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November 26, 2006


Cultural Snow

Cantonese does sound quite harsh to Western ears, and also to native speakers of other Asian languages - including Mandarin.

The 'Oriental female deference' thing is quite complex, but it is real, so don't feel like an ignoramus for noticing it. In Thailand, Japan and several other countries, it's accompanied by a sort of infantilism that extends to many women well into their 30s. It's a difficult call for Western liberals - do you criticise Asian culture, or offer passive assent to sexist stereotyping?

Noosa Lee

There has always been an aspect of 'service' that I've noticed really bothers people in Britain and that probably has to do with the fact that it once represented 'a class' and that's uncomfortable. This now plays out in all sorts of ways that, for a foreigner like me, make the shopping experience at best unpredictable and at worst, downright unpleasant. Put it this way - I go into a shop and want to buy something which the person in the shop has there for the specific purpose of selling to someone like me. That would seem a very simple transaction but it gets complicated because we assume that supermarkets exploit their workers and further assume that they totally exploit immigrant workers so our guilt translates as social awkwardness. I spend enough time out of the country to notice some differences. In Australia, for e.g. it isn't uncommon to have a whole conversation with the person who is scanning your groceries. My mother seems to be on intimate terms with every single one of the checkout staff at her local supermarket. This is partly because of the cultural homogeny and partly because staff don't change that often and partly because there isn't the stigma attached to serving someone in a shop. The poor person who works in the British shop ends up getting shot by friendly fire because not only do the monied classes treat them like shit, the liberals who feel guilty about the behaviour of the monied classes don't know where to put themselves. I don't mean you Dave, obviously. What I try to do, even when I'm in a really bad mood and don't feel like it, is start a conversation with the person on the checkout and, if I've met them before to acknowledge that. I have a friend who's hung onto the Saturday supermarket job she's had through school and university, even though she's been a professional for years, because she enjoys talking to the customers, many of whom look for her. Dave - one thing that you did that I thought was good was that you acknowledged the lady who started up the conversation in Cantonese and showed an interest. Plenty of people would have tried to look the other way and pretend it just wasn't happening. I've only spent a limited time in East Asia but I have noticed that shops there are quite a bit more social than ours. I would be careful about assuming 'deference' though. I don't know much about Chinese etiquette but I've had quite a bit to do with Japanese etiquette and I'd agree with Cultural Snow that it's a complicated business. I would differ though and say unless she passes you a note with your till receipt that says, 'Help, I am being held captive' you should assume her demeanour is the one she wants to present to the world. Be yourself in response, as I am sure you were doing, Dave.

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