A month or so ago I was having a lovely outdoor dinner with group of friends, one of whom was a high school kid from Beijing studying at a school here in the Twin Cities and living with an American host family.
As we were sitting around the picnic table, frantically grabbing for brats, corn on the cob, and slathering butter on French bread, the Chinese kid piped up. "Here's a question for you — why do you put butter on bread?"
It stopped us dead in our tracks; I am pretty sure that not a single person at the table (except for the other Chinese person) had ever in their entire lives given a thought to that question.
"Why do you put butter on bread?" he asked again.
"Well, because that's what we do. And besides, it's delicious!"
After we sat there with our brains on pause and our jaws agape, I attempted an answer that I thought a Chinese person might understand.
"Because that's what our European ancestors have been doing for thousands of years. Butter belongs on bread. That's just the way it is!"
That seemed to work for him.
When I do training/orientation programs for people going to China, I often spend time talking about both the duty and danger of asking the question "why?"
If the "why" question is being asked as a genuine attempt to understand something, then it's a good question — a necessary question actually.
However, for outsiders trying to live well where we don't belong, it can quickly become a cover for whining and venting, because the underlying assumption is that since it is not the way it's done back home, then it's stupid. In this case, the "why?" question is not helpful and may actually get in the way of understanding.
I always urge my trainees to limit themselves to one why question per day.
Things that insiders NEVER think about may seem confusing to outsiders — even something as "mundane" as putting butter on bread.
So, if you're living cross-culturally, it's probably good to limit yourself to one "why?" question per day.
Photo Credit: Photo by Ralf Brotbraken, via Flickr. (Creative Commons)
Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio