SHORT STORY FOR THE WEEK
WHY AMERICANS VERY STUPID;
STUPID, THAT RIGHT WORD?
When my Chinese became more proficient I was able to engage in more conversations with students, and at these times women would be drawn into the circle. They became more argumentative than the men. I could feel a revolution brewing in all of them. One Chinese student who irked me was Lee Ann. She had a chip on her shoulder and was ready to attack me for the most trivial thing. His English was excellent, for she grew up on London where her parents were in the Chinese Foreign Service. When the war ended, they returned to Peking. She obviously didn’t want to be in Peking. But now that she was, she defended her position vehemently. She was a cad, a snob, and what we in the Marines called “a spoiled brat.”
Nevertheless, I liked her. I liked her for her arrogance, and with her I knew where I stood, at the opposite pole. I could depend upon her being straightforward. They are the most dependable people; no beating around the bush with them.
Lee Ann was a revolutionary at heart, but the country was still run by the Kuomintang, and one had to be cautious. Chinese women, who for centuries groaned under the weight of male-dominated Confucian doctrine, nurtured promises that generated from the revolutionary movement. I couldn’t escape Lee Ann’s wrath on this subject. She was quick to bring up the British colonial relationship with China, especially with Chinese women. The Opium War was hashed and rehashed every chance she found to bring them up. It took a great deal of effort for me, burning the midnight oil, reading up on the subject, to prepare myself to meet her head-on the next day. Her pet peeve regarded the employment contracts British males had to sign before they took up their new posts in the Far East. Essentially these contracts stated that British men were not allowed to marry Chinese women, nor were they allowed to have Chinese women living with them. They could not even take Chinese women as guests to their messes. Lee Ann constantly reminded me about the sign at the entrance of the Bund in Shanghai, the promenade where all the foreigners gathered before the war, which read: CHINESE AND DOGS NOT ALLOWED.
Not all the students were sophisticated as Lee Ann. To most of them I was a novelty. If I had rolled up my sleeve for any reason, they wanted to touch the hair on my arms. Often, when they thought I wasn’t looking, they made funny gestures with their fingers, indicating my long nose, and would laugh about it. With these students, conversations weren’t necessarily a waste of time. I did learn from them.
I never tired of sitting in the teahouses conversing with these students. Once they got to know me, they besieged me with endless questions. At first I thought they were being facetious, but I soon realized they were dead serious. One student asked, “In the West, why do you do everything backwards? Maybe you stupid. Stupid okay word?”
“Stupid, that’s okay, “ I said. I did feel kind of stupid among them. “But backwards! What do you mean?”
“You read a book from the wrong side first.”
I couldn’t argue this point. Chinese were writing books long before the Egyptians were using cuneiform. Which, then, was the right way to begin a book? I had to pass. To have said otherwise I would have made a fool of myself. The front of a book to us is the back of a book to them.
Another student asked, “How can you tell one foreigner from another? You all look alike.”
So all Westerners look alike. That was interesting. How many times has it been said in the West that all Asians look alike? Before I came to China, I could not tell Chinese apart from Japanese. Now I could. It was queer to find myself on the opposite side of the fence.
There were other questions I couldn’t answer either, like why do we put titles—Mr., Miss, and Mrs.—before names rather than after them, and why do we make excuses when we really mean no?
“My father has a shop,” one girl said, “and every time a foreigner comes in and admires something, and then changes his mind, he says, ‘I’ll be back.’ Why does he have to lie and say he’ll be back when he does not mean it?’ I never thought about it before, and I couldn’t answer her.
Often times such simple questions provoked deep thought. When I returned to my room, alone, I pondered over them. I began feeling empty inside. Where they, perhaps, not right? Why were we so different in the West? The more I got to know the Chinese, the more I came to realize that our thought patterns are not alike. When using deductive reasoning, we don’t come to the same conclusions, not from a universal to a particular. Was this what Mrs. Djung, my Chinese teacher, was talking about when I was more interested in stuffing myself with her home-cooked Djow-dez that she had prepared for a few student and me when she invited us to lunch her home?
Maybe I didn’t quite understand Lin Yu-tang when I read his books. At the library I begun arming myself with both Chinese and Western philosophy books and these I would devour at night. Reading these books did not make life for me any easier, only more complicated. I desperately wanted to know the Chinese mind, but I soon realized to know their minds, I would have to cast away western thoughts and ideas and think as they do. The question was how to do that? I found myself, when I was alone in my room and confused, standing in front of the mirror, slanting my eyes with my fingers, wondering why I had to look so different and be so different. Was this what it meant by being in the minority?
Not all the students were Chinese. Some came from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and from Tibet and Mongolia; others from Turkmenistan and Assam, and from many places I have never heard before. They came from faraway exotic lands, all speaking their strange tongues and dialects, bringing with them their customs and habits. They too were here to study Mandarin Chinese.