When in Rome (and all that)

Is it cultural differences that divide us?

At the time of the incident I am about to relate, I was struck, when I visited China, by the vast differences in various cultures and, since then, I’ve often reflected on the importance of teaching as well as learning. Please forgive my verbosity; this tale is, by necessity, quite long.

Shanghai airport is very large. I landed early in the morning at a time when the city was hosting a major world Trade Exposition which, as it turned out, was the largest of its kind in history , even boasting in excess of a million visitors in one day, so you’ll appreciate that there were a fair number of people milling about. I had to catch a connecting flight to the city of Xiamen in the south eight or so hours later and, while I was waiting I had the option of travelling into the city. I was dead tired, having been on the go for more than twenty-four hours by then, so I instead opted for a quiet spot to put my head down for some much-needed sleep. It was hot and humid and I used to smoke in those days so I set up camp on some padded benches in a corner near an open door and lay down with a wisp of a breeze blowing on me. Every now and then, because sleep was fitful, I got up and went outside for a smoke.

Within moments of arriving in China the usual sounds people make in crowds or individually are augmented, to an extraordinary degree, by the disgusting, guttural sound of snot being cleared from sinuses followed by the inevitable thpoo of expectoration. Everywhere I went there were little slimy deposits of mucus and I very quickly became conscious of where I placed my feet. When I heard the sound at first I sympathised but after a while, after hearing it so often I shuddered then, as one does when confronted by a situation one can do nothing about, I was finally able to ignore it. In fairness, although throat clearing and hawking happened everywhere, all the expectoration that I saw only happened outside.

Apart from that, all Chinese people I met were always gracious and accommodating, none more so than my hosts for the second leg of the journey, Lin and her brother Rain. They are the youngest children in a family of five children (instantly dispelling the myth that families are restricted to having only one child) and after picking me up from the airport and taking me to my hotel (Five Stars) so I could freshen up, they took me out for a meal at a sea food restaurant.

I was led to a massive wet room containing aquariums housing every type of sea-food imaginable and asked to choose what I wanted to eat from that vast selection (I remember thinking to myself, “at least the food is going to be fresh”) then we were taken through to a private room where we were to eat our meal.

For the sake of this tale it’s necessary for me to describe the room because, aside from minor details, every restaurant I was taken to on my trip had the same arrangement; all dining was done in private rooms that were large or small, depending on the number of people in the party. There was always a big round table in the middle of the room and the number of chairs equalled the number of attendees.

In the centre of the table, which was always adorned with a decorative, coloured table-cloth with a smaller plain white table-cloth above it, was a big glass lazy-susan. Each place setting would have a wine glass and a tumbler (sizes varied), a side plate, a small porcelain bowl on top of another, slightly larger, side plate, a serviette and the ubiquitous set of chopsticks. On the lazy-susan would be, without fail, a bowl of beans on one side and a bowl of something else opposite. The something else could have been little fish, peanuts, mushrooms…, anything but there was ALWAYS a bowl of beans.

On the far side of the room, beyond the table, there was always an arrangement of couches and easy chairs arranged around a rectangular coffee table and on the table was a tea set. ALWAYS!

We were led to the tea area by a hostess who then left us to ourselves while we waited for our food to arrive. I watched in fascination as Rain went through the ritual of preparing the tea.

Once again, for the sake of the tale, it’s necessary for me to describe the process of tea making as well as the tea set itself, which is totally unlike what we are used to here in the west. The tea set, as well as the method of preparation was consistent with every restaurant I was taken too, as well as every office I visited. Picture a large free-standing glass tray measuring about 500mm wide by a metre long, mounted on little stainless steel legs.

One half of the tray is slightly higher than the other side and has two small hot plates – one to boil water and the other to keep it hot. The tea cups, which are tiny – not much bigger than thimbles – are on the other half of the tray and there’s a slight fall (or slope) on that section because the tray gets very wet during the ritual. The liquid runs down through a hole at the lowest part of the tray and fed, by way of a rather disgusting looking plastic or rubber pipe that vents into an equally dodgy looking plastic bucket on the floor. During the entire process the cups are only handled with an enormous pair of tweezers – never by hand. The tea doesn’t have a strong taste, hardly any taste at all actually, but it is very refreshing and it keeps on coming; as soon as your “thimble” is empty, it’s topped up again without delay.

