It lacks only a little

January 6th, 2015

For all the talk of cultural differences, it’s amazing the similarities that can be seen if only you look. One could be forgiven for thinking New Zealand’s national motto is “she’ll be right”. China has a similar saying – “差不多/chàbuduō”.

It is always dangerous to break down a Chinese word into a character-for-English-word translation, but done carefully in the right circumstances it can help us understand a word. 差不多/chàbuduō I would break down as “lacks (差/chà) not (不/bu) much (多/duō)”, giving you the range of meanings in that MDBG entry linked to above. It starts out as “almost” or “nearly” as in “we’re only a couple of kilometres short of our destination” or “we’ve done nearly enough to graduate”, but then gets dragged out to mean “good enough”, “it’ll do”. Still, embedded in the word is the idea that no, actually, it’s not quite enough.

Many years ago I used a Chinese reading textbook I have long since misplaced that had as the main text for one lesson the story of 差不多先生/Chàbuduō Xiānsheng/Mr Closeenough. In this story, the title character bumbled through life blithely settling for second-rate work with a breezy “chàbuduō”. Then one day he was due to catch an intercity train for a business trip. He arrived at the station just in time to watch his train depart without him, and greeted this sight with glum, incomprehending surprise: “The train was scheduled to leave at 11am, I arrived at 11:02, isn’t that close enough?”

This has always reminded me a lot of New Zealand’s traditional “she’ll be right” attitude.

“So you’re going to transport that hungry lion in a rusted-out cage held together with No. 8 wire on the back of a truck with bald tyres and dodgy brakes through a heavily-populated area at rush hour? Do you really think that’s a good idea?”

“No worries, mate. She’ll be right.”

What could possibly go wrong? Or perhaps a little more realistically:

“Shouldn’t you be wearing life jackets when you go fishing in that aluminuim dinghy? And did you check the forecast? It looks like the weather’s going to change.”

“Nah, she’ll be right.”

The consequences of ‘she’ll be right’ can be just as disastrous as those of ‘chàbuduō’.

The trouble is, though, that neither ‘she’ll be right’ nor ‘chàbuduō’ are wrong. Or should I say, in the right time and the right place, applied with reason, these attitudes can be the healthiest to adapt. Perfection is not possible. Compromises have to be made, and sometimes that means trading off one value for another. Imagine if in 1978 Deng Xiaoping had said, “Yes, China wants foreign investment, but only the best, highest tech, most advanced kind.”

And besides, life tends to be a rather risky business. Imagine if Richard Pearse had sat pondering his plans for powered flight and thought, “Nah, seems a bit dangerous.” Or if Bill Hamilton had said, “Nah, that river really is a bit too shallow, and golly, we don’t want to go too fast, now, do we?”

You’re never going to get perfect. Unless you’re mega-rich you’re probably never going to get the best. Whatever you do is going to involve a certain amount of risk. You’re just going to have to settle for the best you can get in the circumstances you find yourself in.

But it’s a time and place thing. Given the sensitivity of food safety in China, especially the safety of products aimed at Chinese children, I firmly believe that New Zealand’s exporters of agricultural and horticultural products can not afford even one millisecond of “she’ll be right”, nor can they allow their Chinese business partners even a glimmer of “chàbuduō”. As for the field I’ve been working in, another of New Zealand’s big export earners, education, the complex mix of ‘chàbuduō’ and other potentially dangerous attitudes perhaps deserves its own post. Suffice to say, for the time being, that this is a problem New Zealand’s educators also need to be well aware of, and wary of.

But for now, my question is, whether it’s “she’ll be right” or “chàbuduō”, are you using that as an excuse to settle for second (or third or fourth) best? Or are you saying that this is the best that can be achieved under the current circumstances?

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