A simple lesson in grassroots democracy

A Brattleboro expatriate in China breaks a cultural barrier with one brief phrase: ‘ni hao’

While my wife is teaching at a major university in Hangzhou, China, the recent site of the G20 conference, I am spending my time enrolled in the university's intensive Chinese language and culture program. I am the oldest student in my class by a multiple of two, if not three, times the next oldest student.

Although we have lived here since September, we are still getting to know our neighborhood, and our neighbors. There are very few Americans around and often, we are the first foreigners our Chinese neighbors have ever encountered.

We are finding our places - our noodle shop, our fruit store, and the like. We often experience unabashed interest, characterized by lengthy stares and an occasional full head-to-toe “body scan,” especially at my reddish hair and hairy arms, both very unusual in China.

After receiving a rather unusually long stare, I break out in a big smile and a hearty “ni hao,” a friendly greeting in China meaning literally, “You good?”

Blank faces instantly turn into broad, toothy smiles as we attempt to communicate. Without fail, moods lift, and then we get startled and often surprised ni haos in return from grannies, shopkeepers, police, bus riders, and especially elevator companions. Close quarters breed instant curiosity and high interest!

But with a simple ni hao, moods change, conversations start and opportunities to practice our limited Chinese abound. Once the ice is broken, we more than get by.

* * *

I have a Chinese-language classmate, Larry, who is large, Black, and from Atlanta. He draws more attention than most from our curious Chinese neighbors. He is a really good student and a friendly guy.

Like many Chinese commuters, Larry rides his bike to class every day. But even friendly Larry complained about stop lights where nearly everyone is looking in his direction.

Over coffee at break one day, I suggested the ni hao approach. After a week, he reported that riding has become a completely new experience for him.

Because he uses ni hao early and often, fellow riders recognize and greet him along the way. We all are learning the power of ni hao! Blank stares and body scans can turn instantly into cultural-barrier-breaking opportunities to connect.

We hope that our Chinese friends and colleagues who travel to the United States in the near future will feel as welcomed as we feel here.

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