Back in China 3: The Zebra Are Nabiar.

Back in China 3

Day 3   Saturday, July 2, 2011

Today began with our usual coffee and Internet time at the Harvest Cafe, and led to an all day outing that made us so happy to come home at 9 p.m., shower, and fall into bed.  My better half mentioned that I left out an important part of each day:  walking everywhere in the extreme humidity.  Yes, that has been a bit uncomfortable, (okay, very uncomfortable), and even when we arrive at our various destinations, the air conditioning is either off (to save money) or on a setting that is so warm that it could be called Cozy, with the next levels being Barely Perceptible, What? You’re Hot?!, and ending with Beginning to Get a Bit Cool, But It’s Time To Leave. For you Penn State alums, you come home each day feeling like a couple of Grilled Stickies.  But it was a good day.


No China story would be complete without a brief explanation of nabiar.  In Mandarin, na means that, and bian or biar as the Tianjin folks say it, means side. Nabiar means over there or that way. When you ask for directions in China, no matter where the desired locale actually is, you usually get the answer, nabiar, accompanied with a gesture indicating a general direction. The gesture, it must be added, is not a convincing one, but more like one that might be used when mindlessly swatting a gnat while engrossed in a favorite book. Indeed often the responder does not look up from what they are doing, but simply hands you off to the next person to ask.  It goes something like this:

“Um, excuse me, where is the bathroom?”


“Right, I figured it was nabiar, but what I meant to say is, ‘Where is it?’”

“Nabiar.”  This time the gesture is just as disengaged, but you often get a look of disgust along with it, as if to say, “I already told you, it’s NABIAR!

“Ok, thanks.”

I move on to the next person and begin again.  I figure after about four or five nabiar like moves, I am probably getting closer to the bathroom. Other foreigners may have a different strategy, but this one usually works for me. It is a lot like that searching game we played as kids:   Am I getting hot?  No, you’re cold, ice cold…wait a minute…you’re getting warm…warmer…ok, you’re  hot…now, you’re burning…you’re on fire!!! Of course for those who have read stories 1 and 2, you are probably wondering why I don’t just let my sense of smell guide me, and that works too-once you get close enough.

This scenario I know conflicts with my views that Chinese are very polite.  However everything is based on your connections. If you are friends or doing business with Chinese, you will find their behavior to be very polite indeed. However who can be considerate to 1.3 billion people?  More on this topic later.

Making an Effort

We were able to connect with another Chinese friend, a young single woman we knew when we lived here. Precious Xin Xin was one of the young gals that we adopted and became close with, like an American Aunty and Uncle. Her beautiful English made it easy for us to get beyond small talk, and share many deep conversations about work, family, life and God.  Joe had dropped me off at my old pedicure place and waited outside for Xin Xin to arrive.  The young girls who work there did not remember me, so they did not expect me to speak any Mandarin.  Their eyes about popped out when I told one of them that I was sorry to be in their way, and I could move my purse.  They then put the word out that this foreigner speaks Chinese. From where I sit, this alert has a twofold purpose; the first is that they will be careful not to say the usual things that I and many others have heard (that lady is fat, her feet are really big, what’s up with her hair?) The second is that they want to compliment you on your Chinese, and tell you how nice it is that you made the effort to learn it. I think that is the heart of the matter; when you live in a foreign culture and make no effort to learn any of the language, it seems a bit…lazy, self-centered, or disinterested.  And even if you only learn a little bit of Mandarin, it is amazing how much goodwill it buys you.  The local people know that the whole world is learning English, but learning a few phrases in their mother tongue lets them know that their language is also important. Today I find it quite beautiful and am always happy when my Chinese friends chatter quickly in Mandarin when they think I am not listening.  They usually stop and apologize and I tell them, don’t stop—it’s beautiful to me (said in my broken Mandarin).


There is a phenomenon that I have observed, and researched for about fifteen years now, but have not known how to describe or understand it. It plays out like this:  Say you are in America, and someone honks their horn behind you. What do you do?  Most folks jump, or react quickly, like a reflex, and pick up the pace, or move out of the way. A few may give a certain vulgar gesture to the driver (quite different from the nabiar one), or some may turn around and look at the driver, but the point is, the driver’s horn will elicit some response.  Not so in China.  A honk behind someone will elicit no response whatsoever-none, nada, zero. There is no hurrying, no scurrying, no looking to see who it was, and no vulgar gestures. It is as if the honk never happened. When I first lived in China, I would quickly respond to each honk, but gradually I toned this reflex down, and eventually turned it completely off.  Visitors whom I took on city shopping tours would say “Liz, they’re honking at you.”  To which I would reply, “I know” without changing any behavior.  (Hey, I’m not going to get nabiar any faster if you honk at me.)   This underreaction seems to indicate a more relaxed attitude in general, and a lack of worry about what other people think. It also could be that living with 1.3 billion people tends to make people more resigned to the constant crowds, honks, traffic, and folks going the wrong way.  It looks like “Don’t worry, be happy” but maybe it is simply folks going about their business and not even noticing the other 1 million bikers, taxis, and private cars in their path. Think of how nerve-wracking it would be to attend to each honk.  After a while, you just tune it out, which seems reasonable.

