Being a “proper” Chinese: Lesson #1

In this lesson, you will learn one of the rules you must follow to be a proper Chinese. What do you mean are there rules? Of course there are rules.

The first rule of being Chinese: When it comes to things like house work, paying for a meal or gift giving, if the other party says “No”, you “have to insist”.

Say you’re in a relative’s house and you’ve had a meal. Since your host cooked dinner, the polite thing to do is help to clean up. Clear the table and take everything to the sink, even though your host will definitely tell you, “Just leave everything there lah.”

Put everything in the sink and at this stage, your host will again say, “Just leave it there. I’ll wash everything together.”

This is a trap. The polite thing to do is to switch on the tap anyway and start washing up.

Wash up all the dishes, even the ones that were already in the sink. As you’re soaping the dishes, your host will say, “Eh, I’ll do it lah. Just leave it.”

Do not make the mistake of listening! Keep washing those dishes. If you must say something, it has to be along the lines of “no worries”, “please [let me do it]” or “you cook already, I must wash up lah”.

If your host is following the correct protocol, he/she will no longer ask you to “just leave it”. Three times is the ideal number of times to indicate refusal.

Two times is too few. It tells your guest that you didn’t really intend to clean up yourself (even though this is really the case).

More than three times is too many. Having to insist more than three times will make your guest feel awkward and heaven forbid that happens.

In cases of gift giving, the receiver will probably say something to the effect of “eh, no need lah”. As always, you have to insist.

Some receivers might even go as far as to push the gift back into your hands. If this happens, you have to engage in a push back and forth battle until the receiver accepts it.

Contingency measures:
If the receiver folds his/her arms so that you cannot push the gift back in, you should leave it behind when you leave the place (even if it’s a public restaurant). This way, the receiver of the gift knows that you are really sincere in your gift giving.

Similarly, if you have eaten out and you want to pay the bill – you should always pay the bill because this indicates social superiority (unless you’ve just eaten with your boss; it’s more polite to let him/her pay) – you have to get physical and force your money into the waiter’s hand.

If the other party wins, you should leave money on the table (equivalent to or more than the billed amount). If you want, you can even reinforce your actions with words like “if you don’t take it let the restaurant have it”. Trust me, no proper Chinese will just leave money lying there.

For more information, feel free send your questions to: [redacted]

How do I become a better writer?

Alternate Title: Why have I started this blog?

Writing is an easy thing. It’s merely arranging letters and words on a blank piece of paper so that they make sense.

But what does “sense” mean? And to whom are the words meant to make sense? The difficulties of writing lie in the answers to these two questions.

In an online course I once took, the lecturer said that there were two things to consider when writing – audience and purpose.

A letter would have a different tone compared to a speech. An article about how to become a better writer would have a different structure than a short piece of fiction.

But none of this really answers today’s main question: How do I become a better writer?

After more than 10 years of writing articles (for blogs, magazines, newspapers), fiction, annual reports (and whatever else you can think of that requires writing), I am still learning. There’s always room to grow in writing, better ways to achieve results.

Writing – the act of putting words on paper – may be easy, but writing well is a whole other ball game1.

After all these years, the only thing I can think of to improve one’s writing is a combination of these: Read, Write, Share, Listen.

1/ Read

Some blogs with advice about writing say “read great writers”. Others share practical tips from great writers and depending on which writers are quoted, you may find yourself with opposing pieces of advice that seem to work perfectly for that specific writer.

One piece I keep coming back to, however, is Stephen King’s “prime rule” of writing. “Read a lot and write a lot,” he says in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Which is why I say, instead of just reading great writers, read all writers. Even the unknown ones faithfully publishing fan fiction on the Internet. Decide for yourself what you like or don’t like. Figure out why a piece works for you and uncover the faults in a piece that doesn’t.

Confucius said, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”

By identifying and verbalising your issues with a particular text, you are able to understand the mechanics behind creating a good piece of writing.

I personally derive value from books about writing, but what I’ve come to realise is that all of the value gained is theoretical at best.

The only way to become a better writer, is to write. Write. Keep writing.

2/ Write

This is one of the reasons I’ve started this blog. It’s a way for me to explore a new aspect to my writing, a way for me to work on pieces that tickle my fancy.

In 2009, when I wanted to improve my writing of dialogue in fiction, I started a blog called The Man Beside Me. After a few months and several pieces, I noticed that dialogue in my other writing began to improve as well.

I suppose this is a sort of deliberate practice. At the same time, it’s something that I’m doing for myself. There’s no need to satisfy a board of directors or convince a potential customer.

But there is a need to be critical about my own writing. And there is a need for feedback. I’m hoping that’s where you’ll come in.

3/ Share

I could write all of this info down in a private journal, but what sort of feedback would that get me? Nada, zilch, zero.

By sharing my writing, I’ll learn more about how to present ideas, how to dress my stories up and strip complex ideas down.

Perhaps I’ll chance upon other experienced writers who can provide some insights into how else to present content, how I could make my sentences tighter, how to drive a point home.

Which brings us to…

4/ Listen

I am ready for criticism. Not everyone is going to like everything I write. And sometimes, those with the most hatred can provide extremely astute feedback.

I don’t always follow all the advice given, but I listen and I consider the points. Sometimes I may follow the advice but even if I don’t, this helps me identify the “faults” in my writing and rationalise why I’ve done things a certain way.

So to answer both title questions…

I’ve started this blog with a dual purpose.

One, to practice writing without external restrictions on content and style. It’s not enough to be good; I want to keep becoming a better writer.

Two, to document explorations initiated by intellectual curiosity. Let’s see where this rabbit hole leads!

  1. The usage of the phrase “a whole other ball game” here is an example of lazy writing, which results in a clumsy sentence.