May 23rd, 2011 | Published in China - Cultural Differences
Last year at about this time, I was moving into a friend’s apartment to stay for the month of June while he went back to his home country (Camaroon) to see his family. My friend was another foreign teacher at the college, and he had long paid for his own apartment in the city center, even though the college also provided housing on campus for us foreign teachers.
The place was pretty spartan. He had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a small bathroom with no hot water and a dining room slash living room. He had furnished the apartment with a folding aluminum table in the kitchen, about five blue plastic stools, a more than 10-year-old bed in the bedroom, a typewriter stand with a computer on it next to the bed, a TV on a TV stand in the corner of the bedroom, and a bamboo mat on the floor of the second bedroom. There was a poster of a young Chinese pop-star-looking model half torn off the wall of the second bedroom (left by the previous resident) and a laminated picture of a Chinese woman that a student of his had cut from red paper. Aside from a refrigerator that stood in the kitchen with a bowl sitting on top of it, and built-in closets full of clothes, that was all that he had in the apartment. He had lived there for more than a year.
Despite the black hole of charm that this apartment represented, however, it was an improvement from my previous living situation. The apartment I had on the college campus was old and unclean, and located too far from the city. So I was glad to move into my friend’s apartment in the city.
His apartment quickly proved to be not to my liking, though, mostly due to a serious roach problem. I remember one night in particular that I was spending with my girlfriend at the time, after we entered the apartment I turned on the light, and then quickly turned it off again. “Are you afraid of cockroaches?” I asked her in Chinese.
“Yes,” she said.
“Wait outside for a minute,” I said. She stepped outside, I went back in, turned on the light, killed as many Cheeto-sized roaches as I could before they all scattered out of sight (about three or four), and then poked my head out the door. “OK, you can come in now,” I said.
After that, I simply decided to move into the newest building I could find in the city. This is an urge I have never had before in any place. I’ve always gravitated towards old places, places that I thought had more of an austere look and seemed a bit weathered. But that changed after I dealt for a while with dirt, roaches, rats and bats. I became a lover of new things, and in this way came to understand, to some degree, not to romanticize poverty or to intuitively reject development as an idea.
This is all a rambling way to introduce the place where I now live, which is called “Sunny City”. Before I moved in here the place looked ridiculous to me: about 20 brand-new apartment buildings in a huge cluster, built on top of an underground shopping mall. The buildings are all around 20-stories, which by my reckoning means there are around 2,000 or more apartment units, which is pretty vast. The grounds are all nicely landscaped and well tended. There is at-your-door garbage pickup. There are security cameras. Like most Chinese construction, the buildings are already showing signs of wear and deficient building — there’s a crack in the wall of my bedroom, and for some reason for months all the kitchen fans on this side of the building seemed to blow backwards directly into my apartment through my kitchen fan. So that was awesome. But other than that, it’s mostly OK. I haven’t killed any roaches or wild animals in my home for a year, which has been very nice.
But there is one thing that is maddening about the place — one thing that I realized recently would never be accepted in the U.S.: the noise.
The thing about Sunny City is that the buildings were considered complete before any of the apartments’ interiors had been designed or built. Half of the apartments in the park haven’t been sold or lived in yet. That means that even though there are already a ton of people living here, every time an apartment is sold it must be built on the inside. They are selling these fuckers a la carte. And building an apartment’s interior is, it turns out, very loud.
Last weekend they were resurfacing a wall in a unit just below mine, which mean that there was a guy with a hammer and chisel taking the tiles and the concrete binding agent off the wall, and it took him four days. He started at 7:45 every morning. I know this because the noise sounded like it was right next to my head, and it was impossible to sit in my apartment without feeling like I was going nuts when the chiseling was going on. It lasted about six hours each day. No writing happened on those days. At one point I resorted to picking up a corner of my very heavy bed and slamming it on the floor, in the hope that it might make him stop (yes, clearly illogical).
At one point, I remembered with nostalgia the nice notes the landlady used to put up in the elevator in my apartment in Portland, Ore. when the water was going to be off for 45 minutes on a Tuesday morning at 10:30, when no one was going to be home anyway. Even then the notes seemed absurd. Just turn off the water, lady — do you really think we’re gonna complain? I used to think. Now the elevator note seems like an exotic and incredible fairy tale. Nobody else in this building seemed particularly disturbed by the hammering last week. It just happened, and people accepted it. And this happens all the time. People are much more willing to accept rude and abrupt intrusions into their personal space and nice quiet bubble, to an extent that Americans’ finickiness and insistence that others’ respect their personal space and right to peace and quiet and safety seems completely absurd.
The best example I can think of is that the last time I went home, I was shocked to learn that you’re not allowed to use cell phone on long-range buses in the U.S. I had forgotten this in my time in China. The idea that someone was telling me not to make phone calls to respect others’ who might want to rest seemed laughable when I heard it, but it was great when I wanted to take a nap. You never find that here. It seems a long range bus ride is a license for the loudest imaginable person to start shouting into his cell phone here.
This idea extends to so many things in life, including accepting the decisions of authority. I have been astonished to see the gentle, almost blithe acceptance by people here of decisions from above — decisions that make me bridle as though someone had taken away one of my basic rights, or denied me food, or something. In my first couple of months of teaching there was a sports meet at the university for which all classes would be canceled for a couple days, and I didn’t find out about it two days before. How could they not tell me? I said to myself. Don’t they know that if they had told me a head of time I could have planned some travel, or something? Now I’m just going to sit at home with nothing to do. I was sincerely, unashamedly pissed off. Then the next day, when, because of rain, the sports meet was canceled and class was back on the following day, I was even more pissed. What if I had made plans to travel somewhere?! I chafed.
But people around me just accepted it, as I’ve seen them do time after time here over the past two years. An order comes down from above, and everybody follows it. There is no use complaining. Complaining only makes people upset and angry. You’re better off just going along with it.
The cultural difference was hammered home last week when I was describing to my Chinese teacher an ordeal involving an alum from my college in the U.S., who I had helped the university invite to China to teach. They had strung him along for a month, saying that the position, and then at the last minute, in a mysterious, completely unexplained twist of events, they had changed their minds and said they had enough foreign teachers. He had put off job searching for a month and several people had spent a lot of time communicating to prepare for his trip out, not to mention the Chinese books he bought to get ready, and the kind of mental preparations you have to make for a trip like that. But the word came down from above, and the people who informed him and me of the change passed on the information nonchalantly, as if they couldn’t imagine a world in which another option aside from indifferent acceptance was possible.
When I told my teacher about this, I used the word “disappointment”, cuozhe, and her reaction was confusion.
“No, I think that word is too strong,” she said. “You should use a lighter word.” Her eyes looked straight ahead as she searched for a word, as if the story didn’t even warrant a negative label — really, as if this was actually how things should have gone. Then she came up with a word. “This is just a small trouble,” she said, using xiao (meaning small) and mafan, which is the kind of word you use when you don’t want to put ketchup on your fries because opening the little foil ketchup packet is too mafan. “You can just call it a small trouble.”
By now I could almost expect this reaction, and I felt a weird mix of guilt but also frustration. Guilt because I knew for a fact that she, my teacher, had experienced much worse in her life than I could ever imagine, and therefore really did see the problem as just a small trouble; and frustration, of course, because I am an American, and some part of me — I would even say some slightly spoiled, self-righteous part (characteristics that aren’t necessarily always bad) — wanted to insist. No, this is not just a small trouble, he wanted to say. This is a tragedy!