Why no Why?

As a grown ass man, I’d argue that there’s really only one response to a student answering your question with no why, and that would be beating lil’man in a contest of stringing together as many why no why’s as possible, in every cadence imaginable, until you either run out of breath or he sits down in bewilderment. Not sure what you might’ve been expecting but I’m an educator, so I’ve gotta keep it kid friendly. I’m aware that it’s only slightly more mature than shouting back No U!, but during my 3 and a half years teaching in China, I hadn’t ever found a better response to the infamous no why.


Academic discourse

You’re probably wondering what I’m on about, and I’ll assure you in advance that no baijiu was consumed during the writing of this; No why is something every single ESL teacher in China has encountered in their classroom. Comically frustrating, it’s the default response of a student who has been asked a follow-up question. Why do you enjoy this hobby? Why is that your favorite food? No why. Sometimes they just don’t know how to say it better, a substitute for I just do. Other times, especially with older students, it’s a way of derailing questions so that they can sit back down. As a phrase that has been directly translated into English, saying no why in Mandarin pretty much means no reason, but there’s more at play than just cross-linguistic errors. You could chalk it up to laziness or being too shy to speak English in class, but personally I think this perplexing answer says a lot about the Chinese education system. These kids definitely have the ability to answer how dumplings taste or tell me that playing League of Legends is fun, and what’s actually happening is that they’re uncomfortable getting pushed to present their opinions and defend them.


Served up some rhetoric burgers this class, the kids do actually do quite well once you’ve prepared them per your expectations


The blue represents Westerners, while the red represents the Chinese. This infographic shows socializing at the top and lifestyle beneath it, to emphasize the cultural differences of individualism vs conformity

You know that old saying in America, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease?” In China, the mentality is more so “the nail that sticks out gets hammered in.” There’s so much more social pressure to conform and fit in over here, and the majority of the Chinese are obviously afraid to stick out or say the wrong thing. They have a standard answer for everything from the best career to medicine, and it’s rare to see somebody think outside of the box or try something dangerously new, because if they were to find themselves unsuccessful, it wouldn’t be seen as a good idea that didn’t pan out or a nice try; they’d be treated like a fool for not having followed the known standard.

All of this isn’t to say nobody over here is innovative or you’ll always hear no why in your classroom, it’s just that the mentality of if it’s not broken, don’t fix it is generally taken to a blind extreme, and that’s how things are done almost always takes precedence over saving time or energy. The ones who actually are willing to step outside of the social flow and question processes are often massively successful when it works out, but this was so rarely seen in my daily life as an expat that during my time here, I’d come always expect things to be done the Chinese way, for lack of better words. People back home always ask me why I’m not so sure if China’s going to take over the world anytime soon, and I guess all I’ve got to say is no why.

Disclaimer: In the same vein of thought at saying “Americans don’t value travel,” without fully acknowledging all of the factors within our society that play into that, I would just like to say that this article by no means represents the Chinese people as a whole. It is an over-generalization intended to emphasize experiences I’ve had in the public school system and throughout much of my day to day life here. Like everywhere else though, this hadn’t been the only demographic, and to not mention the many fine examples of Chinese ingenuity and individualism would be incredibly unfair.

Patient shaming

“Ohhh the reason you’d had a cold was because you’d drank too much coffee. It’s really not good for the body and lungs”

                                       “I drink coffee everyday”

“Maybe you can drink Chinese tea, no colds”

                                       “Do I have a cold everyday?”

“You have a cold everyday?”

                                       “No. That’s a question, do I have a cold everyday?”


                                       “But I drink coffee everyday”

“You should drink Chinese tea. No colds”

                                       “…Yes.” As I’d thought to myself, this is why you’re not a doctor…

And with that, my supervisor left my desk, giving me one last disapproving look before allowing me to continue my morning routine of cracked articles and coffee in peace. It was my first day back after several days out sick, and her face had said it all… Didn’t drink hot water and Chinese tea, SERVES YOU RIGHT YOU RECKLESS FUCK.


The positive effects of channeling the moon’s luck and fortune through a mooncake, next to the negative effects of polluting my lungs with coffee… Do they cancel each other out?

You know how there’s victim blaming back home? I feel like Traditional Chinese Medicine creates a similar phenomenon towards sick people. Say what you will about TCM, but whether you love it or hate it, rarely is there even a scrap of heuristics in its philosophy. Direct correlation dominates its diagnostics, and the mentality of doing that causes this is more or less what TCM boils down to. If you hadn’t observed superstitions such as avoiding cold water to protect your inner fire, never eating nuts or dairy during your period for fear of them triggering debilitating cramps, or cutting oily foods out of your diet for healthier lungs, then you’d pretty much brought the consequences on yourself. The biggest irony of all of this has to be a Chinese person telling you to avoid copious amounts of oil, although for reasons other than your lungs, this may be a good idea.


