finding a cultural balance
16.08.2009 30 °C
Yesterday I was taking the bus back from the electronics market. When I got on all of the seats were filled and there were a few people standing.
A man immediately got up from his seat and offered it to me. I knew this particular seat was one reserved for older passengers, should any need it. I also knew that many more people would be getting on the bus in the next couple stops. I declined taking the seat. The man offered again, and again. I continued to stand as I thanked him and declined his offer.
He continued to stand as well, leaving the seat empty. A couple stops later an older woman came and sat down. In between those stops, when the seat was empty, I thought about how publicly displayed excess can be a symbol of wealth in China. Similar to banquet dinners, where more food than necessary is always ordered and at the end your glass should still be filled, showing that you could have had more than you did.
I recently started rereading The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. The Chinese combination of dignity and poverty strikes me more now than when I read it in high school. I recognize so many things from Wang Lung's life in the lives around me today, but thankfully starvation is not one of them.
The balance between being polite and accepting the gracious generosity of my Chinese brothers and sisters and declining their kindness because I do not want to be treated exceptionally well just because I am a foreigner, is always difficult for me.
The Chinese always give to me out of their honor and respect, and never (according to my perception) out of obligation, whether it be sincere or not. This is difficult for me in two ways. First, it challenges my own insecurities about being a deserving person, which has evolved into an ongoing lesson of how to graciously accept generosity without being arrogant or feeling the extreme entitlement that is so fundamental to American culture. Second, I do not want to dishonor the generosity that is offered to me, but in most cases is it unnecessary and truly backward, as I typically have more means to be generous than most of my Chinese friends.
China constantly teaches me lessons on humility and generosity, gratitude and acceptance. The Chinese culture I experience is one of great cooperation and togetherness and is in fatally sharp contrast to the fierce independence and selfishness that is the center of American living. I wish the Chinese could appreciate what they have and not look to the west for so much cultural "inspiration."