December 11th, 2009 | Published in China - Life
There is an aspect of my present life that I am already familiar with, and that is the mild episodes of paranoia that accompany living in a place where your actions are scrutinized more than usual and people in the community are generally aware of who you are and what you are doing on a daily basis more than you could ever guess.
In some ways, living in a tiny town in Vermont (where I went to college) for five years was like this. Even though I was just a college student, I knew the names and faces of most of the people in my college and a lot of the people outside the college. There weren’t a lot of distractions in Vermont (the town where I went to school had 3,500 people and the college 700), so people chatted, mostly, about each other.
That was, in almost every way, right up my alley; for most of my time I immensely enjoyed living in a place where I saw familiar faces every time I walked outside and where the term “tight-knit community” was more a mantra than a slogan. When I moved away to Portland, Oregon after college, the pointed disinterest with which most non-acquaintances regarded me and my overall insignificance in the social mix of a mid-sized city took me off guard. I had forgotten how different life in small-town Vermont is from the norm.
But now that I am living in a relatively small (by Chinese standards) city in China, I am realizing again what it means to have my actions scrutinized (maybe that’s too strong a word; looked upon with intense curiousity might be more precise) and to have my general reputation and public image be something that can and will change based on almost all my actions. (What I say in public, my politeness while interacting with people, my skills as an English guide and language learner, my shoe size, what I did for work prior to coming to China, how much money I make….every detail about me, it seems, could become something that is used as a detail to describe me to someone who doesn’t know me..) Everything I do / say / write is in a sense potentially public knowledge, and that adds something of a burden to the daily acts of life.
A case in point: A few weeks ago when I was meeting with some students on a particularly cold day, I took off my sweater in from of them because I was feeling warm. I had a button-down shirt on underneath it, of course, so it wasn’t like I was doing anything out of the ordinary (at least, according to my social norms). But everyone in the room gasped and emitted the “Waaaaaaaaah” that is the Chinese version of our “Woah”. Based on their response, you’d think I had just vomited in front of a roomful of students (which, please note, I have never done, despite what some people might say). I often here this “Waaaah” when I walk past little groups of students on campus and it usually makes me flash my trademark “shit-eating grin”. For some reason it is always hilarious to me the amazement I cause in students who don’t know me just by existing. Either that or I have a giant brown stain on my back when this happens; sometimes I wonder.
It turns out (at least as far as I was able to deduce from aggressively questioning students) that they all said “Waaaaah” because they were all freezing, sitting at their desks, and they thought I must be “Very strong” to be able to take off my sweater in such cold weather.
In retrospect (and I have only realized this upon writing about it) they must have been blowing smoke up my ass, because they know I am not that strong (I have always been, and still am, a slender, willowy bastard) and that is just too abstruse a reason for them to have all “Waaaaahhhd” simultaneously upon seeing me taking off my sweater. I’m guessing it just had something to do with the cultural appropriateness of taking off clothes in front of people. Maybe they thought it was weird. I think that is probably it. So, starting that day, I started taking off my sweater in the hallway before going into any classrooms. That seems to do the trick in quelling “waaahs”.
But, that’s not actually the end or the point of the story. The point is that just yesterday, weeks after I took my sweater off in front of the students, another student told me that she had heard, second-hand, about me taking off my sweater in front of the class. I believe her exact words were: “The students think you are very interesting. They said that you took off your sweater in front of the class. That’s very interesting, I thnk.”
My impulse was to ask, again, aggressively, “What on earth does INTERESTING mean?!” But I did not. Instead I smiled, nodded, and said I’m glad that the students find me interesting.
What happened in the classroom that day, what exactly caused them to “Waahhh” at me, perhaps I will never know (note that the students in question who “Waaahd” were all older than me, some by 10 or 20 years, and about evenly divided by gender). But, I am long past worrying about it. More noteworthy, I think, is the kind of general paranoia inspired by a vague awareness that anything I do could become a story that is passed from person to person as somehow emblematic of me. I mean, it’s not like the student I spoke to yesterday heard anything about my progress in Chinese, or my patience or professionalism, or anything (not that I care that she didn’t) – she heard about how I took my sweater off.
All this, however, I understand and am actually pretty comfortable with, I think. After living in a tiny town in Vermont for five years I know that talk is often just talk, and people are usually happy to have something to talk about. It (usually) has little or nothing to do with the subject of the conversation. And I feel OK about my ambassadorial performance so far (despite one experience with a bit of excessive drinking, but that has more to do with the Chinese penchant for forcing beer down one’s throat whenever possible and was not my fault, and I will get to that in another post….) And, as the title of this post suggests, paranoia is, in my opinion, an unavoidable facet of modern life – in America, in China, wherever. If people have the means and the leisure (and now, the technology) to gossip and chit-chat, share judgements and observations within a shared worldview / framework (which the Chinese seem to have in spades), you will have paranoia. Especially if you are a foot taller than everybody else, have different colored skin and hair, and they turn and say “Waaaaaah” when you walk by.
These are just some of the pros and cons. You get much love and affection, and along with it, plenty of attention.
Peace out for now.