There is always a problem dealing with the courtesy and generosity here. It’s not that they’re not friendly, it’s not that they aren’t generous, it’s that they are too friendly, too generous. I go with it most of the time, but other times I just have to deal with it. From my perspective, there are two real problems with this extreme, at least in the way it fills the society here.
The first is mostly just an annoyance, that the generosity never stops. The first time I go to your home to eat, I can understand wanting to put on airs. You want to make a good impression, this is your home, your food, your life. You never want someone to come in and feel bad or awkward in your home. But after the fourth or fifth time, you should relax. The closest my friends have come to relaxing about that custom is to stop offering me a cigarette every time they smoke. They still do sometimes, but not every time.
Part of it is just the lack of awareness. Having them still asking about a wife that doesn’t exist, or if I am in love with every female that happens to be near me gets old fast. In Mexico it’s a joke. Here, it’s just a lack of belief that I could be happy alone. I’ve had it explained in detail to me by one of my Chinese friends this week, that the best he could wish for me is a traditional Chinese form of happiness with a good wife. Even while saying he understood it is not as important to me, he still could only wish that I have his form of happiness, as though no other choice existed.
I appreciate the sentiment, to want me to be happy, but there is no concept of “to each their own.” It seems a common thread that they don’t know any other way to be polite, that personal space and the word “no” have no meaning.
Most of the time, I am fine with it. Repetition is good practice for my Chinese, but I have been feeling off the last couple of days, something I ate maybe, and every time I moved a little further away so my friend wouldn’t be physically touching me while he smoked, he would move closer. I tried to drink beer instead of liquor, but my stomach wasn’t having it. He believed that was a good time to get out the baijiu with dead scorpions in it. Every sip of tea was instantly refilled. Every refusal of food was ignored.
I told them I wasn’t feeling well, but I think, in a way, it made the behavior worse. Since they could not fix the problem, they went after the discomfort. Unfortunately, the only way they had to deal with the discomfort was more food and alcohol. Since there is no concept of space, there isn’t the understanding that someone who isn’t feeling well should be left alone. They should be taken care of. Normally, it is a wonderful sentiment, a beautiful kindness. Except when you aren’t feeling well and you are the target.
Most of the time, this is one of the things I love most about the culture here, the generosity. People fighting to pay for things, to do things for others. Normally I would say it is something the world needs more of. But at a certain point, it feels like it has nothing to do with me, what I want, what I need. It is an issue of pride, and control. That you know what is best for your guests, not them. That you must offer so you don’t look bad in front of others.
That brings us to the problem of the second extreme. When everything is done for you, you never learn to do it for yourself. That’s why so many people never learn to cook anymore, because buying food is so much easier. Most of the time, that is the best policy. Why learn computers when someone else will do it for you? Why learn medicine when there are doctors? Social intelligence, the benefit of being part of a large society is that you only need to do a fraction of the work to gain the benefits. Without it, most of us couldn’t find or produce enough food to get through the year.
But it is a bigger problem when everything is managed for you. My Chinese teacher was asking about the dangers of sending her daughter to America or England to study. The biggest danger to her is that she has no reference point for the dangers she will face.
We learn in high school about peer pressure, social difficulties, drugs, alcohol, and all the cultural problems we have. A lot of people never apply that knowledge until college, but there is a background, a reference point when someone offers you something you don’t want. Here, that refusal is ignored. When one person smokes, everyone smokes. When one person drinks, everyone drinks. If I say no at a party, there might be one person pushy enough to not leave it alone, but we get used to saying no. It gets easier to stand your ground over time, but when you never learn that “no” is not something that should be ignored, you have a much deeper problem.
More than enough college students suffer through hazing, or drinking because their friends are, or suffer because of drugs, and we are culturally trained to be individuals. The topic of sexual assault, where “no” has been ignored for so long is finally coming to a point where it isn’t, and that took decades. How do you say no when you never learn to hold to your convictions?
I’m not saying they will never learn, or that their generosity is a bad thing, but the extreme ends of anything are dangerous. One of my friends will go to Curtis in Philadelphia in a year or so. I help him practice English, but the best thing I think I can do for him is to give him an idea of what he might face. I don’t know what the policy is on marijuana there, but I know enough musicians to know it will be around. Even cigarettes and alcohol, which have no age restriction here, can cause problems. And if you’re on a visa, the repercussions can easily be deportation.
I would never tell someone these things if they weren’t planning to leave China. Here, these are the cultural norm, and the society is built to handle the problems that come with them. I have problems with them because I am not Chinese, so I will never handle the culture as well as a native. The same goes for people here when they leave. Take someone and put them into a completely new culture and you can see where the edges don’t fit anymore. I think I am good at adapting to new places, new cultures, new rules, but we all have our edges and our bad days.