sharing the Olympic spirit

Not everyone likes flapping fish head
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-01-02 09:50


How should you react when you get a present from a foreigner?

You shouldn't say "I already have this". That'll make your guest feel his gesture is not appreciated. You should open the gift and say "This is just I need", as Western people do.

That's the advice of Zhao Qizheng, former minister of the State Council Information Office.

It is only one of dozens of scenarios that Zhao, now dean of the journalism school of Renmin University of China, is sharing with students on many college campuses and with people whose jobs are to reduce misunderstandings between Chinese and foreigners.

As Zhao sees it, Chinese can become better "world citizens" by improving communication skills, which is necessitated by the need for public diplomacy.

Before the country opened its doors to the outside world, Chinese made 30,000 trips overseas a year. Last year, that number was 34 million, over a 1,000-fold increase.

"There won't be a standard mode for culture," said Zhao, "because there won't be an organization like the WTO to set such standards."

Zhao is a keen observer of cultural differences and a brave practitioner of cross-cultural endeavors. While he was an official in Shanghai, he received many foreign visitors, especially over the weekend.

"When we Chinese show our hospitality, we should understand how certain acts would be interpreted in other cultures."

He cites the dish where the fish is fried but the head is almost kept alive and breathing. "Doesn't it add a macabre touch?"

Likewise, Zhao applauds Yao Ming's initiative to boycott shark's fin.

But when he talks about the Chinese culture of binge drinking, he said he has been trying to explain to foreign dignitaries why some Chinese hosts force their guests to gulp down bottles of liquor.

"It's considered heroic if you can guzzle like the poet Li Bai. Besides, a French wine seller told me he wished all consumers drink like us."

Zhao cautions against the "globalization of culture".

"If it means the global distribution of culture, I'm all for it. But cultural diversity is something we should treasure," he added.

"When a society develops too fast, it may lose some of its culture."

While cross-cultural efforts are admirable, there is no perfect translation between two languages, Zhao said. He is uneasy with some of the English words for Chinese icons. For example, he feels Peking Opera is so different from Western opera that it should be transliterated into "Jingju". "You don't call Kabuki Tokyo Opera, do you?"

The dragon is another headache. The Chinese symbol of power and fortune carries mostly negative connotations in the West. The Chinese "long" and the Western dragon vary greatly, even in shape.

We shouldn't equate "dragon" with "long", and by the same token, we should probably call ours "loong" since "long" already exists as a word, he suggested.

"Harmony among cultures is a dream," Zhao said, "that we can approach a step at a time with tolerance and effort."

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