The things that get you most in China are the things you never realized were subject to culture.
Blame, for example. The Chinese blame each other much differently than we do. Does that sound petty? Go get someone to mess with your sense of blame, then come talk to me. You never know how much a thing like that can bother you until it's happened to you.
So there I was, coming home from school, feet swollen up like marshmallows. The weather? The arthritis? The day? I don't know why. This morning student scheduled for two back-to-back classes (four hours), beginning at 8am, did a no-show. I ate a very salty bowl of spinach noodles and walked 30 minutes in the hot part of the day to get to my second class of the afternoon. After two hours standing up talking about Moo Goo Gai Pan, I was bushed. I wanted to get home and put my (marshmallows) feet up.
Hunting through a forgotten box for my summer shorts, I stumbled upon a long-forgotten bag of Dead Sea salt. Score! My feet soaking in simulated Dead Seawater, I propped up my laptop and watched and old episode of Star Trek TNG. And when that was over, dagnabit, I watched another. ("Darmok" and "Ensign Ro" for those that want to know.)
Later I was looking up the names of really, really big numbers (could I borrow a quattuordecillion dollars, please?) to teach to my students, when the phone rang. It was Maia, from my school.
Maia: Are you on the way?
Me: To where?
Maia: To school. Wang Fei is waiting for you.
Me: You must be mistaken. I don't know any student called Wang Fei, and when I checked my schedule this afternoon, there was no class tonight.
Maia: There wasn't?
Maia: Well, could you come here, and tomorrow I will ask the scheduler about it? The student is here waiting to have class.
(Here I should point out that it's 45 minutes into a two hour class. I don't know why she waited so long to call me, but by the time I got there the class would be half over. Nevertheless, I don't know what to do. I've been here long enough to second- and third-guess my first instincts, because what I think it the right thing to do is often not--not at all--right in Chinese culture. Peter's not home; I wish he were so I could call a sidebar for a culture conference.)
Me: Well, I don't think I can. I don't know anything about Wang Fei, and I don't have a class prepared.
Maia: Oh. Okay. Well, do you have class here tomorrow?
Me: Yes, in the afternoon.
Maia: Okay, can you come see me?
Phone call ends. I feel disquiet within my soul. The American in me is saying, If you go to school now they'll think they can just call you in whenever they want. They'll get sloppy about scheduling, you'll never have any peace again. Besides, it's not your fault. Any class you'd teach would be useless, anyway.
It's long, hard-won, and I don't particularly like it, but important for any person living or working outside their own culture for an extended amount of time is a sense of justice in that secondary culture. My sense of Chinese Justice keeps hitting the replay button on Maia (who is one of the good ones) going in to tell the unknown Wang Fei that there would be no class tonight.
I call Peter. He's wrapped up in some noodle caper and can't talk. I go back to reading giant numbers, not as amused as I was five minutes ago.
Fifteen minutes later my phone rings again. I'm briefly afraid it's Maia again, or my boss calling to tell me I've committed some grave offense and I must duel Maia to the death. After this long, I believe anything can happen in China.
It's just Peter, though. I sketch the problem for him.
Peter: You should have gone.
Peter: Yeah, really.
Me: But it's not my fault. I shouldn't have to rush in and teach some crappy, slapdash lesson just to cover for someone else! It's not fair to the student to get half a lesson.
Peter: That makes perfect sense...in American culture. In China you have to help her out, and then tomorrow you can figure out what went wrong. It's better that the teacher comes late than that you don't come at all.
Me: (I can hear his facial expression) It's too late. She's already sent the student home by now.
Peter: Okay, well, never mind.
Me: Is it bad?
Peter: No, it's not that bad. Just talk nice to Maia tomorrow.