TCM medical journals must read like one of those old-school Create your own Adventure books… “if you consume coffee, turn to page 54 and read section 2 on pneumonia. If you eat rhino horn, turn to page 23 and read section 1 on virility. Image via vulture.com


When it comes to street meats and 串儿 though, you really truly are bringing that on yourself. So deliciously worth it though

Western medicine approaches problems is an opposite and conflicting way, taking all of the factors into account and weighing them against each other in order determine each’s role and consequences. This rarely mixes with the TCM-inspired view that most Chinese people have of taking care of yourself by avoiding this that and those as one big superfluous precaution, not to mention TCM’s hard-to-swallow ideas about eating specific animal parts in order to enhance your own body part. You’re having kidney issues? You must not be eating enough pig kidneys! Western medicine requires an explanation as to how or why something works the way it does, while TCM only relies on knowing that something could work, rarely bothering to dig any further.

TCM is protected by cultural inertia, and its validity isn’t ever going to be questioned because here’s the trick: you could do all the studies you want, but you haven’t proved that a product works on me. The only way to do it would be to give it to me. If it works and there are measurable results, then hey, what do I care if it’s a placebo or not. If it doesn’t work, oh well, I stop buying it and find another that does. That is the mindset that the majority of Chinese people are in when it comes to medicine, for better or worse. No why, dawg.


Your typical neighborhood TCM shop, resembling what the love child of a beach gift shop and the rawhide dog chew section of a pet store would look like. Dried starfish and seahorses, cartilage from any section of a cow, ginger roots and all types of tubers, and all sorts of dried beetles and worms. An endless amount of curative soup and tea possibilities in one place

More often than not, foreigners will find themselves on the receiving end of patient shaming because of these philosophical differences. Conversations with coworkers about your lifestyle can give off the impression that they suspect you of having Munchausen’s, and questioning TCM’s effectiveness or mentioning something that even rhymes with Western medicine usually results in a conversation about as productive as the Westboro Baptist Church being within 10 feet of Richard Dawkins… Cultural walls spring up fast and high. Throw in the fact that most foreigners would only go to the hospital if a major limb had bent the wrong way or they thought they might die, as opposed to getting a saline drip for a hangover or a sore throat, and ESL teachers who’ve called out sick end up getting treated like Ferris Bueller for weeks to follow. Can’t say that’s not always a fair assessment though…



In all fairness though, Western medicine is reactionary and focused on recovery, while TCM is more so a philosophy than a response, where practitioners live their lives a certain way with the expectation of avoiding illness. TCM would be better viewed as a holistic lifestyle than it would be for curative purposes, but this distinction is rarely acknowledged, and TCM is the end-all-be-all here in China.

The Second Coming of Hello Kitty

Frantic shouting during a 4th grade class is just about always a sign of trouble, as well as a soon to be headache for that teacher. Interrupted by shifting chairs and shocked yelling, I turned from my board work expecting to see blood, vomit, or the first swings of a fist fight. Two girls were standing, pointing at back of the boy who sits in the row ahead of them, and their hysterical and utterly undecipherable exclamations had caused children from all over the classroom to rush out of their seats and mash into each other for a better look. Picturing a pair of scissor sticking out of the boy’s back or a massive spider crawling upwards towards his head, I pushed my way through the amassing students to see for myself what had warranted all of these kids losing their shit. After yanking several kids out of the way I was finally able to see the expression of the boy in the center of the crowd, and instead of being hunched over in pain or suffering from some grave ailment, he just looked sheepishly confused, as well as slightly annoyed from all of the children who were pulling at him to shift his back into a better perspective. Kids being kids, several grabbed and beckoned him to turn so that I could get a look as well, yelling excitedly “Teacher, teacher, look!”

IMG_4304 IMG_4306









But surely there must’ve been some meaning I wasn’t aware of to warrant this strong of a reaction. The swamp-ass version of crop circles? Some Chinese form of perspiration divination like reading tea leaves? Do they see Jesus Hello Kitty within his sweat? One of the 4th grade teachers had just happened to pass by the classroom as I was taking these photos, and quickly came in to also figure out what was going on. After only a half a second’s glance at the boy’s back, she swatted several of the nearby kids and barked at the class to get back to their seats and study. She gave me the nod to go back to what I was doing, and that was that, class resumed as if nothing had happened. Kids are weird.