There are four things you should know before I move forward:
ONE: It’s my job to teach people how NOT to act in China.
• Show some respect
• Go easy on the stereotypes
• Don’t be a jerkwad
Stuff like that.
TWO: My most frequent Chinese conversation goes EXACTLY (word for word only in Chinese) like this:
Them: Do you have a savings card?
Me: No I don’t have one
Them: Would you like a bag?
Me: Yes I would.
It’s ALWAYS the same two questions at EVERY supermarket checkout.
THREE: My daughter is Chinese.
AND FOUR: The Chinese word for “No I don’t have” sounds the same as abbreviated Mayonnaise in English.
“Mayo (mei you)”
To be clear my daughter is ONLY Chinese on the outside. Her lenses, linguistics and cultural DNA have my wife and I written all over them. She is a strong case for nurture over nature. She’s adopted from China which mean she blends here . . . unless . . . she’s hanging out with us. That simple fact has been (hands down) the most frustrating part of her experience in China and possibly ours as well.
It starts with a baffled stare . . .
Them: Who’s your daddy?
Her: (pointing to me and rolling her eyes) That guy.
Them: Whaaat?! Impossible. Your hair is so black. You look like a Chinese girl.
She has had this conversation a bajillion times and every time it has made her uncomfortable. She’s gotten pretty good at the awkward chuckle but inside you can see the wheels turning:
“REALLY?!! I look like a Chinese girl?! THIS IS CHINA!! All girls look like a Chinese girl!! That’s not really the problem for you IS IT?!! The problem is the two WHITE people that I’m hanging around with — THAT is what’s throwing you for a loop!! Why don’t you talk to them about it?!”
Thankfully she doesn’t have the language set or the mitigated gall to go ballistic like that but suffice it to say . . . it’s a tension.
Even if she did work up the nerve (or finally broke down) she understands fully that they would never talk to us because we clearly don’t speak Chinese (even though we speak more than they expect) and it will ALWAYS come right back to her because she clearly does (even though she speaks less than they expect).
I sometimes try to step in and prove that my Chinese is actually better than hers which almost always results in a two second “that’s cute” blank stare before they turn back to her and ask what I just said.
The tension strikes multiple levels. One of them, I admit, is my pride . . . “HEY! My Chinese is not THAT bad!” Deeper yet the level of “that’s my little girl . . . don’t you make her feel bad.”
As parents we have tried to balance the awkwardness of a young girl’s fragile esteem and the opportunities for a teachable moment. We generally let her decide how to respond as long as she can do it with respect.
So this week we were in line at the supermarket . . . just the two of us.
It was loud, crowded and the customer in front of us had stalled all forward motion with some dispute over the price of spinach. They had to call in two managers while we waited impatiently and contemplated jumping lines. Finally it was our turn and the clerk spoke, as clerks do, directly to my daughter.
Wouldn’t even make eye contact with me.
I didn’t quite catch what she said but I’ve been here a million times. There is only question that begins this conversation.
“Do you have a savings card?”
Frustrated by the fact that I was clearly the one paying but she was refusing to look at me I gently barked,
“MEI YOU (mayo — “NO, I DON’T HAVE ONE”)
She made eye contact with me for two seconds with a blank stare that felt less like, “that’s cute” and more like, “you’re and idiot.”
She turned back to my daughter and spoke again. Something inside of me snapped.
I was so frustrated that I didn’t even try to listen. I cut her off so it would be clear that she should talk to me and NOT my daughter. I barked even louder.
It was one of those powerless foreigner moments that expats get used to. The chasm between my irritated desire to express my true feelings and my pathetically lacking vocabulary was monstrous. I’m basically a two year old in situations like this.
What I wanted to say was:
“HEY JERKWAD!! OVER HERE!! White people can speak Chinese too you know!! Quit ASSUMING that SHE is the only one here who can communicate and I am the IDIOT who CAN’T!! Don’t you know what they say about ASSUMING?!! Where I come from this makes you a RACIST!!”
Boom! Trump card!
But I don’t even know the Chinese word for “jerkwad”
let alone “assuming”
So I went with what I do know and made it nasty like any angry toddler would. “MEI YOU!!”
Again. Blank stare. Even more confused.
She turned sheepishly to the manager behind her and said,
“Umm, little help here. I asked if they were paying by credit card or cash . . . and he said, ‘NO, I don’t have any.'”
It was one of those involuntary look in the mirror moments.
Here’s what I learned.
You can know what’s right when it comes to crossing cultures well. You can even teach this stuff. You can spend years honing your responses and your reactions and even convince yourself that you have moved past your childish presuppositions and your old hand-me-down stereotypes.
But if the right button is pushed all of that is out the window.
Somewhere in my core I’m still a jerkwad.
But I’m willing to process that which hopefully means I’m still pointed in the right direction.
Got an ugly foreigner story? Go ahead and get it off your chest. You’ll feel better.