I sat drinking tea with Lin and Rain till the hostess reappeared and asked us to move to the table where bowls of delicious-smelling food were deposited around the lazy-susan.
I never bothered, before I went to China, to learn how to drive a set of chopsticks but, faced with the necessity, I had to ask my hosts to teach me and, assisted no doubt by the copious amounts of delicious, bitterly cold Tsingtao lager I was imbibing with enthusiasm and gusto, by the end of the evening I felt I had mastered the art.

Rain picked me up early next morning and took me to the factory where it had been arranged for me to meet with the manager (Rain’s brother who spoke no English) and his father, who owned the company and was also without English. In fact there was a delegation waiting for me (refer to my earlier observation of how gracious and accommodating Chinese people are). In addition to father and brother there was also mother and two other sisters – none of whom spoke English.

I followed the ensemble up a flight of metal stairs on the outside of the building and into the manager’s office. It had big windows which gave the manager panoramic views of the yard and the factory. However, given the fact that I was conscious of the stifling heat and humidity (although it was still quite early in the day), I noticed immediately that the window handles were missing so it would not be possible to open them. I also noticed the tea set and the group of easy chairs and couches laid around it.

Father had a lot to say and whilst the rest of us sat he paced up and down talking and Lin and Rain (who was once again being mum and making tea) translated. I had the dubious pleasure of having the plastic waste bucket on the floor between my feet. While father spoke I didn’t pay much attention to him (I didn’t understand a word of what he was saying anyway) beyond noticing that he was afflicted, quite severely, with the Chinese habit of snorting to clear his throat and I chuckled to myself (you know how you have conversations with yourself in your head?) wondering what he was going to do with it if he brought one up, given the fact the windows were sealed shut. As the meeting went on his hawking came to take on a fair proportion of the time he was speaking until finally it became clear that I was going to find out. At the tail end of a particularly energetic hawwwk, his cheeks bulged out as his mouth filled with the contents of his sinuses and he stopped talking altogether.

Laughing inside I was thinking, “hehehe, this is going to be interesting. How’s he going to get rid of that?” It didn’t take long for my curiosity to be satisfied because, without missing a beat, he turned his head slightly and with a ptew followed by a thwuck he ejected a massive green glob of snot which landed on the lower half of the tea-tray, merely inches away from me.

If I had been a fly on the wall watching the proceedings I would have quietly applauded my response (or lack thereof) to this stomach turning display of yuck. It’s possible, I suppose, that I was in shock but knowing how ‘er indoors would react if I ever did something like that (not that I would have ever dreamt of it) I chortled to myself in anticipation of the lambasting he was bound to receive from his missus. But he didn’t! Not one person in there so much as batted an eyelid. To them it was normal. The entire family carried on with the meeting and carried on drinking tea as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

I was no longer distracted by my host’s hawking; I was distracted instead by this oyster on the tray. I couldn’t help but notice it out of the corner of my eye as it slid slowly, inexorably towards the lowest end until it disappeared, with a faint sucking sound down the pipe, and hit the bottom of the plastic bucket with a thud.

But the story doesn’t end there!

After the meeting was concluded and I had finished the necessary inspection of my product in the factory, we went to visit a quarry after which I was invited to join the family for lunch. We went to another seafood restaurant where I was treated to the same ritual as the previous night, that is to say we were led first to an aquarium-room to choose our food, then to our private room (which was larger because there were eight of us). Rain once again assumed the matriarchal role and got busy making the tea.

Our business meeting had gone well and all in all I found my convivial hosts to be interesting and likeable. I was plied with Tsingtao beer (not that I raised any objection), the food was once again excellent and it wasn’t long before I was very relaxed. I had that warm glow that made me feel like I was in the company of old and trusted friends. We reached that stage of the meal when all the succulent dishes have diminished or disappeared, when everybody sits back, sipping on their drinks and or smoking and some of us picking on the few remaining dregs of food; a shrimp here, an oyster there, perhaps a bit more rice and soy sauce and, surprisingly – because they are quite delicious, a fair number (almost a full bowl) of the ever-present beans. Thus far I’d managed quite well with the chopsticks (alternating with the wonderful all-purpose porcelain spoon one always has in a Chinese restaurant) and I was not at all self-conscious when I spun the lazy-susan around to place the beans in front of me. But that’s when things started to fall apart.

