Xinran: Telling it like it is...

Chinese honesty means telling the bald truth. But do we really want that degree of sincerity?

Last weekend, I went to the opening party of a Chinese student centre in London. We hoped to talk about what the greatest difficulties were for Chinese students overseas; how they could get in touch with western people; and what we should do to help Chinese girls' adoptive families in the west. But the first topic threw up so many problems that we ran out of time.

Some said they never understood what their professors and tutors meant by "fantastic", "wonderful" and "excellent" - because even after being praised they found it hard to pass their exams. "Why are they not honest with us?" they asked.

Some students doubted the western view of creation, and said they were always told to find points of argument against the eminent scholars and scientists who had proposed these ideas, and to come up with their own theories. "How are we meant to argue against the great thinkers? Why do we need to be taught if we can come up with theories of creation by ourselves?"

Some students complained that western students could easily spend their entire student years talking, drinking, and making friends and lovers, while most Chinese students were fighting with their homework. "How can we be the same age but live in such a different way?"

Some students felt sad about their classmates' families. Some westerners were so cold when they talked about their parents, they said, and some seemed polite and distant in the way they related to their families. "Where else could we have a feeling of relaxation and safety as children, except at home with our parents? You can not be anything without family."

We talked for more than three hours. In the end, they asked what I thought of their impressions. I told them three stories instead.

The first story I read from a funny book. One day, God sent a messenger to check on people's faith. The messenger returned and said Chinese people's faith was far greater than that of western people.

"Why?" said God. "I haven't got enough time to look after the Chinese."

"Chinese people always nod their heads when they read the Bible, but western people always shake their heads with doubt," said the messenger.

"I need to give western people extra lessons on Sunday," God said.

What was behind this story? Until the 1930s, the Chinese read from top to bottom, so people thought we nodded when we read, whereas westerners read from left to right and lookas if they are shaking their heads in disagreement.

Our judgments are always coloured by our limited knowledge of the differences in the world.

I heard the second story from a teacher at London University. Four students - from America, Europe, Africa and China - are asked by a journalist: "What's your personal opinion about the international food shortage?"

The American replies: "What does international mean?" The European asks: "What is shortage?" The African asks: "What is food?" And the Chinese student says: "What do you mean by personal opinion?"

Until the 1990s, the Chinese were closed in for thousands of years. We are not used to having our own "personal" opinion. But I am sure we know a lot that western people don't. This is why we are welcome to study here, and share our differences with them.

The third story is something that happened to me. In 1997, in my first week in London, I was stopped by a Chinese man in Leicester Square. "Are you Xinran?" he said in Chinese.

"Aaah... um..." I mumbled.

"You are, I am sure!" he said, and was too excited to wait for my answer. "Oh, it can't be true! You can't be Xinran!"

I didn't understand what he was talking about, but he kept shouting, in a street full of other Chinese speakers. "Xinran, you can't be so old! Your face, why has it become so ugly? Oh, no!"

"I'm sorry, but I can't stop growing old," I said, my face flushing.

He explained his pain at seeing me. When he arrived in Britain in 1989, he kept the last newspaper he had from China and stuck it on his wall to remind him of his home and language. He had not returned to China since. My face, 10 years younger, was in that paper, so he was shocked to see me in the flesh. What a typically honest Chinese man.

I asked those laughing students: "Do you really enjoy this kind of 'Chinese honesty'?"

· The Good Women of China by Xinran is published by Vintage, £6.99. To order a copy (UK p&p free), call the Guardian book service on 0870 066 7979.



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