Living cross-cultural living means living with a nearly constant barrage of surprises. Particularly for those of us who have been abroad for a long time, it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve got the place figured out, that we know what’s up and what’s down, what’s in and what’s out. Sometimes we even seem to know what to expect and what not to expect.
When those thoughts creep in, beware… something is likely to come out of left field and remind us that we are still pretty clueless about all the little things that go on in the society around us. The unexpected may throw us for a loop, causing frustration, or even anger. More often than not, however, if we are paying attention they can be positive experiences which open windows, allowing us to see that the society which we so poorly understand, and which we sometimes think barely functions, is, in fact rather “normal." At least for a few minutes, then, we might have the feeling of being an insider instead of the outsider that we in reality always are.
An experience I had while still living in Changchun, Jilin in the 1990’s bears this out. As I was in my kitchen one afternoon making supper (that's definitely NOT normal), I heard a knock at the door. Like most Chinese apartment buildings, this one had a security door, so someone knocking at my door in itself was a bit unusual. Normally someone visiting me would ‘buzz’ me from the outside and I would (after identifying them) open the outside door for them via a magic button. Ignoring a simple rule of common sense like looking through the peep hole and asking who was out there, I just opened the door, assuming it was one of American colleagues who lived on the fourth floor.
I was wrong! When I opened the door, there stood a rather smallish young woman, dressed in a funny grey robe and hat.
In such a situation, I suspect that the last thing on earth this woman expected to see on the other side of the door was a slightly oversized foreign woman with yellow hair and fair skin, and upon seeing said woman, she would most likely either freeze, say excuse me and move on, or if she were scared enough, maybe even scream! After all, if one is Chinese, one expects the door to be answered by a Chinese, not a foreigner! Not this lady, though. She was a picture of poise, and as if my presence were the most normal thing in the world, smilingly launched into some kind of speech, talking a mile a minute.
Keep in mind that at this point I had lived in China for 10 years, and had been working on my Chinese language skills for 8 of those—but at that moment I could not understand a word this sweet lady (should I say girl?) was saying. NOT ONE WORD! I could tell this was not going to be a positive language experience. Either she was simply talking too fast (possible), was speaking some obscure dialect (unlikely), or was using such formalized speech that included ONLY vocabulary I’d never studied (probable).
My first response was to simply tell her that I didn’t understand, hoping that she would take pity on me, excuse herself, and leave quietly. But she was on a mission, so when I told her I didn’t understand, she just smiled, showed me her card (with a photo and the ubiquitous red stamp), and started her speech all over again. “I still don’t understand”, I pleaded, but to no avail.
I realized that my only hope of understanding her was to get her away from her prepared speech and using more colloquial language. “Just what is it that you want me to do?” I asked, this time going for the more direct approach.
Sighing, but without breaking her sweet smile, she plunged in again. It was still the speech, still formal, but this time I caught what seemed to me to be three essential words: “temple”, “donate money”, and “repairs”.
AHAH! Suddenly her attire made sense. She was a young nun from a Buddhist temple, going door-to-door collecting donations for temple repairs! Wanting to be sure of my conclusion, I asked her if that was who she was and what she was doing. “Yes!”
Now we were both smiling, feeling very pleased with our success. She showed me her notebook filled with names of my neighbors who had promised donations (a little peer pressure never hurts). I told her that I was a Christian, and therefore preferred to donate my money to the church. “Oh, but Buddhism and Christianity are almost the same,” she replied. I assured her that they weren’t and that I still preferred to donate my money to the church. “I’m sorry.” One more smile, a shrug of the shoulders, and she was on her way up the stairs.
I call this a “normalizing” event, and the normalizing came in two forms: One was in seeing a way this society has for people to make charitable donations, even to religious entities. The other was in being treated like everyone else in the building. I got no special treatment, positive or negative, because I was a foreigner. At least for a brief time, I was a resident, a member of the speech community, and the same expectations were being placed on me as were being placed on my neighbors.
I went back into the kitchen smiling.
Hah! I had an “open door” experience once, my first year in China. In fact, in the first week at my school, if I remember right. I was slumbering away and a knock came at the door. The only few people I knew were the five other foreign teachers and our building manager. So I get up to answer the door in my pajama pants (no shirt) and to my surprise there are two Chinese men dressed in suits at my door. The one points to the other and says, “This is the vice-president.” WAH! First, vice-president of what? And why am I not wearing a shirt for such an early morning occasion!
So I invited them inside, put on a shirt, and we chatted for a few minutes in my apartment. It was very brief, they left, and I was left bewildered at what had just happened.
I never answered the door without a shirt again. And never did I meet that vice-president again, to my knowledge.