07 January 2011

Sensitivity Issues

It was late Sunday night, and I walked the dog down to the little store down the street from my apartment. It's a family-owned shop, with mom, dad, grandma and daughter each taking turns working the register. My girlfriend and I had just spent way too much money eating at a Suburban-American-style restaurant in Discovery Bay, so I went with the cheap stuff--a cute little brown bottle of San Miguel. I brought the bottle up to the register, and as the store owner made the "open?" gesture, pointing toward the bottle, my nose made a little sniffle. Before I even noticed that I needed one, the owner quickly pulled out a box of tissues from under the counter. He didn't say a word, just looked at me and at the box, implicitly offering me one.

This type of kindness is unheard of in the US. Even the nicest store owner in some small Midwestern town would never be so sensitive to my tiny sniffle, no matter how well they knew me.. Entering my second year in the Village, I'm slowly beginning to acquire a superficial understanding of Chinese culture and morality. I've often complained about what I perceive to be insensitivity on the part of Villagers: they don't pay attention to others when they walk, waiters ignore me in restaurants, they honk their horns obnoxiously, etc.

There's this seafood restaurant that my girlfriend and I have become regulars at. They treat us wonderfully: they give us special deals, tell us what dishes are really good that day, let us bring our own bottle of wine and waive the corking fee. When they see us on the street, they smile and say hi to us.

The lady who sells fruit on the street also treats us really well. She always give us a big, hearty hello when she sees us. When my girlfriend bought some chestnuts but then forgot to take them with her, the fruit lady remembered and gave her roughly the same amount for free the next day.

Living on Lamma has allowed us to see the other side of Chinese culture, the sensitive side. Everything changes when people know you. I'm not religious, but living in Asia has helped me see how much my morality is a Christian morality. My Methodist grandmother taught me to treat everyone the same, to pay attention to everyone and give people I don't know the same respect I would give my friends (because we're all God's children). This is very much a Christian ethical standard, and so I shouldn't be surprised that the Chinese have a different standard. We're learning that once Chinese people know us, the level of kindness and consideration they give far surpasses what you would expect of a store owner, or waiter, in the West.

I think we might be establishing guanxi, or something like that.

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