Maria Holland

So I Say Thank You; What Of It?

In Uncategorized on June 15, 2010 at 11:15 pm

This morning, I went on a two-hour misadventure around Xiamen in a monsoon.  A friend from church had mentioned a Taiwanese food festival up at the convention center, so Lester and I braved the torrential rains – soaked by the time we got to the bus stop – to check it out. 

There was nothing there.  There were people walking around suspiciously like they were going to some exhibition or something, but everyone claimed ignorance when I asked them.  Same with the guards and all other employees.  One man said we could get in if we got a saklfjskdfj card, which could be gotten “over there”, but “over there” was a locked door.  And behind the locked door was a massive empty hall, so I’m not entirely sure we even wanted a saklfjskdfj card.  There was a red sign “warmly wishing success for the x-th” something or other, but those things are everywhere in China and could be easily be expressing best wishes for the upcoming Thursday this week. 

The convention center is in the middle of nowhere, 20 kuai by taxi from the school, so getting back after admitting our failure wasn’t easy either.  As we waited by the side of the road, huddled under umbrellas but dripping anyway, a few bus drivers made eye contact with us and slowed down.  They would veer close enough to make us think they were going to stop and let us on, but then they would just splash us with dirty puddle water.  We got contradictory directions from several passers-by before finally finding a bus station that had no buses to XiaDa but did have ones going to places that had buses to XiaDa. 

This happens every now and then; it’s called a BCD or Bad China Day.  Memorable BCD’s of the past include the day Mom and I spent scouring Beijing for Matteo Ricci’s tomb, the entire weekend trip to Ningde, and the day I climbed a mountain in church clothes.  Here’s how a typical Bad China Day goes (courtesy of echinacities):

“Your day started off with the common sledgehammer outside your window. The workers got a fresh start at 4:30 am and interrupted your slumber with deafening shaking vibrations that jolted you out of your bed. . . At lunch, they refuse to serve the dish you order every single day of the week because they assure you that it doesn’t exist. This item, while not being on the menu, is only made up of two ingredients: beef and peppers, both of which are in 50% of the other dishes.  After work, you . . . waited for a taxi for 45 minutes only to have it stolen away by 5 different sets of people. In addition, you managed to simultaneously get splashed by a mud puddle by a 90-year-old lady on a dirt bike with 80 kilos of celery tied to the back. . .

You realize that you have no shampoo because you bought some mysterious kind by accident that turns your hair into stringy broom bristles and it oddly enough won’t completely wash out.  You try to run into the supermarket to buy shampoo and frantically run through the store to the shampoo aisle. One of the shampoo aisle ladies (there are four), comes over to help you and you try to ask what the shampoos are for since the time before the stringy broom bristle incident you made yourself look like Janis Joplin on crack. She explains to you several different things none of which you understand and you wonder why you even bothered. You elect to buy the brand you know, Pantene, even though it could be for soft and smooth, extra volume, dandruff controlled. It doesn’t matter because you can’t explain it anyway and it’s your own fault. You try to rush up to the check out where three ladies rush up to you and tell you that you must go back to the shampoo area to pay for the shampoo.  As fast as you can you rush back to the shampoo aisle lady where she grabs your arm and shows you to a counter where the lady takes your shampoo, and fills out a pink, blue, and green receipt. She points to the other end of the toiletry area and you shuffle over to the next counter, receipts in hand. The lady at the other counter then takes your blue receipt and after you give her the money, she stamps it, pointing you in yet another direction. You take the stamped blue receipt and give it to another woman who then stamps your pink sheet and returns you to the original woman so you can get your shampoo! At this point you are exasperated and whiny and are only annoyed at the two ladies waiting at checkout to quadruple check your receipts.

Yup, that’s about right.  I think the main addition I would make would be a communication error that consists of you repeating something in Chinese over and over, using it in a sentence, illustrating it with hand gestures, only to look up the characters and show it to the Chinese person and have them say, “Oh, you meant [exactly what you just said]”.  A perfect example was a few weeks ago when Carlos, YongZhi and I were discussing differences between Chinese and foreign beds.  Carlos and I were talking about how hard Chinese mattresses are, but YongZhi didn’t understand.  “Chuángdiǎn.” Carlos kept saying, “The thing that you sleep on; your bed doesn’t have one; our beds have big thick blue ones”, but YongZhi had no idea what we were talking about.  He kept trying to correct us to “chuānglián”, which means “curtain”.  Finally, Carlos looked it up on his iPhone and showed it to YongZhi, who immediately said, “Oh, you meant chuángdiàn!”  I literally fell down laughing. 

