In every nation/language there are words and phrases that defy exact translation making it is hard for foreigners to grasp the real meaning.
In China one such word is rènao 热闹 .
Everyone who comes to China will experience rènao, even if they don’t realise it. The word is composed of two characters: rè (hot) 热 + nao (noise) 闹, but it means much more than just that. When we first came here I had no understanding of rènao, though a few Chinese friends would use the word when recommending a restaurant we should try.
Invariably we would find that such restaurants were chock-a-block with people; every table crammed with diners talking at the tops of their voices, summoning waiting staff who would be shouting the orders out whilst rushing about with trays of food balanced precariously as they dodged small children, or people who were just milling about. The Chinese (on the whole) LOVE busy places with many people having a good time and lots of chat and laughter. Restaurants with rènao – hustle and bustle, hot and noisy with an edge of excitement.
But rènao isn’t just used in the context of restaurants – it can be found everywhere. One Saturday afternoon soon after we came to live in Beijing I went to the nearby branch of the supermarket Jialefu 家乐福 – aka Carrefour.
The volume of noise and the crowds of shoppers nearly overwhelmed me. In practically every aisle there was at least one salesgirl in a cute uniform complete with a tray of product samples and a head-mike, shouting about what they had to offer, and trying to out-shout the salesgirl nearest them, the noise was deafening! This video clip will give you some idea of what I mean: https://www.youtube.co/watch?v=Sd9VtEeXSLA The Chinese have taken to the idea of shopping as a leisure activity in a BIG way, so whole families were there – the grannies tut-tutting over prices, the husband trying to edge his way over to the beer and baijiu section, the wife examining beauty products and the children clamouring for toys.
Not unlike in the west you might think, but quadruple the numbers you would see in Safeways/Sainsburys/ Trader Joe’s in the UK or USA in the 24 hours before Xmas and you will get some idea of how many people were shopping there on a normal everyday Saturday. As far as I was concerned it was a ghastly experience, but nobody else seemed to mind. It was rènao – a desirable level of hustle and bustle, heat and noise.
In the west, people who form a crowd to watch some incident or gawp at an accident are said to be rubbernecking – the phrase for that in Chinese is kàn rènao , ie: see + hot/noisy. It is ‘exciting’ to witness something dramatic in the company of lots of others all giving their opinions on the situation. When talking about the Cultural Revolution with some Chinese friends, one of them said – “In the countryside at that time, where life was very poor, dull and routine, the people enjoyed the struggle sessions because they were rènao – it was entertainment”. Hmm, there’s a potential PhD thesis in that statement methinks!
But WHY is it that the Chinese like places/situations that are rènao? Maybe it is because they do not care about privacy quite so much. They live in close quarters with very little friction, despite a lack of space and privacy that would drive most Westeners mad. What seems unbearable to us seems cozy and neighbourly to them. The Chinese are rarely alone, and that goes back hundreds of years. They like crowds and street life, and enjoy travelling in groups, going where everyone else is going.
Many years ago my (then) 15 yr old daughter and I spent a day at the Yihe Yuan 颐和园 on the north western outskirts of modern Beijing. We wandered around and eventually settled down to eat our picnic lunch and read our books under a shady tree. Ha! it was not to be. Within moments we had attracted a crowd of Chinese – mostly young adults – who were fascinated by every move we made. I was asked where our ‘tour or work group’ was, when I explained that we were on our own they were aghast – Alone??? how horrible, they would now accompany us which they assured us would make us happy and comfortable again! The idea of doing anything as an individual was completely weird to them. Trying to explain that we liked it on our own was like trying to communicate with Martians, they heard the words but didn’t understand the meaning.
Now I’ve lived here long enough for the hubbub, whether it be in a supermarket, at a beauty spot in the park, or elsewhere, wash over me…and though I would always prefer to dine in a quiet, intimate little restaurant, I have to admit I am begining to quite enjoy rènao!