Monday, November 12, 2012

Peeling the Cultural Onion

Since my wrangle with the metal pole that left a distinct crease in my head – ah, what a horrible itch sensation! – I’ve been challenged by certain cultural norms.

From the moment of my injury well-wishers have instructed me to get more rest. They communicate by means of telephone, instant message and actually coming to my door. If I don’t respond to the text messages in a timely manner or if I don’t answer the phone panic ensues, presumably because of my inability to respond due to my injury. Invariably a visit to my home will follow. Usually, if they pay a visit they bring some sort of food. Invariably their advice is: GET MORE REST.

I would love to have done nothing more than rest during those few days after my injury. Unfortunately I was busy answering the phone, sending text messages and answering the door. In the latter case, not only did I answer the insistent pounding on my door but was ‘forced’ to entertain as well. With all that that entails, such as maintaining a clean house, being properly clad and made up, and having snacks at the ready. All while being admonished to GET MORE REST.

How can I rest if I keep having visitors, well meaning as they are?

In traditional China it is very uncommon for someone to live alone. Even singles ‘room’ up, i.e., take on a roommate. Owners of larger apartments take on boarders. It seems that living alone is a Western phenomenon.

In the Chinese mindset, they see me as being surrounded by people, just like they are. They do not see their visit as an infringement of their GET REST edict because, if a Chinese person had suffered a similar injury, he/she would be sequestered in a bedroom while the rest of the family or household entertained in the living room. Usually a visitor will poke their head into the sickroom, assure themselves that the afflicted person is well taken care of, utter their gentle admonishment: ‘Get More Rest’ and then carouse to their heart’s content with the rest of the household.

It seems to have escaped my visitors that there is no ‘rest of the household’ for me. I AM the household.

Another facet of this phenomenon manifested itself when Lancy, one of my former students turned friend who graduated last year, insisted one of her friends who still lives on campus pay me a visit. Being as I was traveling to and from the hospital those first few days after my injury (for my ‘injections’, as you’ll remember), I was unavailable for visits.

Lancy called me several times each day, expressing the wish that she could take on my pain, that she had been the one injured, that she could be here to take care of me. Her greatest wish was to be assured that I was in fact OK. Even though I averred with progressive degrees of insistence (and irritation) that I was fully functional save for my incapacitated left arm and my banged up head, she remained dubious in my ability to survive such a traumatic event.

She doubted my word. The reason she wanted her friends to actually lay eyes on me is to assure for herself via her friend that I was in fact not as damaged as she envisioned me to be. Did she think I was lying to her when I told her I was perfectly fine? I saw Lancy’s insistence as an example of not ‘giving me face’ – respecting me. How many times do I have to tell her I am well and not in mortal danger?

In her eyes I was minimizing my pain and the extent of my injuries so that she would not worry about me so much. Everyone I talked to saw her behavior as perfectly acceptable. According to Chinese culture it is standard for one to minimize one’s tragic circumstances, thus necessitating the caring party’s obligation of gauging for themselves the actual state of the injured or sick person.

After finally connecting with Lancy’s friend I called Lancy to reassure her the visit had in fact taken place. Her relief was evident in her lighthearted tone. She assured me that her friend had already called her and assured her I am in fact OK, not minimizing anything for her benefit. I fumed.   

Lately I’ve been made aware that, somehow I’ve slipped back into the Western mindset. Take people at their word. Keep your distance. One should make plans in advance or, if spontaneous activities are in progress, do not allow intrusions.

Such was the case when Mr. Wang, the school’s head of maintenance busted in on a dinner Summer, Vanessa and I were enjoying.

I had not seen these two lovely young ladies since the immediate aftermath of my fall. It felt strange to go from seeing them every day to not seeing them for an entire week. I wanted to catch up with them, maybe have a nice dinner and talk about something else besides my shaved head and plastered arm. We were at a restaurant close to campus when my phone rang.

Mr. Wang asked where I was. “At a restaurant just off campus” I informed him. “Great! I know the place. I’ll be there in just a few minutes.” “But…” I spluttered, “I’m having dinner with friends” “No problem, we’ll join you!” he replied, undaunted. He and another student soon appeared. They rearranged our outdoor table because seating was only sufficient for 4 people, ordered more food and… carried on as though it had been planned all along that they would join Vanessa, Summer and me.

I was outraged, especially when the student he brought with him, a shy girl who barely said two words and ate hardly at all started playing with her phone and ignored everyone, unless someone addressed her directly. Thankfully Mr. Wang does not speak very much English and my Chinese is limited, so I did not give vent to my feelings. It was a good thing, too.

Apparently, if one is a good friend it is acceptable to invite yourself into an already ongoing dinner party. As long as the newly arrived guest pays for everyone, as Mr. Wang did.

Relating this incident to Sam, I expressed how I could not get over how rude this girl was. While focusing on her rudeness I implicated Mr. Wang’s behavior as equally outrageous. Poor Sam! It took him nearly an hour to make it clear to me that it was not rudeness but comfort and familiarity that brought Mr. Wang to our table that night, and allowed that girl to play on her phone rather than take an active part in the dinner.            

I was confused. Till recently I had been treated as revered guest and now people just drop in, expecting to be welcome? Whether I am at home, totally unprepared for guests or out and about with friends?

I was raised with a certain etiquette that demands decorum, politeness and, most importantly, distance. One does not visit someone’s home without announcing oneself. We cannot just randomly crash a party in progress. Phone calls after 9PM are the epitome of rudeness.

Ladies and Gentlemen, for the first time I fully understand the meaning of ‘let’s not stand on ceremony’. All of the above listed acts of decorum are designed to keep people at arm’s length. The Chinese way of life dictates that, after a certain period of ‘ceremony’, people are accepted as ‘familiar’, and are treated to behaviors normally reserved for intimate family members.

I flash back to the time when, during a visit to his house Sam changed into him pajama shirt, cooked dinner and then walked away from the table, leaving me there with his wife, mother in law and sister (see Things That, Even After 2 years’ entry posted May of this year). Back then he explained this custom but I took in his lesson intellectually, with no real understanding of the extent of the phenomenon. 

Zhanny and Dash just dropping in. In my Western mindset they were intruding on my home/time/life because I was not prepared to greet them. They were always nonplussed at my irritated reaction to their gesture of familiarity. In their minds and according to their tradition we have been friends long enough. I should be able to welcome them at any time.

“It doesn’t matter” is the standard response to my shamed, aggrieved apology for my dirty house, my appearance or my inability to provide snacks. When a Chinese friend says: “It doesn’t matter” they truly mean that it doesn’t matter. If we were living together they would see me without makeup, dressed in comfortable ‘home’ clothing, with a house in disarray and with no food laid out.

When I came here I wanted more than anything to learn about and adapt myself to Chinese culture. Yet here, when faced with probably the most generous display of Chinese friendship – being treated like family, I react adversely. It is time for me to peel that cultural onion, get one layer closer to the heart of being Chinese.

Do I like it? So contrary to my upbringing and way of life is this brand of familiarity that, on the surface I am tempted to revert back to ‘revered guest’ status. But then I think about the silent tribute to friendship these behaviors display.

Looks like I’m going to have to teach myself to be prepared for guests at all times.    

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