Chinese Cookie Faux Pas

Kung Fu in TaiwanWe Brooklynites are not known for our finesse. You’ll probably never see an ambassador from Brooklyn. Even at home in the U.S., we don’t do well in polite company.

Brooklynites crack their knuckles, use words like “mook” (meaning: idiot) and expressions like, “don’t break my balls.” We wear low-cut, sleeveless T-shirts as outerwear so people can see our gold chains. And, we think a baseball bat is an appropriate gift for someone who just bought a new sports car.

But here in Asia, forget about it! We are like bulls in a china shop – pardon the pun.

There are so many ways to offend your Taiwanese friends, it is inevitable that I would discover each and every one of them — twice. Take, for example, my first Christmas in Taiwan. Originally, I had come to Taiwan to study Kung Fu. Through a string of lucky breaks, and in a scene right out of a movie, I not only found myself a teacher, but wound up as the first foreigner on the Kung Fu team in Kaohsiung, the island’s largest industrial center. Even more uncanny was that my training, nine sessions a week, was free.

My Sifu never ask me for a dime. The word Sifu translates as “Si,” meaning teacher, and “Fu”, which is derived from the Chinese word “Fuchin” for father. It is an honorary title only used to address monks and master Kung Fu teachers who become something like a father figure or mentor for their students. My Sifu even paid for my food and gave me a place to stay.

Needless to say, I wanted to find some way to thank him. But at the time, I didn’t speak much Chinese. I also knew just enough about the culture to be hesitant to do anything that might offend him. Maybe if I offered him money, he might think I was calling him poor. If I bought him a bottle of wine, as I would for someone who did me a favor at home, this could offend him if he was a devout Buddhist, and didn’t drink alcohol. I tried taking him out to dinner, but he spoke Chinese to the waitress, and told her not to let me pay the bill. In addition to all of the other nice things my Sifu did, at the end of each training day he drove me back to the train station.

On Christmas day, we had training as normal. When I got in the Sifu’s car, there were some cookies on the front seat. He handed them to me, I thought because he didn’t want me to sit on them. When we got to the station, I handed them back to him, and got out of the car. He was staring at me awkwardly. I stopped and stared back. Something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t figure it out. Then, it hit me. It was the cookies.

I think they may have been a Christmas present for me, and I had just given them back to him. Now, what should I do? I wondered. If they weren’t for me, and I reached back in and took them that would be stealing. If they were for me, and I gave them back, that would be a huge insult.

I thought of asking him in Chinese, but the closest question I could ask with my limited vocabulary would have been, “Are these mine?” In which case, if they weren’t a gift, I would be seen as greedy, or as a beggar. To complicate matters even further, this was Taiwan, the most generous culture in the world. Even if he was bringing these cookies to his grandmother, who was dying in the hospital, and he had used his last penny to buy them, if I expressed the slightest interest in the cookies, he would have given them to me. So basically asking him wasn’t going to resolve anything.

If I asked, I would definitely wind up going home with the cookies, which I didn’t want, anyway. It was a nightmare. I stood there in the open door of the car, unsure of what to do. Sifu was still staring at me awkwardly. But now, it could have been because I was still standing motionless in his car door. Finally, I just gave up, and closed the door. “Merry Christmas,” I said in English. “See you later,” I added, in Chinese, and went on my way. Even when it comes to gift giving, I can find a way to offend someone.

The Chinese cookie incident was not the first, or the last of these crazy misunderstandings that would plague my life as a foreigner in the Republic of China. I would never find out if the cookies were meant for me, but luckily, Wang Sifu and I remained good friends anyway. He would be my Kung Fu teacher for the next year and a half, never accepting anything in return for his tuition.

Still, I wanted to repay Wang Jiao Lien’s kindness and understanding. But how does one value education, kindness and friendship? These were the gifts he had given me.

My grandmother had always taught me that if you wanted to give a gift to an adult, but were afraid that he would be offended, you should do something nice for his children. So, I came up with what I thought was the perfect solution.

I purchased gift certificates for free English lessons from the school where I worked. Wang Jiao Lien had often asked me what it would cost to send his two young daughters to the learn English in the evenings. I had my boss, who was Taiwanese, wrap the certificates, delicately in special red, Chinese paper, so that Wang Jiao Lien would know that it was a gift.

I was expecting him to open the package and be overjoyed. Instead, he just stared at me blankly. There was a very confusing exchange between us. In the end, what I figured out was that he thought I was trying to sell him English lessons for his children. Even worse, he couldn’t afford tuition. And now that I had made, what he thought, was a formal invitation, he couldn’t refuse sending his daughters, because then I would loose face.

But, if he stated openly, that he had no money for tuition, then he would loose face. I quickly called a Chinese-speaking friend, and asked her to explain to Wang Jiao Lien that I would pay for his children’s tuition. But she explained that now it was too late. If he understood at this point that I were paying the fees, that would mean I was calling him poor, and he would loose face. What I had intended as an act of friendship again turned into a huge social strain.

The next day at training, Wang Jiao Lien hardly made eye contact with me. When I sat beside him to share a cup of tea, as we often did during our training pauses, he immediately blurted out. “I will send my two daughters to your school. But I am not sure when we will have time. My wife and I are so busy.” When a Chinese immediately blurts out anything, it is a bad sign. I made some flimsy excuse that I was going out of town for a while and stayed away from the training hall for several weeks. When I returned, the incident was never mentioned again.

Sifu’s daughters never went to learn English at my school, and to this day, I’m still looking for a way to thank him. There are times when cultural practices just don’t translate, no matter how hard we try to force them. But regardless of our differences or cultural expectations, one thing is clear: I appreciate and will never forget the gift that Sifu gave me.


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