Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How Bout Them Apples?


As my in-laws stay in the States begins to wind down and as I prepare for my annual trek to China, I suppose it’s appropriate to turn the tables a bit. Much of what I have written on and about has been the cultural screw-ups and misunderstandings that my in-laws have engaged in as foreigners to my culture. But none of us are immune to such strangeness, least of all myself. In a few weeks, I will pack my bags, will take a 13-hour flight, and will arrive in a land where I will suddenly find myself the strange foreigner in their culture.

Strangeness is not a function of the person. It is a determination; a label that is handed down by the larger social environment that one is placed in. This is the root of culture shock that many have experienced when travelling abroad. Yes, one finds one’s self surrounded by the strangeness and oddities of the people, places and customs of where one has travelled. But this is not the deepest source of the stress and anxiety one experiences while abroad. Cultural shock springs from the realization that it is you that has suddenly become the foreigner, the deviant, the stranger.  Everything you do and say marks you as being different, of being ignorant, of being strange.

I will never forget in America, when a female Chinese acquaintance responded to my question of how her day was going: “Not well. I was just trying to leave the mall and a man fingered me in the parking lot.” It took me several seconds of absolute stunned silence to realize that what she meant to say was “shot me the finger.” When you are a foreigner in a foreign land, even in the most innocuous of situations and conversations, our strangeness marks us.

As I prepare for my annual summer stay in China, I’m mindful that I will soon metamorphosize in Kafkaesqian fashion into my own strange creature. Soon, very soon, it will be I with my pale skin and big nose and round eyes that will be gawked at and laughed at as I stumble and trip over the cultural divide that separates Chinese and American culture. The fact that I arrive to China, a racially monolithic country, with a Chinese wife and a bi-racial child in tow, only seems to add to my perceived strangeness while there. If that were not enough, my actions while in China only make it worse.

While I’ve made yearly trips to China since I was married 8 years ago, last year marked my first extended stay working as an affiliated professor with a Chinese University. It was an amazing experience that shaped me in ways that I have not yet fully come to understand. While I had spent considerable time living and travelling through most parts of the country with my Chinese side of the family, experiencing China in ways impossible for most foreign tourists, last summer marked my first attempts to go it alone. I needed those first 6 or 7 visits to get my footing, to learn the cultural nuances that would have otherwise overwhelmed me.

I had enough experience in country that I instinctually reached for toilet paper before leaving the house, something most Western visitors to China forget to do to their own detriment. Toilet paper is generally not provided in public restrooms there. Likewise, I had come to master the squat toilet, going so far as to prefer the Chinese hole in the ground to the Western style bowls, as the Chinese-way allowed me to do my business without having to come into contact with the surfaces that god knows how many other people had sat on that day. In fact, I had mastered the squat toilets to such a degree, using one while squatting on a moving train no longer sent waives of anxiety through my body.  And I had come to appreciate the art of the scrum that stands in for lines or ques that we in the West form into. Straight and orderly lines do not happen in China, and if you attempt to “politely” wait your turn, you will be waiting in China ‘till hell freezes over. I had learned to artfully push and squirm and wedge myself into the masses to make it to the front of whatever entrance the scrum had formed around.

And so I arrived last summer confident that my hard won knowledge and mastery of the cultural know-how of day to day living would be enough to allow me to blend in, to be accepted, to be a native. I had my own job, my own class of Chinese students, my own colleagues and my own apartment. I was ready to stake out on my own, to cut the safety net of my wife and family whom in the past, I could rely on to act as my guides and chaperones, and more often than not, to be the “fixers” who could apologize to others and explain to them all the rude, mindless cultural messes I created in interactions with the Chinese.  I was taking off my training wheels.

So I intentionally left for China three weeks ahead of my wife. It was an amazing experience. Forced to go it alone, my Chinese language skills grew more in that first three weeks than had done in the previous 2 years of studying the language. I found that I could go to the grocery store, to the markets, to restaurants, and could take cabs around town. It was not easy, things did not always go right, but even in these instances, I found that I could handle the situation and make myself understood. I anxiously awaited the arrival of my wife, not because I missed her (though I did), but because I wanted her to see all that I had accomplished.

Three weeks after starting my job there, she finally arrived. As is traditionally done in China, the University threw a formal banquet for us. They had waited until her arrival so both of us could be in attendance. Being the dumb-ass Texan I wrote about in a previous post, I try to avoid such events like the bird flu. I always say or do the wrong thing. I’m not good with small-talk, I never know which piece of silver wear to use or in what order, and the more anxious I get about all these things, the more I drink, which only makes things worse.

So I should have known to watch myself when we arrived to a huge banquet table and was led past the department chairs and deans in attendance, and were placed in the seat of honor, directly next to the University Provost.

The banquet began as all Chinese banquets do- with tea and cigarettes. I don’t smoke- unless I’m in China. And so not to be the stranger, the odd one, I took the first cigarette that was offered to me and set back to listen to the song-like tonal sounds of Mandarin that drifted across the expansive formal table.

You need to know, I don’t speak Chinese. I know some words, some sentence structures, and sometimes, I can pick up conversation themes, but it’s a lot of guesswork for me. But when it comes to food and drink talk around the dinner table, I’m damn near an expert.

This is mainly because eating and drinking is the center of Chinese culture, and so it is the component of the language I have had the most exposure too. In fact, a common Chinese greeting is “吃了吗?”- Literally, “Have you eaten?” So important is food and drink to Chinese culture and daily life, more formal meals can sometimes last 2-3 hours. Because of this, I have become the most proficient in aspects of the language that deal with food and drink.

So when the Provost turned to me and asked in Chinese “你要喝白酒?”- “Do you want to drink some Chinese bijou?” - I swelled with pride in not needing to turn to my wife to have the question translated. Which only worked to stoke my ego and confidence.

Chinese baijiu is a dangerous substance. An alcoholic spirit made of rice, potatoes and various other ingredients, it is best described as Moonshine with a kick. I hate the stuff. The problem is, it is so strong that every time I drink it, I end up forgetting everything, including the fact that I hated it. And so at every banquet I find myself consuming copious amounts of this evil drink. Including this banquet that found me seated next to the Provost.

There are certain truisms one learns in drinking alcohol. For instance, it is true that the more others drink, the better I look. Likewise, it is true that the more I drink, the better my Chinese gets. This was confirmed to me when the Provost held his baijiu glass up, thus quieting the table as he prepared to toast me, and then asked me in Chinese how I had managed to feed myself when I was living alone without my wife?

Giddy from too much baijiu, proud from three weeks of surviving in a foreign country absolutely on my own, and now seated next to my wife, with an inflated ego as she was witnessing firsthand how much of an old China hand I had become in her absence, I egoistically (and drunkenly) announced to the table- in perfect Chinese:

“我买了很多苹果” (I bought lots of apples- pinguo).

Except, what actually came out of my mouth was:

我买了很多屁股 (I bought lots of pigua…ass).

Seated next to the University provost, surrounded by every major dean and department chair at the University, and with my wife next to my side, I announced to the attending dignitaries, that I had purchased prostitutes in her absence.

They are still laughing some 12 months later. Though I’m not at all certain if they are laughing at my butchering of the language, or the look on my wife’s face as she stared me down upon my proclamation.

But they have invited me back to work again as an affiliated professor this summer. And while I would like to imagine that they have done so because of my research record, or my expertise in Western social theory, or even because of the job I did in teaching theory to their graduate students, I can’t help but suspect that they have asked that I come again this summer because if nothing else, I, as the stranger, the deviant, the foreigner, are assured to provide them with an object of humor as I make a daily ass of myself.


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