Chinese Stories in English
Another Ugly American
If I ever visit Rome, I’ll probably do as the Romans do. As long as I’m in China, though, there are some things that I continue doing in the good old American way.
Laopo tells me that when she was in grade school here in Liuzhou, she was taught to walk on the right-hand side of the road, with the traffic, if there is no sidewalk (like the young mother and her son in the photo on the left, just beyond the nearest motorbike rider’s right shoulder).
When I was in school in the States, I was taught to walk on the left, facing traffic,
the better to see any oncoming danger. Laopo hasn’t been able come up with a good
rationale for the Chinese practice, so, with apologies to the Bangles, I prefer to walk
like an American.
To tell you the truth, most Chinese don’t pay attention to this convention, anyway.
They walk in whatever part of the road is most convenient for them at the time, be
it left, right or middle.
* * *
In a crowded cafeteria here, it’s acceptable and indeed customary to sit down in any unoccupied chair at a table where others are already sitting. It’s acceptable in the States as well, of course, but there one customarily asks “Is this seat taken” or some similar nicety before sitting down. Here, people often just plop down and stare off into the distance as though they don’t see the others at the table.
Once I was having lunch in a KFC (I know, I know) when two old ladies sat down at my table. (Why is it never young movie starlets?) After the initial ignore-you stage, we ended up having a very pleasant conversation. When I was ready to leave I cleared my space and picked up the tray. They told me to just leave it, that a server would be along to clean it up shortly. I said that in my country, we always bus our own dishes. I tried to keep the self-righteousness out of my voice but probably failed.
Truth is, on this point I ought to learn to do as the Chinese do. Leaving the trash on the table does create jobs, after all. Maybe that’s why, every time I try to take my tray to the waste bin, a server comes running over and grabs it out of my hand – they don’t want the boss to see me get ideas about making do with fewer employees.
* * *
I was walking in a place where the sidewalk narrowed down to about three feet wide, with the street on one side and a wall on the other. A middle-aged man was standing there waiting for a bus. He had two 24-roll econo-packs of toilet paper with him. He had put the packages down on the ground, leaning against the wall, and was standing between the packages and the street, thereby completely blocking the sidewalk. I thought of three ways to handle the situation:
1. Liuzhou style, that is, step into the street and walk around the guy, avoiding controversy at all costs;
2. New York style, that is, shove the guy into the street, preferably in front of a taxi; or
3. Pittsburgh style, that is, charge ahead like a fullback through the line, regardless of who or what might be in front of me.
I chose #3, in the process kicking the airhead's t.p. about ten yards down the road. The guy shouted the Chinese equivalent of "What the…" as I passed by, but I didn't bother to turn around.
I realize it's arrogant and ignorant, not to mention futile, to expect the Chinese to conform their behavior to Western standards. But, you know, sometimes a man's got to do what a man's got to do.
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