I recently made a brief acquaintance with a Chinese (whose name escaped me just as I am writing this, damn!).
Let me, for the purpose of this piece call him Jian. Jian is a fine and friendly person whose height I found an oddity because I would put him at 1.8 m and here I was labouring under some warped illusion that all Chinese are short. I have to admit that this was the first time of my having to come or live in close contact and interact with Chinese people ever. Most of the little I, hitherto; knew about Chinese people was garnered from American movies which, in many respects, painted them them as criminals or dangerous communists.
Of course, I know this was but movie stuff pitting Chinese (villains) against Americans (heroes). Even in my own country, Chinese are generally regarded with undue suspicion: unhygienic, lousy employers who pay sweatshop wages, etc. Maybe there is some truth in some of these claims. However, my first-hand interface with them made me reconsider my slightly negative view of them and I have come to an informed conclusion that sometimes our fear of people from other parts of the world is majorly steeped in cultural stereotypes and our lack of understanding of their languages, lifestyles or traditional norms.
It is better we treat people as individuals in our quest to understanding them instead of lumping them together in a group like: ‘All Chinese are bad people’.
Now, back to Jian.
The Jian encounter surprised me about how culture and language can be huge impediments in the world for people from different backgrounds.
We engaged in a general and innocent convocation about our respective countries and the conversation meandered towards population. I then asked him about how China’s population might be approaching the 1.5 or even 2 billion mark. He looked at me with some keen dumbfoundedness and said: ‘No my friend! Our population is 50 billion people’. Now it was my turn at being dumbfounded. ‘What!’, I said to my amiable friend, Jian. He then repeated himself with some matter-of-fact certainty.
Needless to say, at first I was embarrassed that I was so wrong and I started cussing at my former history and geography teachers and then self for having become such an uninformed dork recently. I was still punch-drunk when I realised that, maybe, we have different numeracy systems and maybe a Chinese billion is totally different from the kind of billion we quote here.
I challenged Jian that he was possibly wrong and immediately asked him what he reckoned the population of America was (I used America because it occured to me that many non-Afrikans do not even know where Namibia is in the geographical and geopolitical spectrum) and he returned that America has a population of about 15 billion! To this I countered that the world population was not even more than 8 billion; he would have none of it.
The following morning Jian came to me in a defeatist mode and apologised that he was wrong; I was right. I admire him for this uncomfortable recanting because many people would just keep quiet instead of admitting they were wrong.
Honestly though, Jian is an intelligent chap but up to now I cannot fathom why he had his arithmetic upside-down because he speaks passable English and one cannot, therefore, chalk his number-bungling up to some English language handicap.
Maybe he was just an average mathematics student which I, somehow, doubt.
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