Sunday, June 10, 2012

Socially Unacceptable Behavior I've Picked up in China

"All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They: 
But if you cross over the sea, 
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on 
We  As only a sort of They!"
~ Rudyard Kipling

Living here these past nearly-eleven months, I have picked up some "bad habits":

  1. When I see another foreigner (bluntly, someone with a non-Asian face), I stare.  I don't just give a polite, disinterested glance; I give a prolonged, Chinese-style, "Look, it's a laowai!" stare.  Running through my mind are a swirl of observations and queries:  "Do I know you?"  "Hmm, German?"  "What accent will come out of your mouth when you speak?"  "Newbie or tourist?"  "Wow, look at how big her eyes are!"  "I haven't seen that shade of skin in months!"  "I wonder what on earth an [insert nationality here] is doing here?"  
  2. I cross the road at a leisurely pace, walking directly in front of multiple lanes of oncoming traffic.  Guiding my steps is the confidence that comes from knowing that they probably won't actually hit me, although they will come darn close.  (Of course, the sad fact is that if I were Chinese, they probably would hit me -- I personally know three different Chinese people who have been hit by cars while crossing the street.)
  3. I openly discuss diarrhea.  In fact, diarrhea was about the third or fourth thing I learned how to say in Chinese when I first arrived (you may draw your own conclusions from that statement).  Now granted, I do come from a family that delights in sharing, analyzing, and comparing various southerly-located bodily functions, but most westerners really don't discuss diarrhea, in depth, in polite conversation.  Certainly not with the lady they buy their vegetables from!  (To be fair, she brought up the subject.)  The topic has also come up repeatedly with both of my Chinese teachers -- they really love diarrhea as subject matter for sample sentences.  It was even up for discussion with a complete stranger I met and chatted with (in Chinese) on a bus, and was happily chatted about with a taxi driver on one occasion.  And of course, diarrhea is highly appropriate lunchtime conversation with several of my Chinese friends.
  4. I use my fingers when eating, if it happens to more conveniently assist the food in its route from bowl/plate to mouth.  It's perfectly acceptable to do so here - Chinese friends are constantly telling me, "Just pick up the meat in your hands; don't bother with chopsticks!"

"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"