More Connections

We met a young lady and her son whom a colleague of Joe had known back in the States.  Her son had come to faith and led his mom there, and together they brought their entire family.  It is an amazing moment to listen to a story like that. You sit and listen with your mind, and with your spirit you send up so many quiet Wows! to God.   Now they have moved back to Tianjin, and we were able to connect them with friends.  This is my Father’s world, is it not?


That night we went to the Li Hua restaurant on Yang Yang Dao with some old American friends. We noticed that instead of the dishes having water on them, and sometimes some bugs, they came as a set wrapped in plastic after being sanitized.  Hmm…or at least after appearing to be sanitized.  I am not used to our city being so modern. Tianjin is a very poor blue collar town, with only about 10 % of the population having a college degree.  It is probably the dirtiest of the four largest cities in China. So sanitized plates was a surprise to me.

Story Time

At dinner we shared funny China moments where we had embarrassed ourselves with our poor language or cultural ignorance. Of course I had to share my zebra crossing story. Years ago my precious Chinese teacher, Ma Lao Shi had mentioned zebra crossings in our city, and wondered if I was aware of how to say that word. She figured this would be important information for a newbie. On my part, I wondered why I would need this information, but having only seen real zebras in zoos, I was anxious to get a glimpse of these creatures who apparently roamed freely in our fair city.  The conversation went something like this (you really can’t make this stuff up.):

Ma Lao Shi:  So, have you seen the zebra crossings near your apartment?

Me:  Zebra crossings, um, no actually I have not spotted a single one.

Ma Lao Shi:  Surely you have; they’re all over the city.

Me:  Genda ma?  (Really???)

Ma Lao Shi: Oh yes; strange that you have not seen them.

Me:  Well when do they usually come out?  (Didn’t want to miss the next zebra                  crossing and doggone it, even if I have to get up early, this is going to be                        wonderful to see.)

Ma Lao Shi:  Come out?  Hmmm…they are out all the time.  All over the city.

Me:  (Starting to move from wondrous delight to suspicion that we are not talking             about the same thing).  All over you say…but where do they come from?

Ma Lao Shi: Come from? Why the city puts them out.  You really have not seen even         one?

Me:  Sadly no, I have not caught a single zebra crossing, or even one just standing.

Ma Lao Shi: Puzzled look…I am surprised you have never seen one. Hmmm…

Me:  Well I would love to see one, but um…don’t they get in the way of the traffic?

Ma Lao Shi:  Get in the way? Why not at all-they help the traffic problem.

Me: (to myself) Not sure how a horde of zebra added to one million bicycles could             possible help the traffic problem, but…if you say so Lao Shi.

Ma Lao Shi:  Hmmm….let me draw one on the board for you.

Me:  Thinking to myself:  I know what a zebra looks like, but knock yourself out as we seem to be at an impasse.

Ma Lao Shi:  Ok, you see, this is a zebra crossing (as she puts a cross walk on the                                  board).

Me:  (Sheepishly) Oh!!!!! I thought you meant (now I draw a few zebras on her                      crosswalk).

Both:  Uncontrolled laughter for a long time. Still laughing about it.

Our textbook, Chinese Made Easier, which we renamed Chinese Made More Difficult  was written by a British fellow, and we Americans don’t speak British English.  It gets us in sixes and sevens as we don’t ride the lift but we offer you one, and we don’t live in flats, we wear them when we have to be on our feet a lot.  And we have  cross walks, but no zebra crossings (to my knowledge). So even for an American, you see, my English not so good.  This story reminds me of Rule # 7: Laugh as often and as much as you can-no matter where you live or what life brings.

We finished dinner, took pics, said goodbye and walked back home with one of the couples (hot, tired, sticky, and happy).  We all miss the old days when we were all together, and our kids were with us, but we are also enjoying these new days. That’s because of Rule # 8 Every season of life has something wonderful. We said that we don’t know if we would ever come back home to China, but if God calls us to do that, we are ready. I’m listening. Lord. And if I can’t hear You, maybe it is because I am too distracted by all the zebra crossings that are nabiar.

About allthingslizard

I have done just about everything I have always wanted to do: worked as a campus minister, became a teacher, married a nice man named Joe (36 years now), adopted three wonderful kids and watched them reach adulthood, lived overseas, earned my Ph.D., and recently became an RN. However the only thing I have not yet done is to write about my life's journey, even though I have written a lot of personal poems, mom notes to my kids, academic papers, and thousands of letters. I have a lot to write about because all those things I have done were accomplished on smooth roads with beautiful vistas, as well as on scary, twisted, hurricane alleys. Maybe you will find something here that you can relate to. And yes, I know that a preposition is a terrible thing to end a sentence with.
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3 Responses to Back in China 3: The Zebra Are Nabiar.

  1. Beth says:

    Enjoyed reading this. Have you heard of a “sleeping policeman”? We have those in Barbados 🙂

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