No, it is not the latest creation from an inspired Chef; you will not find it on the menu of your favorite Chinese restaurant. Bu tai shu fu (see pronunciation above) literally translates to ‘not very comfortable’. It is how the Chinese say they’re sick or in pain, or burdened by some psychological or mental dilemma.
I’ve noticed, in all of my wanderings and delvings into the language and culture here that hardly anything is expressed in actual negative terms. There is no actual word for ‘No’; Bu is the closest there is to a negation. ‘Bu’ precedes most any verb to indicate a negative. The sole exception is ‘mei’ (pronounced ‘may’) which precedes the verb ‘to have’. I do not know why ‘to have’ is negated by mei and all other verbs by bu.
More specifically: there are no positive statements for a negative condition. ‘I’m broke’ translates to ‘I don’t have money’ in Chinese; ‘I’m unemployed’ becomes ‘I don’t have any work’; ‘I’m sad’ becomes ‘I’m not happy’.
If you think about it linguistically, that puts a positive spin on every possible condition. The expectation is to be on the sunny side of life – as it were; to express a negative state in positive terms signifies acceptance and even a certain expectation of that condition. And this pattern of speech has been in place and actively used by the Chinese for over 5,000 years.
Mind you, I am no historian or cultural anthropologist (although I’d love to be one) but I have to comment on this peoples’ utter desire to put a positive spin on everything. What is so wrong with just coming out and saying what is wrong? Why do they negate what should be perfectly acceptable? People get sick every so often; why not state that one is under the weather, rather than confess to not being comfortable?
I think it has a lot to do with expectation. Here, people expect good things to happen, good conditions to be maintained and good states of being to exist. If, for some reason that level of goodness cannot be maintained, somehow it is the fault of the sufferer. If you get sick, it is your fault: viruses are supposed to coexist harmoniously with all other organisms, including you. If you have no money it is your fault; every person is to be industrious. If you are sad, who’s to blame? Each person is to make their own happiness.
Kinda takes accountability to a whole new level, doesn’t it?
And that smiling acceptance doesn’t end there. I recall the story about the American salesman pitching an insurance policy to a Chinese restaurant owner. The restaurateur agreed with everything the salesman said, right down the line. Yes, it would be terrible if his kitchen burned up. Indeed, it would be frightening if he got sick and couldn’t provide for his family. Of course, if he died and his loved ones had no money it would be a sad state of affairs. The salesman, already relishing his fat commission, whipped out all the necessary forms for business, health and life insurance… but the establishment owner refused to sign anything.
Perplexed, the salesman walked away. I too have walked away from one Chinese conversant or the other shaking my head, wondering what went wrong.
Like when I tried to organize a blood drive here on campus. There is a desperate shortage of blood in the blood banks, and if you haven’t heard that tragedies occur with startling regularity in China – earthquakes, floods, fires, even desperately needed surgeries, quite frankly I have to wonder if you’ve decided to adopt a hermit lifestyle and remain out of touch. A university campus would be the best place to hold a blood drive – all that young, healthy juice of life running around, but somehow I just cannot seem to get anyone interested in the idea. That’s not to say that, when I broach the subject, people are not enthusiastic. When it comes to the actual doing though… that’s when the problem occurs.
The enthusiasm comes from the cultural more to agree with anything. Chinese people will smile, nod and agree with anything you say. Just when you think you’ve got them hooked, there is no follow-through. It is not you or your words or your ideas that they are not agreeing to, it is simply that what you are suggesting does not follow their way of life. This is not just Chinese versus foreigner either; it happens when Chinese people deal with other Chinese people. At least, so I’ve been told by my Chinese friends and more recently by some of my students. It is maddening, really.
But on the other hand: doesn’t the same kind of thing go on in America? Especially in the South? The genteel mannerisms of the South mirror the Chinese passion for positive spin. ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’ for example: some women have taken that adage to heart and used it to elevate cattiness to an art form. It has even been satirized in movies and books: have a read at a gothic novel or a Jodie Picoult story, if you don’t believe me. Or, just watch a soap opera or two: women who pretend to get along when, really, all they want to do is scratch each other’s eyes out. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
And what about politician’s campaigns? A prime example of the smiling, nodding agreement that results in nothing!
When I first made my acquaintance with China, I was bowled over with the positive attitude and sense of accountability everyone here had. I think that that is one of the reasons I wanted to live here. Living and working among this young generation of people has shown me how dangerous it is to expect everything to be happy-happy and Oh, so gay!
Not that having a positive attitude is a bad thing, in itself. Pretending to have a positive attitude when you are broke and starving is counterproductive, though. There is only so far genteel politeness should carry you, after that, we’re down to the brass tacks Baby, and you’d better be calling it like it is. This younger generation of Chinese have learned that, and the culture is evolving because of it. I wonder how it will reflect in the language, in years to come.
I’m boo tie shoo foo. I think I’ll take some Nyquil and go to bed. Also, my desk chair makes my back hurt and I wonder how I will make Christmas special for everyone I love. Bu tai shu fu covers all of those things.