I hang up. Mixed emotions. I picture myself, arriving to class an hour late. I'd apologize, because I am genetically encoded to do so; I'd apologize and then hate myself for it. Alternately I picture Maia, explaining to the student that there won't be any foreign teacher class tonight. I'm not sure what she's telling the student. White lies are a perfectly acceptable and essential part of Chinese culture. The student is not happy. These kinds of things don't go over well. Some students can be very demanding...at least, the Chinese teachers think so. I've never had any trouble with them. But I don't always get the real.
The bottom line is, coming in late, I'd look wrong. Me not coming, the school would look wrong. I am no longer sure what part this blame formula played in my split-second decision to tell Maia I wasn't coming to class. I am displeased. I pull on Peter's old sweatshirt and go downstairs to buy a soda.
Later, Peter comes home. I am on the bed pretending that I am planning a lesson, but really I am flipping listlessly though Facebook. Peter's birthday is on Wednesday, so I don't take much notice of the package he's carrying, wrapped in pink paper. (Pink doesn't mean anything. "Real men wear pink" started in China.)
The package is for me.
Peter: Why not?
Me: I haven't done the dishes.
Peter: I know. You had a bad day.
Me: Your mom made fun of my lunch.
Peter: No one but you thinks those noodles taste good, baby.
He hands me the box. I set it on the bed in front of me. After generous pause, he takes it and loosens the wrapping paper, as if demonstrating. I take it back and finish the job.
The outside of the box says...
Me: Lose your life?
Peter: Love your life.
Me: Much better that way.
I open the box gingerly. My husband is not a giver of spontaneous gifts. It could be anything: a gag, something he thinks I'll love but I'll hate, something wildly inappropriate...or something perfect.
Out of the box comes a plastic model of a stone, the size of a large grapefruit. An electrical plug comes out of the back of it. On top there's a small round patch of green fuzz. Emerging from the fuzz are three wires tipped with LED lights. Each light is shaded by a tiny lampshade, one white, one blue, one orange. In the box is a small card with instructions in Chinese, and a brand name: Avatap. My husband has Avatapped me.
Quick, I think to myself. Say something appreciative. You want to encourage this kind of behavior. He'll be embarrassed if you don't like it, so say something that you'd say if you liked it. Make him believe you know what's going on.
Peter: It's a light!
Me: Yeah, I see that. Cool!
Peter reaches into the box and pulls out a handful of artificial foliage and flowers. He briefly consults the card.
Peter: See? You can poke these in here (indicating the green patch) anywhere you want, and make it beautiful.
Me: Anywhere I want. Neat!
Peter: You don't know what it is, do you?
Me: It's a light. A neat-o light.
Peter: You wanted a lamp for beside your bed, but we never found one your liked. I was going to buy you a new handbag, but I didn't know what kind you wanted. I thought this was better for you. Do you recognize it?
Me: It's a hairy lamp. It's great!
Peter: This lamp is a piece of that planet, Avatar.
A long pause.
Before my eyes it transforms. The three little lamps are mushrooms. The foliage starts to look familiar. The green fuzz is a patch of moss, in which the plastic daisies will pretend to grow. Oh!
I've had a vague dislike for Avatar ever since I heard that the movie caused a strange phenomenon. People were actually becoming clinically depressed because they wanted to go live on Avataria (whatever, I can't remember the actual name) but they couldn't because it was, after all, not real. To me, that seemed to be totally missing the point of the movie. But I'd enjoyed it otherwise, especially the glowing flora. If that movie had come out when I was twelve, I would have been totally hooked.
Peter: So, you like it?
Me: Now that I know what it is, I totally love it.
Peter: And the LEDs are earth friendly!
Me: Yeah, sure. Let's plug it in!
As we bask in the blue-white-orange glow...
Me: So are you mad at me about the school thing?
Peter: Of course not. You can't be more than you are, baby. Whatever else you are, you're an American.
Me: Do you think the school is going to make a big deal about it?
Peter: No. Just talk to Maia tomorrow. Tell her you're sorry.
Me: Do I have to be 100% sorry?
Peter: No. Ok?