October 20th, 2009 | Published in China - Cultural Differences
I think it is the trademark of any neurotic person to constantly be in a state of anxiety and worry over things that he or she has done in the past that were idiotic.
I am, I think it is fair to say, one such person. I have, in the past, spent a lot of time worrying, fretting and hair-pulling over past infractions and offenses I committed, both real and imagined. The habit might have some practical purpose, but to all appearances it is just a way of burning up excess mental energy, or something. It seems to go everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and to generally do me no good in the process.
I hope, in this post, to illustrate for you some of the ways in which China is obliterating that self-conscious, neurotic part of me.
Or at least suspending it. I’ve only been here a week, so maybe that trait of mine is just on vacay while I get my head screwed back on.
The best example I can give you of how sheer circumstance destroyed all possibility of my being self-conscious by sheer self-consciousness overload was in the fact that, upon arriving here, I somehow caused the entire water system of the south end of campus to cease functioning for two days. All water flow stopped. That included showers, sinks, washing machines….everything but toilets. Southern campus includes my building, where I and one other foreign teacher live, some campus nurses offices, and two large apartment/dorm buildings where on-campus faculty live—I would guess that there are several hundred of them in those two buildings, judging by the size.
So within a day of getting here, I knock out the water for virtually all residential faculty at the university. And, I don’t even know it. All that I knew at the time was that I had flown halfway around the world to China, that I had been moving for around 35-40 hours straight, and that I desperately wanted a shower, and that I couldn’t have one for my first three days here. Which wasn’t a big deal – I was able to sponge bathe with some cold water in a bucket – but I was worried about whether the water situation would get fixed, or if I was experiencing a new and unprecedented status quo. I was persistently reminding my liaison that the water wasn’t working, and hoping that eventually he would prove correct when he said, “It will work tonight”.
So, eventually, the water got fixed. And only then did I find out that it had been out for the two faculty buildings, as well. That, let me make clear, was not my fault. Apparently a pipe in my building was broken, which meant no water to my place;so then, when the school’s workers attempted to fix that pipe, the whole water system went down. So the teachers’ water was only out a day. But, still, the water going out coincided with my arrival. Great.
This kind of thing—committing some real or imagined offense, unintentionally or by no fault of my own—seems to happen at least a few and perhaps several times a day here, in little microcosms of the whole experience of making a mistake, realizing the mistake, and then feeling like an idiot. Except I think that at this stage in my China life, I am so unaware of all the mistakes that I am probably making, all the weird little cultural faux pas that I may or may not be committing every time I open my mouth or leave my apartment, that I can only think that at some later stage, some more experienced, wiser version of myself will do that old thing – look back on me and think: what an idiot.
The good thing about making mistake after mistake after mistake, however, is that it generally doesn’t matter, and it actually becomes fun for me to be willing to make mistakes and to make a fool out of myself, a lot of the time. It is actually quite liberating. More when it comes to the small stuff, though – it’s not liberating to ruin the showering prospects of hundreds of people.
For instance, today, when I was trying to order lunch, for some reason, a student left a 5 yuan bill on the tray counter for me, in order (presumably) to pay for my lunch. I was oblivious to the 5 yuan that was lying on the counter next to me, but after I ordered, the students around me pointed to it and told me to take it. Of course, I paid for my own lunch and left the bill there, not understanding that someone had left it for me. So some students actually followed me as I walked to the tables and gave me the money. I muttered thank you in Chinese to them, and then scanned the room, trying to find the likely suspect (the one who had bought me lunch). I spotted a table of three students who were eyeing me with curiosity, and, assuming that it was they who had dropped the 5-spot, I went to their table and sat down and crashed their lunch. It turned out none of them really spoke English, so for the 20 minutes I sat there trying to converse using what little basic Chinese I know and shouting (basically) at them in very slow English. They also hadn’t bought my lunch.
It was, in a way, a complete disaster, socially speaking. But it was also a hell of a lot more fun than sitting by myself eating lunch.
There are like a million other examples. One involves what happened tonight, when I went to the convenience store with three other students and bought an 18 pack of bottled water.
They all looked at me quizzically when I put the heavy cube of water bottles on the counter.
What do you need that for? They asked.
For drinking, I said.
I bought the severely overpriced water before realizing that I had pulled the case of water from a stack of packed bottled waters that the store actually breaks open to sell individually. The students didn’t even have to explain to me that I should be bottling and refrigerating boiled water, not buying bottled water for 20 yuan a case. I could tell by the aghast expressions on their faces. But it took me a few minutes of reflection to figure all that out.
But then, after I realized what their shocked expressions were all about, I carried the 15-ish pounds of water home feeling all right. It was heavy, it was overpriced, it was a waste of plastic, but at least I figured something new out. I learned something. Even if I had to make an ass out of myself to do it.
There will be many, many more lessons to learn here. In the meantime, I will have to keep making a total buffoon out of myself every day. But at least I’m not sitting around wondering when I’m going to make an ass out of myself next. And I have water.
I guess I should also mention that I have no idea how to order food in China, really. I have learned how to say the names of a few dishes, so I am good to order pig heart noodles, or dumplings in broth with a side of peanut noodles, or mussel and beef broth noodles, but if I want anything new or different I basically have to go to the dining hall and stand in front of the kitchen and gesture madly and talk in very slow and deliberate English with whatever student happens to be nearby, asking him or her to help me order anything, anything, as long as he or she teaches me how to say the dish’s name in Chinese.
So, things are fun. I am learning and managing to stay fed and alive. I would like to write a post about teaching at some point, since that seems to take up the majority of my time and anxiety so far (since I have never really taught before), but it also seems the most mundane of all the subjects I have to choose from. But, nonetheless, I’ll reflect on teaching soon.
Thanks for reading HFATT.