When describing interactions between Chinese natives and foreigners, or between Chinese natives and natives, there is one thing that my Sichuanese roommate would always say: “Chinese people are shy.”
On the street, lots of people will not make eye contact with me, but if they make contact it is usually to start a conversation. They’ll not think twice of taking me, a total stranger (and a foreigner to boot), to dinner, or shouting a friendly ‘Hello’ on the street. Chinese people are not shy. Such a sweeping statement is ridiculous.
However, the more I think the more I realise that she probably meant (if you’re heavily generalising) “Chinese people are introvert.” In the UK, a student who doesn’t go out at least once a week may be considered uncommon. (By the way, they’re very very common in reality) In Tsinghua University, students are rarely judged, no, they are encouraged to spend long hours in their room recharging (or studying) with their roommates.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this statement recently, and it’s partly false. Many people from many different places would treat me with courtesy and kindness fit for a queen. Across China, I would be treated to a meal , given gifts, offered lifts, invited out and welcomed into an acquaintance’s home. The people I met were incredibly friendly and curious in general. However, I would probably only meet them once or twice.
To develop a close relationship with the people I met, which I only managed a couple of times, was something quite removed, something incredibly special. My fellow students would mostly gather in small groups, to go shopping or eat hotpot, and would rarely spend time together one on one, perhaps only with best of best friends. I met one Chinese native, in all my time in China, who willingly sat down with me and opened up (even once), and that person was not my roommate.
I always wondered what she meant by that sweeping statement. “Chinese people are shy.” All 1.5 billion of them? Surely not. She couldn’t have meant shy in the individual sense, but perhaps she was touching on an integral part of Chinese culture and I just didn’t realise it. Altogether, the part of Chinese culture that I only glimpsed, a part which is kind, welcoming, and always reserved.