This week I suffered a huge disappointment and a major confounding that has plagued me since I’ve lived here.
I’ve written about the confounding several times before, the first time being the Be My Friend entry, posted May 2011. It has to do with my alleged helplessness, doddering and my apparent inability to so much as walk down a set of stairs without falling. Mind you, I can walk down the stairs just fine but it seems my Chinese friends believe I will plunge headfirst and suffer grievous injury unless they take my arm and repeatedly urge me to be careful.
Last Monday, Dragonboat Festival, I had the pleasure of visiting Evan’s home again. It had been almost 2 years since our last visit because his mom was battling cancer. She is now in remission – thank goodness! But is still weak and tires easily. I also got to meet his girlfriend, a lovely young lady who has stood by him for the last 3 years, and pledges to do so for the next 2 while he is studying in Australia.
It was while coming down the stairs from the roof, where his parents were showing off their garden that it happened: Opal took my arm and beseeched me to be careful. Immediately behind us was Evan’s mom, holding on to the banister, cautiously easing herself down.
On the one hand: a fairly vigorous, physically active woman of more than 50 years. On the other: a pushing 50 woman who had just battled cancer and tires easily. Who does Opal choose to ‘help’?
As previously mentioned in Boys and Girls, posted October 2013, girls take physical possession of me and my things in order to assure maximum safety and comfort. All of this is meant to show respect and esteem but only serves to make me feel doddering, old and stupid.
If it had been this lone instance of ‘respectful’ behavior, I would have shrugged it off, accepting this maddening conduct as a cultural more I will most likely never get used to. But there’s more.
Two students needed coaching for a competition that I was to judge. I didn’t find out until later that I would judge it, so coaching them felt like an ethical breach. Nevertheless, there they were, scrubbed and shiny in my apartment on Sunday afternoon. When asked about their summer plans, Susie told me she was going to volunteer as an English teacher in Enshi for 2 weeks.
I had been seeking such an opportunity myself and asked if that delegation might make use of a foreign teacher. Susie expressed doubt from the outset and I had to agree with her. It would be difficult for me to visit a rural area for any extended time because of my dietary woes. Produce sends me into abdominal spasms and dizziness. In the country, people mostly eat vegetables. How would it be if we were served a veggie laden meal and I did not eat? That would be insulting to my hosts, according to Chinese culture. As I saw it, that would be the biggest problem.
Nevertheless I asked her to contact the project coordinator, and to give him my phone number if he was interested. I would gladly have spoken for myself but Susie, being a traditional type of girl who feels it her responsibility to ‘manage’ me took it upon herself to negotiate the entire affair.
The response I got from the coordinator, as relayed by her was:
1. It will be a long bus ride, and most likely too uncomfortable for me.
2. The volunteers will sleep in the school house and those accommodations would not be suitable for me.
3. If I were to need medical attention, the nearest hospital was 40km away.
I saw all of these as paper thin excuses. If the bus ride might be uncomfortable for me, what about for the rest of the volunteers? If the volunteers are going to sleep in the schoolhouse, how would that not be suitable for me? What if other volunteers got injured? Wouldn’t the hospital be the same distance for as it is for me? I had the sneaking suspicion that Susie fabricated these concerns out of ‘responsibility’ toward me, or that she told the project coordinator all sorts of misinformation that led him to exercise undue caution, barring my participation.
This event, coupled with Opal’s diligent concern that I might fall down the stairs while totally disregarding his beloved’s mother who might actually have needed help put me in a tailspin. For once and for all: I NEED to understand this school of thought.
As usual I appealed to Sam.
He knows me very well. He knows I am fiery, filled with élan. He does his best to keep up with my zest for life, putting only minimal restrictions on anything I might want to experience. Case in point: I’ve long had a dream to bike my way across China. Maybe not all the way across the country but at least to other cities. I envisioned a camp pack strapped to the back of my bike and long rides into the countryside. Although he would be OK with my riding with a team, he put the kibosh on solo travels because it could be very dangerous: drunk drivers, country folk overwhelmingly curious about foreigners, breakdown, my not speaking the dialect. Even though my Putonghua (common language) is pretty good, not everybody in the country speaks/understands it.
I accepted his concerns as valid. He actually has responsibility for me while I’m in China – as opposed to all those who think they have to take care of me. If something were to happen to me, it would be on him to resolve it. I could not ask my friend to shoulder that burden just so I could go have fun.
At one time he agreed that my volunteering would be wonderful, both for me and for the community I volunteered at. When I told him about this monstrous disappointment, coupled with my ongoing frustration at ‘respectful’ treatment, he was empathetic. I beseeched him to help me make heads or tails of these situations.
In a nutshell: it all comes down to ‘face’ or, put another way: shame.
Country life is hard. People are not just poor, they are dirt poor. If they see 500Yuan in one year they are doing well and even better if they see it all at once. In remote areas there is no electricity. Daily showers are unheard of: people wash in local streams or sponge bathe in a basin. Bathroom functions happen in a pot or out in nature. Sam averred that country folk are most likely too ashamed to welcome a foreigner. In their minds, most likely a foreigner would turn away from such a hard life with scorn and disdain. To an extent, I agree. But I’m not that foreigner. Wouldn’t my volunteering indicate that? Sam agrees, but demurs that shame, or ‘face’ prevails.
I’d like to tell people in the country that their circumstances are not a cause for shame to me. I’d like to impress upon them that I see the poignancy of their life, the beauty of their communion with nature, the significance of their traditions. I’d like to open their minds to the idea of welcome, of showing this foreigner what their life is really about, and showing them that not all foreigners are disdainful. I’m sad that this slice of China might forever be closed to me.
Sam suggested I talk with our dean about my desire to volunteer. She is very connected and might know of a project needing an eager foreigner. I never thought of taking the matter up with Lisa but it is a great idea. I wonder if she’ll have time for me. She is very busy, especially at the end of the year. And: if I approach her now, wouldn’t that be self-serving, seeing as I’ve passed on visiting her all semester under the consideration that she is always busy?
Perhaps I can invite her to lunch. We can talk about our year, our triumphs, our plans for the summer. Maybe I can put a bug in her ear about teachers volunteering, and perhaps I might learn that there already is such a cadre. Might I be able to infiltrate? Or maybe we can plan on next year. In any case, it would be nice to lunch with Lisa.
Fortunately I taught my last class on Friday. I won’t have to face Susie or deal with her baseless concerns for me anymore. As we left class for the last time, she cautioned me down the stairs, and then informed me I can ride my bike around campus but not out on the street. It is too dangerous for me. Only the thought that this might be our last conversation kept me from biting her head off. Sad that, after 2 years she doesn’t ‘see’ me at all.