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The Fast Chinese Goodbye

It is a sometimes startling social protocol in China for goodbyes to be so short as to nearly be nonexistent.

I bonded with a member of the Xiamen SWAT team over the fact that we were both drinking beers on the beach all alone. We were sitting roughly five meters apart on a concrete dividing wall that separated the sand from the city. I looked at him, he looked at me, and we both seemed to realize that it would make us look a little less like losers if we were to scooch together and drink in tandem.

“Uh, you want a beer?” I asked in Chinese.

“I have one,” he replied.

He pulled out his can of Tsingdao and laid it on the concrete barrier. I pulled out my can of Tsingdao and laid it on the concrete barrier.

We talked mundane crap. He told me that he was a cop. He mentioned that he carried a gun.

“What? You carry a gun? When you’re working?”

He nodded. It became clear that he wasn’t a street cop. Chinese street cops are pretty useless creatures. They are severely under-trained, unarmed, and are positioned around cities to do pretty much nothing other than deter crime with their presence. When shit goes down they call in the real police. Apparently, this guy was the real police.

“I am S-W-A-T,” he said.

He then pulled out his phone and scrolled through his images. There, next to video clips of his 3 year old daughter were those of various SWAT team exercises. He played a few shaky videos that he took of his buddies running through obstacle courses shooting pistols. It was adequate enough evidence. He also looked the part.

“Do you ever have people try to attack you?” I asked.

He thought for a moment, and then tried out some of his English.

“In the USA when a cop says freeze the person freeze. In China, when we say freeze the person keeps motion. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a certificate,” he said as he rolled his eyes.

It’s true, Chinese people tend not to listen to cops. It’s kind of funny to watch sometimes.

We continued talking. Laughing a little. A couple of Indian men with mustaches walked by. “Good day to you, sir,” one of them called out to me.

The SWAT guy snarled. “Indians?” he asked me.

“Or Pakistanis,” I can’t tell.

He snarled again.

“What, you don’t like Indians?”

“When small man come to China we protect them and keep them safe. We welcome all foreigner just so they are small man,” he replied in English.

“What happens if big men come to China?”

“Then maybe we have problem,” he said as he put on a tough guy glare.

We talked more of mundane stuff.

He didn’t like Taiwan’s Kinmen Island very much. He viewed it as occupied territory or something. It sat right in front of us, I think maybe he came to the beach each day just to stare it down.

He told me his dream is to travel the world, to go to America and Australia, but that he couldn’t because he has parents.

“I have parents too,” I said.

“It’s not the same,” he said.

It’s not the same.

He told me he had an uncle in Germany, and that he wanted to go there . . . .

The conversation was rolling incredibly smoothly. I’d say something, he’d say something. Table tennis. Then he answered some routine question, I turned to look at him, and he was gone.

He just stood up mid-conversation and muttered a goodbye as he went scurrying away.

WTF?

I was taken aback, but this was actually a rather normal exit here. But in all my years in China it is something that I haven’t gotten used to. How insanely quick and unprovoked goodbyes are in this culture is startling. Someone can be saying something, then, literally mid-sentence, stand up and just walk away. There is no moan, theatrical glace at the time, and a,”Wow, it’s getting late, I need to get going.” There is no, “Dinner’s going to be ready soon, I need to get back home.” No, “My wife’s going to batter my balls if I don’t get grocery shopping done.” Nor even a, “Let’s meet back here tomorrow, get drunk, and scowl at Kinmen again!” They just get up and go.

It makes you do you do an insecurity check: Did I say something wrong? Did I fart? Do I have a length of snot jiggling from my jowls? Shit in my teeth? But this, of course, is an unreasonable line of questioning. It’s my impression that most Chinese wouldn’t care if you had any of these things going on anyway.

Not making a big issue over departures is just what they do. They simply cut out the entire incessant and worthless drama of saying goodbye altogether. They just turn and leave. In the end it’s no different anyway.

One of the reasons why I’m still into this country after years of living and traveling here is that the culture is so fundamentally different — well, as different as they get — that I can’t even get close to the roots of it. The deeper you go the more confusing it gets. This is precisely what attaches many foreigners to this place.

“Why do you like China so much?” I once asked an Israeli girl who’d been in China for years.

“Because they’re so weird!” she immediately exclaimed.

Israelis are rarely ones for softening a point with politeness or political correctness . . . but what she said was, at root, pretty right on. Though there sometimes comes a point when you’ve been in this country long enough, looking at the stark contrasts of routine social protocol between what you’ve been raised to expect and what you see, that you sometimes start to wonder, “Am I the weird one?”

Filed under: China, Culture and Society

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3544 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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