ni hao, ni hao

There’s ni hao, and then there’s ni hao.

The encounter

As someone who looks Chinese, I get catcalled Ni hao on the street a lot. I have developed a thick skin for it. But this one time, I was walking on a short street in far north Trondheim, when a small child passed by on a tricycle. And he bellowed “Ni hao! Ni hao!”. I ignored it.

The kid wheeled to the end of the road. where I saw him thinking. He turned around and proceeded “Sayonara! Sayonara!”. At this time I was getting annoyed though secretly impressed (never mind that sayonara is the wrong word in Japanese). I ignored again.

He stopped at the end of the street a 2nd time, thinking. And finally he came back. “Hvor kommer du fra?” (where do you come from?). This was a 5 year old, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt, gruffly. “Indonesia”. Kid then got excited, and asked where is Indonesia, and how do you greet in Indonesian? I taught him, apa kabar.

He said thank you and went merrily on his way. Trondheim is not disconnected to the world, but it is pretty far out there for foreigners. This kid was curious. I wasn’t happy, but felt a little better the third time around.

Good ni hao and bad ni hao

The difference maker was the intention. There’s bad ni hao and there’s good ni hao.

Bad ni hao is about showing off. It’s showing off your “linguistic mastery”, even superiority, and find an accomplice for a high-five like you just roasted a guy. The center of attention is you. Your ni hao is about YOU. A lot of times I get catcalled ni hao in Europe — by adults — and they laugh as I scurry away tail between legs.

Good ni hao is about making connection. You’re using this expression to start a conversation (btw, what greetings are meant to do). The center of attention is the other person.

With the tricycle child, I first saw his Ni hao as showing off. Which is partly true. But maybe he was merely trying to make a connection, albeit in a very unpolished way.

The difference is the depth behind it.

A bad ni hao is only the surface.

A good ni hao has a story behind it. When you give a good ni hao, you are pointing out, I have these life experiences within your culture, and hope we can find a common space in your world to share stories. There’s something more underneath.

No one wants bad ni hao — that’s when their multifaceted culture is reduced to a box and being stowed away, labelled “Done”, and move on. And at worst, a little.. colonial? That’s like saying ALL Indian food = curry.. or Indonesia = Bali (Even worse, if that box you are put in is the wrong box, like Indonesia = ni hao — we don’t speak Mandarin!).

Unfortunately, this happens in improv. There is a particularly prickly short form game Rollercoaster which calls out “Continue the scene in India, continue in Japan…” which I used to enjoy a lot, before thinking how problematic it could be. Because short form games puts pressure to be quick, you grab whatever is on the bottom shelf. This game literally encourages you to reduce a culture, label it Done, and move on.

When you make a metaphorical ni hao in a scene, you want to unpack it like a gift. You treat it with respect. And you can only do that when you unpack slowly.

How to demonstrate good ni hao

Some believe you should avoid saying nihao / ohayo / salamat / assalamualaikum altogether, to avoid trouble. I always find that a bit extreme… moreover, unproductive for making us more culturally aware. I’m on the belief where you should be able to, with a certain level of consideration. But you should only say ni hao if you are able to demonstrate that you are trying to connect.

Use cultural references only if you can demonstrate good intention.

Not just have good intention but able to show good intention. This includes time, space, specificity.

Time means you are not hurried. Like what I just talked about with the short form game. You need time to unpack.

Space means you have place for interaction and learning. Your calling out to a cultural reference is only a suggestion to prompt conversations. It’s fine if your knowledge is still limited, as long as you are willing to learn.
Bad: “Indonesia, been there. Bali.” *strut*
Good: “I have been to Bali. But I know Indonesia is more than Bali. Hopefully, one day, I can explore the rest.”

Specificity hints at depth. We have a general set of expectations on how much we know about foreign cultures. The more specific, the more depth it is. Today the phrase ni hao is token knowledge which gets tired rolled eyes. The phrase apa kabar (Indonesian) however, is not common knowledge, which shows that you know something more or have some stories behind it. Everyone knows about London UK’s, Big Ben. But ask about Glossop’s B29 Crash Site or Katanning, Western Austalia’s all-ages playground, then it means you have done your research.



An Impro Neuf blog. Evolving thoughts on improv from Aree Witoelar, teacher/founder of Impro Neuf International in Oslo, Norway.

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An Impro Neuf blog. Evolving thoughts on improv from Aree Witoelar, teacher/founder of Impro Neuf International in Oslo, Norway.