You’ve Just Come Back

When I rode up to my apartment building on my bycicyle this afternoon, the security guard smiled and greeted me, "You’ve just come back," he said.  "I’ve just come back," I replied.  That was it.  I chuckled and though of how it is such a typical exchange in China.  You see, the Chinese language has this interesting discursive feature, what I like to term "stating the obvious." No, you won’t find it in any language texts or linguistic treatises, but it’s a staple  of discourse here nonetheless.

Chinese greetings often involve making a comment about something that the other person is doing.  Thus, it is not uncommon, should you meet someone you know on the stairs, for him/her to smile and say to you, "you’re walking up the stairs."  The polite response in this situation is NOT (as is tempting) "well, duh…obviously I’m walking up the stairs."  Rather, it is to smile, nod, and restate the obvious comments:  "Walking up the stairs."

When I first came to China I encountered this phenomenon with my students.  (Keep in mind that I didn’t speak or understand any Chinese then, so conversations were always in English). My students would see me walking in the front gate of the campus with an arm full of groceries and emphatically state: "Teacher, you have been grocery shopping!"  This exchange being in English, it didn’t make any sense to me, and I nearly bit my tongue bloody to prevent from blurting out, "Of course I’ve been grocery shopping!  Why else would I be carrying a bag of groceries??" Fortunately I never gave that response, but I do remember being perpetually puzzled because I really couldn’t figure out what I should be saying in response.  Let’s just say that up to that point nothing in my cultural or linguistic upbringing had prepared me for how to respond to such a statement without it dripping with sarcasm.

It wasn’t until I began studying Chinese a few years later  that I stumbled onto what was happening.  I found that in Chinese, people actually do greet one another with "obvious" statments about the other person.  It doesn’t sound strange when done in Chinese. Only when it gets translated into English is one thrown off balance linguistically!