The most annoying word in the Chinese language

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I’ve been spending some time learning how to cook Chinese food the past couple of weeks. I’ve eaten a lot of Chinese food in my life, but I’ve never taken the time to learn how it’s actually made. So I decided it was high time to fix that. It’s also a good way to cover some Chinese food-related vocabulary and therefore counts as Chinese practice. Double win!

Anyway, so I was looking up some of my favorite recipes on Chinese cooking websites and noticed something that struck me as really typical for Chinese culture and that, frankly, drives me nuts. I had already been warned by a Chinese friend (who knows me quite well) that a lot of Chinese recipes don’t mention any specific amounts, for example for mapo doufu it will just say “tofu” and not how much of it. Now I must admit I don’t usually follow recipes too closely anyway, but I do like to have a general idea how much of a specific ingredient is required. I had a whole conversation with my friend about how in Chinese culture it’s not generally so important to have specific rules and regulations for something, and that things tend to be much more flexible than in Western cultures, where people tend to like to have specific plans. We both thought it was really interesting how you could also find this difference in something as quotidian as recipes for home cooking.

But then I discovered something even worse that not mentioning specific amounts: the word 适量 (shìliàng), which translates to “appropriate amount”. You will find many recipes with that word and I’ve very quickly started to regard it as my most hated word in the Chinese language. Not only does this word express a distinctive distaste for being specific about amounts, it also assumes that the reader of the recipe knows what an “appropriate” amount is supposed to be. So it’s not that it doesn’t matter what amount you use, it’s about the appropriate amount being so obvious that it doesn’t need to be mentioned. It requires an extensive knowledge about Chinese cuisine, about the rules of Chinese cooking, and the assumption that the reader knows exactly how the Chinese dish is supposed to taste and look like. I’m a total beginner when it comes to cooking Chinese dishes, so how am I supposed to know all this?! It’s extremely frustrating.

And the funny thing is, it’s the exact same frustration that I’ve often felt when I was in China. The feeling that everyone around you knows exactly what’s going on, but you feel like you’ve missed an important memo. That you’re incapable of reading between the lines, whereas everyone around you just nods knowingly. That makes you feel like the village idiot that is missing the point that everyone else believes is totally obvious. And I hate that feeling, because I’m not so good with ambivalence, which tends to be quite common in North European people. And I’m sure it’s partly just general culture shock, to not know what’s going on, but there is also a very distinctive tendency in Chinese culture towards being comfortable with ambivalence and expecting others to understand implicit context. And this can be really difficult for people who like explicit instructions in order to be able to feel comfortable!

So how about you, how comfortable are you with not knowing everything? How much do you tend to plan things in advance and why? Let us know in the comments!

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