At some point I became conscious that my ability to handle the chopsticks was laughable and, possibly because I’d had too much beer, I became self-conscious and paranoid. The fact they were all chattering away in Chinese led me to believe, quite unfairly I imagine, they were making fun of my clumsiness – there was a lot of laughter going on among them at the time. Thus, as I was probing for a bean and dropping it, and probing again and dropping it again, I imagined their conversation to be as follows:

Mother: There he’s got it this time. Is he going to…. is he going too? Nooo. Hahaha

Rain: These foreign devils are so stupid. Lin and I gave him a full ten minute tutorial last night. Hahahaha

Lin: Actually Rain, it was more like twenty minutes. I was starving and my food was cold before he managed to even hold them properly. Hahahaha. Looook, he’s just dropped it again. This is simply too funny for words. Hahahaha

Father: Now stop it all of you, it’s very impolite to laugh at people (but who’s going to take him seriously since he’s got the widest grin while he’s telling them off)

Brother: (Choking with laughter) Did anyone bring a camera? (wiping tears from his eyes)

So I’m sure you’ll understand why I did what I did next. I put my chopsticks down and, like I’d do at home, where no-one would have batted an eyelid, no-one would have even skipped a beat, I leaned forward, helped myself to a bean with my fingers and popped it into my mouth.

By now I was fluent in After-Dinner-Chinese so I can accurately transcribe the ensuing conversation as follows:

Mother: (making ill-concealed retching sounds) Begorrah and begob, Lord and the saints have mercy, did you see that? DID YOU SEE THAT? (More retching). Sweet mother Mary and Joseph. Bob (that’s what I called father in my head because I couldn’t pronounce his name), get that plate off the lazy-susan, I can’t stand to look at it.

Rain: OMG. I don’t believe I just saw that. OMG

Lin: Quick, say something funny. I think he knows we’re talking about him. Dad, mum’s going to puke.

Brother: (no longer laughing, just sitting in stony silence)

Bob: (Gets up, walks around to where I’m sitting, leans over me, grabs bowl off lazy-susan and places it before me). You like? (He asks in more-than-adequate-English) Yours!

I don’t remember too much about the rest of the meal apart from the fact that I had embarrassed myself very badly and felt very uncomfortable indeed but I do remember what happened after that (yeeup, there’s more).

Bob paid the bill and we all shook hands awkwardly before leaving the restaurant, then Lin, Rain, the youngest sister and I walked outside and climbed into Rain’s Mitsubishi all-bells-and-whistles 4×4 which had baked in the sun while we’d been inside. As the last door closed Rain’s phone rang and he answered whilst, simultaneously, letting out the longest, rippingest, smelliest fart I’ve ever had the misfortune of being trapped with. We couldn’t open the windows because they were electric and reliant on the ignition being on but Rain didn’t even put the key in the ignition till his conversation had ended. Granted, he didn’t talk for long but by the time he’d finished the tropical heat had baked the smell into something awful (and there’s only so long a smoker can hold his breath). As he was farting I imagined how my sisters would have reacted if it were I who’d done it (not that I’d ever dream of behaving like that in front of them) and I was fairly certain they would both have lambasted me mightily. Rain’s sisters however, said nothing! They didn’t even bat an eyelid.

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    1. You obviously weren’t there when I was. Just joking! You were probably stuck in the “tourist trap” areas (just guessing). Also, the tea ritual I described is practised in the south. I’m guessing you were in the north. You must have seen (at least heard) the hawking and spitting though – that happens everywhere in China.

      Thanks for reading the post and thanks for taking the time to comment.

  1. Apart from their absolutely disgusting habits, I enjoyed reading the rest of your experiences in China. I’m sorry, I had to skip the “YUK” parts. I simply cannot handle them. It’s really interesting learning about people, their way of life and their rituals – but, they can all keep their horrid, dirty habits!

    1. I imagine they’d say the same things about us but I get your point. Thank you for taking the time to comment.