A very happy client of WildChina sent in a quick note to thank us the other day. It read, “I just wanted to let you both know we are having a great trip here in China. It is a beautiful country with incredible sights and history. All of the people we have met have been wonderful! And your guides have all been terrific. Thanks for setting everything up!” Some background these clients: this is one couple traveling with more than a dozen kids – a feat that I can only admire!
Then came my staff’s response. “Guess not easy for you to manage all the kids, but heard from our guides, the kids are quite obedient and sensible…” I am not sure how our clients reacted to this, as I knew my colleague only meant it as a compliment, without realizing there is a different connotation in English.
The word on my colleague’s mind was “乖” (pronounced “guai”). “乖” is translated as “obedient,” according to Google. But the truth is, there is no word in English that expresses what “guai” truly means. This is one of the few cultural incidences that makes translation impossible.
In Chinese families, kids are praised if they behave well (i.e. listen to parents and elders, do what they are told to do, do not challenge authority or create mischief). Adults would say, “孩子真乖，听话” (“You are guai and listen well.”) So, this is praise simply on the child’s behavior, and meant as a compliment. There is a general social acceptance that adults’ words are to be heeded and respected.
But in an English-speaking environment, we still want the kids to listen, but there isn’t such a praise word for obedient behavior. Usually, if my son does his homework by himself without me prodding, I’ll say “Good job.” When he doesn’t listen to me, I count “1, 2, 3” and then say “time out”. The “guai” concept simply doesn’t exist here, as sometimes, kids being naughty and breaking rules is viewed as “entrepreneurial” potential. I am sure Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, wasn’t a “guai” child.
At the same time, the word “obedient” often has a negative connotation for both the parents and the kids. It comes across as the children being overly pressured to follow rules, and the parents overly managing their children.
Hope our clients didn’t take this as an offense.