Beautiful Subtlety

When I tell people I lived in China, they usually follow up with the question, “What was that like?”

How do you sum up two years in another country?

You simply can’t reduce a place like China to a one sentence answer. There is so much beautiful subtlety to their culture. There is so much innuendo that you can’t read about in a book… it has to be lived over and over again until it’s a part of you.

I tell people that, when I would get dressed in the morning to leave my flat, the last item of clothing I put on was Chinese Culture. For the first year I lived there, the culture I lived in was completely foreign. I had to consciously interpret not only the language but the cultural messages that were completely different from everything I grew up with. After about half a year, I started thinking in Chinese. After about a year, Chinese Culture moved from being the last item of clothing I put on to something alive inside of me.

I like to tell people about an average meal eating out with my Chinese students and/or friends as an example of the multiple rules that govern something as simple as sharing a meal. (We have just as many rules, by the way. We just know them so well we can’t even see them for what they are.)

When my group would arrive at the restaurant, the first thing that would happen is that we would all be seated. But you don’t just grab the seat you want. Your social ranking in the group determines where you sit. The person with the highest ranking in society (the oldest, the richest, the teacher, the parent, the man) gets to sit facing the door/aisle. The person with the lowest stature sits with their back to the door and everyone else organizes themselves in between those two.

As a teacher, I often found myself sitting in the seat of honor… even when I was the youngest person at the table. It was easy to get used to being spoiled. Everyone else had to offer me the first bites of a dish. Everyone else had to pour my beer. baijiu, or tea for me. It’s good to be the king.

I remember a meal in which I was eating with a Chinese man who was (1) older than me, (2) had a Master’s Degree from an American university, and (3) was my superior in the office. The other party at the meal was a (1) retired American who (2) had been the CEO for a major credit card company. I found myself ignored as we sat. For the first time, I was relegated to the seat with the least honor. I fumed inside for the first fifteen minutes of the meal until I finally wrapped my head around and accepted the fact that I was the least deserving of respect at the meal. Our Chinese host doted on the older American and I had to fend for myself and my wife. It’s not so good to be the peasant.

So, after you’ve had to figure out where you’re supposed to sit (Your Chinese friends don’t even have to think about it since they’ve done this their entire life. Every time they walk into a room they unconsciously figure out their social standing in the room.), you then have to actually eat and drink. If you are at the bottom of the food chain, you better not grab the first dumpling. If you’re at the top of the food chain, you better be ready to eat from the head of the fish (it’s always pointed at the person with the most honor). If you are the host, you have to refill everyone’s drinks and you have to offer the person with the most status the first bite of each dish. It’s a lot of work to host a meal. You can find yourself refilling drinks and placing food on plates in between frantic bites of food.

Lastly, let’s talk about alcohol. Most cultures have hypocritical “blind spots”… areas in which there are conflicting rules about social protocols and behaviors. China has conflicting rules regarding alcohol consumption. A man’s manhood is measured by how much alcohol he can handle.  However, it is shameful to be drunk in public. As a result, most men try to thread the needle between machismo and responsibility. There is, however, an added safety mechanism with alcohol consumption… no one drinks more than anyone else. Everyone has to keep pace so some people find themselves slowing down their drinking while others have to speed up. Even with this cultural safety mechanism, men quite often fail to stay sober… the entire group gets plastered. I observed plenty of men staggering out of restaurants, reeking of alcohol.

I remember when I was invited into the home of one of my students. She lived with her parents and I soon found myself in a drinking contest with her dad. He brewed his own baijiu, a Chinese spirit that is closer to turpentine than it is to whiskey. This man also made his baijiu more “manly” by fermenting it with a giant lizard in the bottle. I think it’s supposed to add virility or something. Or maybe it’s just supposed to look badass.

This man would pour us both a tiny glass of his homebrewed poison and we were supposed to drink it gambei style… throw it back like a shot. It remains to this day the most dreadful shit I’ve ever poured down my throat. It burned like bad medicine mixed with cigarette smoke and cauterized my taste buds. Tears came to my eyes and I coughed after the first round. After the second round I surrendered and begged him not to refill my cup. He gained a story about outdrinking a foreigner. In China that’s a pretty awesome story.

So, you can see how hard it is to answer the question “what was that like to live in China?”

I usually just smile and tell the person asking me about China that “it was awesome.”


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