In America, one of the fondest words of a young child is, “why?” All of us have encountered the inquisitive child who is incessantly asking the big question. In America, we have been encouraged to ask why, it is an integral part of our society. To question authority is to be American.
I knew that when I moved to China, one of my most frequent questions would not be answered, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the extent to which I would be silenced. To cope with this, I have learned a phrase in Chinese, and I repeat it often: Bu ji dao, I don’t know.
Some of the major things I had questions about in my first months in Shanghai:
Why do babies wear split pants (pants where their bottoms are exposed at all times?)
Why do babies poo and pee on the sidewalk?
Why do grown men pee anywhere and everywhere?
Why is that dude carrying a purse?
Why is there a large green and white loogie in the elevator?
Why is that old woman “digging for gold”?
Why did that guy just blow a snot rocket onto my shoe?
Why are those girls pointing at me and laughing?
Why did that scooter almost run over me?
Why do I almost get trampled to death on the metro?
Why did the taxi just drive into oncoming traffic?
Why did that guy just push the button for both elevators (Mind you, he is on the 21st floor. One elevator is on the 2nd floor and one is on the 15th).
Why are the yogurt ladies dressed in go go boots and yelling at me through a megaphone?
Why? Why? Why?
Of course there are answers that probably wouldn’t make sense to you or I. For the most part, I just shrug my shoulders, close my eyes, and breathily say, “Bu ji dao.”
There are many obstacles facing those who ask why. In an ever-changing China, which is going through the growing pains of an emerging world power, the question is often met with mixed reactions; some embrace it while others despise it. As one who works at a Chinese school, I often see the division this question can cause. Our school’s student body is a vibrant mix of students from all over China; some from vast grasslands of Inner Mongolia, some from the humid factory lands of Guangzhou, but the one thing they all have in common is that they will leave China to attend university abroad. Our teachers are from China, Canada, the UK, and Oceania, but the one thing we all have in common is that we all want to help the students prepare for an overseas education.
When I was hired to work at my school, I was told, “It is an international school with a British curriculum. Our students are the best of the best, with most of them attending the world’s top universities! Because of this, our number one priority is English.” I thought, ‘Great! This is perfect!’
So, long story short, that is how I ended up where I am today. The reality is, the situation is much different than the picture painted. So, typical me, I asked the question. Many of the new teachers asked the same question, with each of us wearing a most bewildered expression, shrugging exasperatedly. The school’s more experienced teachers put their heads down, did their work, and kept quiet, for the most part.
Fast forward a year and a half, and we are still asking the same question. It is not restricted to the teachers however, as I mentioned in a previous posting, students are asking it as well. The response from the top leaders? “We have to talk about it.” If one has the audacity to inquire again, he or she will receive the reply, “I am not sure, we still have to discuss the details.” Most people never get an answer and just put their heads down, do their work, and keep quiet. The most persistent people will eventually get an answer, that is more or less satisfactory, and go about their lives.
Lesson learned? In China, persistence is a valued characteristic. In any market across the land, buyers and sellers will persist in obtaining the best price for an item. It is not rare for an exchange over the price of a silk scarf to go on for five minutes. The one who persists, within reason mind you, will prevail. This social custom spreads far and wide outside the confines of a local market; it can be found in family relationships, business, education, and government. I have learned that in the People’s Republic of China, it is O.K. to ask why, just don’t expect an adequate response, and expect perhaps that you will have to give up on your cause. This does not apply to everyone however, those with red envelopes and other treats will get appeasing answer.
Well, now that I think of it, isn’t that just the way of the world?
Bu ji dao.