But anyway, this was just a Bad China Morning.  I recouped with a shower and a patchwork (but delicious!) lunch of pizza, chicken rice, mangos, and hot chocolate with Lester and XuLei in my room.  And then I got a text message from Jelle, who was apparently as bored as me.  You know, the only thing worse than going to class here is not having class and realizing you have nothing better to do . . . It’s a three-day [fake] weekend but there’s nothing to do!  My best Chinese friend is taking tests (which makes me believe that this holiday can’t be all that important), and the weather consists of ridiculous amounts of moisture either coming down by the bucketful as rain or hanging suspended in the air as 90+% humidity. 

We went to a movie – Robin Hood, not so great – and then had dinner at a Myanmar restaurant.  We had a very introspective conversation, reflecting on our time in China (this year for me, this semester for him) and our feelings about this country, its people, and their customs.  We talked about how rude our waitress was being – about average for China, but she would have been fired immediately in America.  We discussed the dead-end nature of jobs like hers and the way they kill peoples’ dreams, and debated whether or not cultural relativity makes that okay. 

In China the customer is not always right.  On good days, the customer is tolerated; on bad days your very presence is an affront.  In defense of Chinese salespeople, the customers aren’t usually shining examples of politeness and courtesy.  I guess it’s hard to say which came first, the surly waitress who slams dishes down and needs to be asked three times to bring the rice, or the obnoxious customers who bellow 服务员 (“waitress”) and demand food without so much as a please or – heaven forbid – thank you.

Apparently one stereotype of Americans is that we say thank you a lot.  That’s cool with me.  They think it’s strange here to thank people for doing their job, but I unabashedly say thank you when the Coco worker hands me my tea, when the waitress gives me my chopsticks, when the 老板 gives me my change, or when the taxi driver stops at their destination. 

I came across a few travel blogs tonight and read a few posts, where I was surprised at some of the anti-American sentiment.  I was interested to hear that some Americans pretend they’re Canadian when traveling, for instance.  I’ve pretended to be from other countries, of course, but only when I first came to China and wanted to see what I could get people to believe.  (Or when Aleid answers first and I’m too lazy to point out that we’re not both from the Netherlands; she does the same.)  But pretending to not be American to avoid American stereotypes seems really stupid to me.  Theoretically, those that pretend to not be Americans are the kind of Americans that they would like the world to know – but instead of making themselves known as an ideal American specimen, showing the world that something (or someone) good can come out of our country, they just take the easy way out and avoid the hassle of challenging the stereotypes they hate.  Way to be, dude. 

Yeah, people know I’m American and I get asked about Bush and Obama and Iraq and and Schwarzenegger and soccer (always soccer!), but I try to answer their questions and we all move on as the mature adults that we have the potential to be.  A lot of times I remind people that citizens are not synonymous with their governments, and that one American is not a proxy for the other 300 million of us.  But mostly I think both the bad and good impressions are based on actions and, as with my faith, I hope to be a good representative by trying to be myself (only better).  And part of being myself is being American. 

Another thing that surprised me were some of the comments about people from the USA calling themselves American.  Apparently that’s not good because it’s appropriating the name of two entire continents (which, last time I checked, where called North and South America) for one country.  But United States isn’t good either, because then what about the United States of Mexico?  And anyway, United Statesian and USA-er don’t sound too good.  Does this seem like a non-issue to anyone else?

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  1. Even a BCD gets a good blog! And yes, I think it’s a non-issue if we call ourselves “Americans” – it’s what the whole world calls us too. And as you pointed out, there aren’t any real good alternatives.

    (BTW, Bud says hi. He got to sleep with me again last night since Mom is gone. I had to wake up in the middle of the night and move him over since he was sprawled perpindicularly across the bed…)

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