Last night was the going-away “party” for the 30 scientists who have been attending a conference here at USTC for the past 12 days. I gave a talk on the last day about adapting to differences between Chinese and Western culture and how to make and develop friendships. For some of them, this was woefully too basic. One guy had once lived in Denmark for seven years. Another had spent two years in Wyoming. Nevertheless, some hadn’t been to the West at all.
I spent a little time going over the art of handshaking, which is a hit-and-miss affair in China, based on my experience. There’s the over-eager grab that leaves someone shaking the tips of your fingers. The arm extended halfway across the room in anticipation. And, of course, the endless shake that makes you think this guy expects to pump water out of your nose if he stays at it long enough.
I also entered the minefield of hugging, particularly hugging friends goodbye after an evening out. I solicited a volunteer (okay, the group finally forced one guy to go up front) and during a series of bad-hugs/good-hugs, worked our way through this oh-so-unChinese act. They were intrigued, if not a bit aghast. One young lady asked in all seriousness how she could refuse a man who wanted to bow down and kiss her hand. I told her that wasn’t too likely to happen unless she was visiting a count on the Mediterranean coast of France. Another woman asked if it was all right if she wiped her hand off after a man had kissed it. I advised her that should this rare, rare occasion arise, suck it up and let the spittle dry.
Apparently the hugging lecture found some fertile soil, I discovered at the going-away party. For the many of you who have never been to a Chinese “party,” it’s not a group of people mingling on their own, holding cocktails or beer, listening to a good mix tape. Chinese parties are organized (everything is organized!) and there are two emcees, male and female. The entire party (this one lasted almost four hours) is choreographed. Games, testimonials, karaoke songs. Anything but free time. And not a drop of alcohol present. Well, the first “game” they had planned involved handshaking and hugging. (I’m not sure what the actual rules or purpose of the game were, but the intensity of physical contact increased as it went on, until one man finally got down on a knee and kissed a woman’s hand. Nirvana!!!) The Polish grad student Agata and I were asked to begin the series of hugs in order to inspire the group.