Dhruv’s Two Cents on Answering Direct Questions

After spending some time in China, one soon realizes that many things in your textbook were written in a foreigner-friendly way. In reality, from the perspective of a foreigner, the real questions asked in China can be emphatically personal and direct. For the unprepared person, the moment can create quite a shock due to never having to answer such questions before. These are some common questions that when asked as nonchalantly as they are in China, can create surges of panic for the untrained foreigner:

你结婚了吗? nǐ jiē hūn le ma?
(Are you married?)
你有女/男朋友吗?nǐ yǒu nǚ/nán péng yǒu ma?
(Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend)

My advice is that there is no point taking offense when none was meant. With questions concerning significant others, foreigners must understand that getting married is a big deal in China, and the older you are, the larger the sense of urgency for you to get married. While the international community’s ideas about success are much more about ambition and personal success than family, China finds a healthy balance equating success to both ambition and family. Therefore, since no offense is meant by these questions, I would advice not getting shocked and answering as honestly as possible. If you are single, most Chinese people have options for you and the younger generation is surprisingly open to interracial relationships (even in a small city like Shantou).

你多大年纪? nǐ duō dà nián jì?
(How old are you?)

The question about age comes as a shock, not because of the content but rather because of the way it is asked. The key point to realize about Chinese culture is that it is more direct about matters of fact and less direct about feelings. In the rest of the world, we usually flip that equation. Therefore, usually this is just an inquiry into a matter of fact, and if you feel very uncomfortable answering this question even after reading this, then you might have some soul-searching to do because like it or not, your age is a fact!

你工资多少? nǐ gong zī duō shǎo?
(How much do you get paid?)

Lastly, the hardest question is the one about salary. This is tough because as a foreigner, usually you know you will be getting paid more to be here than many Chinese people doing harder/similar jobs. For this question, each person must explore what they are comfortable with, and answer accordingly. I usually give an amount slightly lower than my actual salary but that doesn’t stop the endless commentary right after disclosing the number. With people you see on a daily basis, if you don’t answer the question in some way, you will keep getting pestered about it at different events. If you are a tourist, or if someone you will not see often asks you, only then should you avoid the question completely (because there will be little repercussion for doing so). However, for those of you planning to live in China, I suggest you have an answer prepared. Keep in mind that giving a white lie once might be less stressful than the futile attempt to avoid the question every time.

Personally, after spending seven months in China, I’ve stopped trying methods to get out of answering these questions. At a certain point, it becomes obvious that the intention behind them is genuine curiousity, and an attempt to create a connection. Unless the vibes you get from the other person are abnormally sinister, absorb the shock the first time, and then accept that this is just how people communicate here. At a certain point, the brutal honesty might even become refreshing .

Dhruv Chatterjee

Dhruv Chatterjee is currently in his third year in China. After spending two years as an English and Music teacher in a small village in Guangdong, he has spent the last year living and working in Shanghai. He enjoys writing, Chinese, music and exploring all the wonderful things Shanghai has to offer.