Who coined the phrase "Honesty is always the best policy"? Maybe it was Confucius. It wouldn't surprise me as every Chinese person seems to strictly adhere to the principle. Honesty is not always the best policy. In some situations, in fact, it is the worst policy or at least a distant second to the policy of "keeping your big mouth shut".
After my mother stepped off the plane in Beijing and we were on our way home in the taxi, I took the opportunity to give her the briefing all expats no doubt give their loved ones in this situation.
"First, mother, don't look at how the taxi driver is driving. Look out the window and admire the buildings and bridges (as much as you can on the Jichang airport expressway), but just don't look at the traffic," I told her. She immediately looked at the traffic.
"Second, don't worry about the spitting. They are spitting with you, not at you, okay? And third, they don't mean to offend you, they are just being honest."
She chuckled at this last one but soon stopped when she saw the deathly serious glint in my eye.
She understood me perfectly just a few days later. She and my girlfriend had somehow missed the exit to Houhai Park and were wandering for some time before an old Chinese gentleman came up and asked if they happened to be lost.
"How did you notice us?" asked my Chinese girlfriend. "It was impossible to miss you," he said, pointing at my mother and adding: "She's so big and fat, like a giant!"
My mother is a full-bodied woman, one might say, and unashamedly so. She also, thankfully, has a good sense of humor. As she speaks not a word of Chinese, she would have been none-the-wiser had the old man not used such extravagant hand gestures to make his point.
Days later the three of us headed to Qingdao for a relaxing weekend on the beach. My girlfriend had booked us a unique accommodation, which was a couple's home, the spare rooms of which they let to travelers at a very reasonable rate.
It was fantastic, a wonderful change to staying in a cold, unfriendly hotel. The couple, a South Korean man and his Chinese wife, brewed some of the best tea we'd ever tasted and, although their level of English was limited, made my mother feel at home.
Later on, once my mother had gone to bed and we four stayed up drinking beer, our hostess leaned across to me and said: "Ni mama hen ke ai! Your mother is so cute!"
"Thank you," I said, almost knowing a heavy dose of honesty was on the horizon.
"Yeah," she continued, "she's so big and fat, great to cuddle. And we love her smile, with her big rabbit teeth. My husband says she reminds him of his own mother. That's why we keep buying her cakes; she must get hungry a lot."
My other-half was more than happy to pass this information on to my mother. It didn't stop her from eating the cakes, however.
Back in Beijing, my mother settled down for a coffee with my girlfriend to ask her intentions. She extolled the virtues of being a good wife but explained it can also be hard, especially in the old days when women did all the washing up and cleaning around the house.
"That doesn't bother me," said my beloved, "I'm young and able. I can handle all that."
"So is that to say I'm old and unable?" retorted my mother jokingly, not expecting a response.
"Yes," came the all-too-honest reply. "You're far too old."
It had occurred to me that honesty maybe not just the best but the ONLY policy for Chinese. Then I remembered the Silk Market.
"It's all 100 percent silk, handsome man, really!" Yeah, right.
(China Daily July 28, 2009)