3 Words to Avoid in China if you want people to take you seriously

Want to put your best foot forward and create better impressions while working and living in modern China? Here are three seemingly harmless words that, when used in certain contexts, can create negative impressions:

1. “Expert”

e.g. She’s a real China expert!

Would you ever say someone is an expert on the ocean? Of course not.

Likewise, the vastness of the country and the depth of its culture should dissuade anyone of sound mind from making this dubious assertion or allowing this overused claim to be made on their behalf.

Yes, there are a select number of women and men who’ve earned the respect and admiration of their peers for their China expertise and/or scholarship. They know who they are, and we know who they are. We enjoy their writing and other content. And we share it with others.

In Chinese, the word 专家 zhuānjiā (expert, specialist) also feels overused to the point that it now lacks sincerity and creates an impression of bragging or superficiality. People mock these so-called experts online with the mistyped pejorative 砖家 zhuānjiā (brick-ist) suggesting someone rather biased and out of date.

If you want to pay a Sinophile or China-watcher or Chinese academic a sincere compliment, while demonstrating you appreciate modesty as a historic Chinese virtue, you might want to forgo the ego-stoking term “expert” unless it’s used in a specific context that we can all understand, e.g. “Tess Johnson is an expert on the western presence in old China,” or “Ray Huang (黄仁宇) distinguished himself through his many contributions to our better understanding Ming era officialdom.”

“I don’t think I am qualified to tell what China is, because
I am only a drop of water in the ocean of China.”

2. “Fluent”

e.g. He’s fluent in numerous dialects!

Same logic as above. Very few people are articulate in all their languages. What constitutes being “fluent” is also highly subjective.

Well-meaning friends who direct attention to your language skills, no matter how accomplished, have the unfortunate side effect of causing everyone around you to place your every utterance under the microscope of linguistic scrutiny in search of evidence to either prove or disprove the conjecture of fluency. Who needs that kind of pressure?

So rather than having people compare you to the realistic baseline of “It’s a major challenge for foreigners to master Mandarin” and conclude “His Chinese is pretty good!” they are now comparing you with Da Shan levels of brilliance and concluding (best case) “you’re not bad” or (worst case) “you kinda suck.” There’s no upside.

Alternatively, go ahead and state the person’s specific accomplishment so the flimsy word “fluent” never enters the discussion, e.g. “John Pasden earned his masters in applied linguistics from East China Normal University in an all-Chinese program where he was the only foreigner.”

Hopefully, you’ve read our earlier China Simplified posts Mastering the Fine Art of Compliment Dodging and Never Use The F-Word so you know how to stay modest and give yourself a chance to exceed expectations.

3. “Expat”

e.g. I get it…I’ve been an expat for over six years.

Well whoop-de-doo. Where do we pin the medal?

The Oxford Dictionary defines expat, short for expatriate, as, “A person who lives outside their native country.” Okay, nothing sinister here.

But, wait. More digging and we discover that expatriate can also imply “one who has renounced allegiance to one’s homeland” or “one who has been sent into exile.” Hmm, now I want to know, what’s this guy running from?

What’s worse, this colonial era moniker tends to pop up in the media as a label of contempt for obnoxious white guys with inflated salaries chasing young girls in faraway lands while complaining nonstop about local hardships. Not you, of course. These guys are here, here, here and here.

Clearly the term expat includes both men and women, plus people of every size, shape, color, nationality and adopted home. No country’s citizens have a monopoly on being obnoxious, though some seem to be working overtime at it.

The real challenge is finding a better word to replace it. Fernando Gros in his blog explores the word based on his own travels and states, “I’m not about to stop using the word expatriate. I still believe it is a useful technical term in this age of a globally mobile creative-class. But, I have to recognize it is a fraught word, which is open to many different interpretations.”

Thanks to Kaiser Kuo and his engaging Sinica podcast for drawing our attention to this loaded word, which Kaiser suggests, “should be consigned to the dust bin of history.”

So from now on…be a foreigner, be a wàiguórén, be a lǎowài, be whatever you want (even an expat!) as long as people can find a way to respect you.

It’s not about the words themselves; it’s about how you use them and how you allow them to be used around you.

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