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.

One thought on “Why no Why?

  1. Pingback: Patient shaming | ESL Wanderlust

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