions have slowly faded due to the western influence and fast social change. Many younger people have accepted the popular idea of individualism and have been advocating “equality”. However, I found this fact ironic: One day, my American friend told me:” In Chinese tradition there is a special respect to the older people. I feel this is missing in a lot of young American people.” True, the hierarchy might be too much hassle, however, in my opinion, the essence of the culture—humbleness and the respect to wise people is righteous.